Recently my mother in law moved down from Edmonton to Greensboro to do her PhD! So Ahana and I flew out to help her get settled in. In addition to helping with various errands like being a backer for her credit check for the apartment, helping buy a car and running errands like getting a mattress and assembling various furniture items, I was helping install a new washer and dryer.

As someone who likes to embrace the DYI spirit, I was definitely up for the challenge.

The first step was connecting the missing HVAC piping. Easy enough - just find a dryer vent and a steel duct connector from Lowe’s for $15 and you’re off!

This took about ten minutes, and then we tested the dryer, and everything was good! Or so I thought…

Later than night, we were cooking using three of the 4 coils on the stove, running the air conditioning, some of the fans, and many lights. All of a sudden, half the lights went out, and some of the fans. We (correctly) deduced that there had been a trip, so we went to the circuit breaker in our unit and, sure enough, found several tripped switches.

We reset the living room and kitchen circuit breaker, and everything worked fine in those rooms. But I noticed that a third switch had actually tripped - the one for the dryer. That’s odd. So I reset that one, and try to turn on the dryer as well just ot make sure everything’s ok. Nope - instant trip.

So I turn off the circuit breaker for the dryer and unplug it. The whole time I’m wondering what could have caused this and not really paying attention to the order of operations of what I’m doing. Stupidly, I then turn on the circuit breaker and then go to plug in the dryer. A huge spark comes out of the wall as I yelp and jump backwards, dropping the cable. The smell of smoke fills the room, and the tip of the plug is actually slightly melted.

So obviously something’s wrong with the wiring here. I read up online that, since January 1 1996, federal electrical code mandates a 4 pin plug for all 240 volt plugs instead of the previously used 3 pin plugs for… you guessed it, better grounding and minimization of sparks and/or fires. Sounds exactly like what I just ran into.

So the new plan was as follows:

  1. Turn off the circuit breaker
  2. Convert our wall outlet from a 3 pin to a 4 pin plug
  3. Convert the dryer cable from a 3 pin to a 4 pin cable
  4. Pray - a lot.
  5. Plug the dryer into the wall
  6. Pray - a lot.
  7. Turn the circuit breaker on
  8. Pray - a lot.
  9. Turn the dryer on
  10. Pray - a lot.

Above you can see the difference between the 3 and 4 pin 240 volt plugs.

When covered, a 3 pin plug looks like this:

And when you unscrew the cover, you can see the inside.

Note how the wire at the top has 4 separate channels - a copper ground that goes up and into the wider metal casing, a black and red channel on either side, and lastly a white channel in the middle.

The one in our apartment in Greensboro looked more like this:

Just like the previous one, you can see the coppor ground wire, and then three additional channels - a red, a black, and a white. Swapping it with a 4 pin plug is actually trivially easy if the electrical box already has the copper wire coming through. In the picture above you can see it not only come through but actually be wound around the screw that goes into the wall. This is to ground the wider metal box, so that touching the metal casing doesn’t electrocute anyone.

Simply take the new 4 pin plug and wire in each of the channels into one of the holes, and then tighten the screws. It’s small, but underneath each of the screw holes is a label for the channels - X and Y (for red and black), and Green and White, where green is the ground channel.

If you dont have the fourth channel already coming out of the circuit box, then it’s bad news. You’ll have to call an electrician and have them change the wiring in the building, which may involve crawling through attics or basements. Luckily, our building already had this.

So once we changed the plugs, it was time to then convert the dryer cable itself. A quick trip to Lowe’s first to buy a 4 pin dryer cable, and we were off to the races.

Dryer cables are connected via a removable back panel. Depending on the dryer age, you may have 3 or 4 pins. If you have 4 pins, then this step is very simple and you likely didn’t have to change the cable in the first place! But simply wire each of the channels to one of the dedicated pins. For older dryers, however, there will only be 3 pins. So the green (extra) wire will have to be grounded within the dryer itself. This is a rough idea of the before and after:

So our dryer looked like this when we opened up the back port. Note the 3 thicker wires representing the red, white, and black channels. The curved skinny wire connected to a screw is actually the ground channel, so we’ll wire the new green channel underneath that same screw. Lastly, note how the middle pin is silver, while the other two are gold. That’s the clue that this middle pin is for the white channel.

Upon removing the old cable and wiring in the new one, it’ll look something like this instead:

And that’s it! After lots of prayer, we plugged in the dryer to the wall, turned on the circuit breaker, and ran the dryer. Somehow, nothing exploded or caught on fire. It turns out that every apartment in the building had a 4 pin plug already! When I showed the tech the 3 pin plug in our apartment, he absolutely could not believe it. Our best guess is that the previous tenant illegally modified it to a 3 pin plug because he probably had a 3 pin dryer? 🤷🤷🤷 Which makes no sense becuase changing the dryer cable is way easier (and safer!) than changing the wall outlet.

Overall it set me back $50 and 1 near death moment, but we got a working dryer! It was a fun project, but I can’t help but still feel nervous anytime I’m asked to do electrical work.