The MakeShift Challenge: Hot Electrical Problem

The MakeShift Challenge: Hot Electrical Problem
Photo by Jen Siska

[MakeShift was a column and competition, by MacGyver creator Lee Zlotoff, that ran in Make: magazine for its first five years. This challenge appeared in Make: Volume 11, 2007. Read past installments of MakeShift here.]

The Scenario

Having heard the call of the wild, you recently purchased a small, rustic cabin that is situated among tall trees on the edge of an official wilderness area. It has running water and electricity but no landline phone. You have not met any of your neighbors, and the nearest ones are about a quarter-mile away along a dirt road.

You’ve driven up there for the weekend to install security lighting around the perimeter and clear away brush and flammable tinder. Fire season has arrived, and last year’s drought has only increased the danger. You locate an external 4-plug electrical outlet on the wood facing an exterior wall, and plug in your chainsaw, power drill, and brush trimmer to discover that they are all working properly. After installing the lights and waging a few long hours of brush warfare, you head back toward the house only to be hit with the distinct odor of an electrical problem. You immediately check the one outlet you have been using, and discover all of the plugs are blistering hot, with the one connected to the brush trimmer partially melted. The adjacent exterior wall of your cabin also feels warm to the touch. You head inside and feel that the corresponding interior drywall is even hotter and giving off whiffs of burning wood.

The Challenge

If the house bursts into flames, not only could you lose your property, but given the conditions, it could easily develop into a full-blown forest fire that wipes out your neighbors and much of the wilderness area as well. Not exactly the low-impact, Thoreau-like experience you were looking for. So what do you do?

Your Supply List

Your hybrid SUV is well-gassed and ready to go, but your cellphone shows no reception. In addition to the aforementioned tools and extension cords, the house and kitchen have the basic living essentials: furniture, pots, pans, etc. You also have a weekend’s supply of food, but roasting it over a burning house is not really an option. And that wall is only getting hotter…

Analysis, Commentary, and Winners

Go figure. It was bound to happen on this one. A professional firefighter wins the Most Plausible award. But talk about pressure! If he entered this one and did not win, then he should be looking for a new line of work.

This challenge seemed to be relatively straightforward. Instead, it pointed out our ever-growing dependence on cellphones and related technology. Find a signal and call for help was the strategy most often expressed as a solution to this challenge. Scramble for the SUV and drive around helter-skelter until you get a cell signal and call 911 for help, or try to find the fire department (or some other higher power) and dump the problem in their lap.

The seemingly automatic and universal availability of cellphones makes it a bit more difficult to write these challenges because the answer seems so obvious. However, when a possible major disaster is just a few minutes away, and help by cellphone is potentially a few minutes beyond that, then you should be ready to work things out on your own.

There is no problem in trying the cellphone. That is what any sane person would do. However, you better be thinking of another option while trying to dial, because very often in the real world, and always in the “MakeShift Challenge,” you are going to be on your own.

“On your own” could be as simple as getting in your SUV and fleeing the area, or trying to find your nearest neighbors or police or fire station. One person suggested making an anonymous call to authorities to report the problem once they were well clear of the area so they would not get blamed for what happened. The person who responded with that approach almost got the Most Creative award because it was a solo solution. However, they also seemed to have very little respect for the knowledge and abilities of fire investigators. Forensic science being what it is these days, you can bet it would take about 24 hours for professional investigators to end up at your front door asking where you were yesterday. Are we sure though that no one would actually take that approach? No.

Another contestant drew a detailed map of how they visualized the entire property, complete with compass directions. It was a great drawing, but the solution seemed to reference detailed compass directions over quick thinking. The logical solution was to kill the power to the hot socket itself once it was discovered that the problem existed, and then wet down the area. Those who took this approach were on the right track. And so, with that in mind, the professional firefighter saved the day.

Thanks to all of you who did not decide to run to your SUV and flee, and for all your creativity in attempting to keep not only your own cabin from burning down, but those of your neighbors and the entire forest. We are sure Smokey appreciated it, and we look forward to hearing from you in the next challenge.


The winners of the “MakeShift Challenge” Volume 11 are:

MakeShift Master – Plausible: Brian Lannon
MakeShift Master – Creative: Emile Daigle

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Lee D. Zlotoff

Lee D. Zlotoff is a writer/producer/director among whose numerous credits is creator of MacGyver. He is also president of Custom Image Concepts (

View more articles by Lee D. Zlotoff


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