Electrical Problems

We’ve got a circuit out (most critical issue: Patricia’s upstairs office). No breaker is obviously tripped. Guess I’ll have to open the box.

[Late-afternoon update]

I appreciate the comments, but have heard nothing I don’t know. Fun fact: When I was a kid we didn’t have breakers; we had fuse boxes.

And yes, I know that some wags will say that when I was a kid, electricity hadn’t been invented.

[Update Saturday morning]

Bad news: There’s voltage on all the breakers. Not sure how to trace where the line opens up. Don’t know how much an electrician would charge, but I might be able to buy some kind of tracer for the same cost.


[January 27th update]

Threw in the towel and called an electrician. It took them an hour or so to run down the problem; a bad neutral line in an upstream outlet. Buried behind oak cabinets that were earthquake strapped, of course.

Good deal, though, for $225, plus they fixed a couple other things that had been an issue for a while.

[Bumped again]

43 thoughts on “Electrical Problems”

  1. If you’re lucky is just a wire broken or came loose in the box.
    If you are not so lucky you got a problem elsewhere. Perhaps in a junction box buried someplace.

      1. Rand, the easy path forward (IMHO) is take the plate off that GFCI and check for power there. If you have power there, you’ve probably found the problem (bad GFCI). It’s common to have regular outlets downstream from a GFCI.

        Also, make sure a panel breaker isn’t tripped. It’s often hard to tell visually. Cycling it on and off would be a start.

        Generally, the most common cause for a multiple outlet outage is, #1, a loose wire on one of the chained outlets, #2, GFCI if there’s one upstream. #3 the breaker #4 damage to a the cabling in the wall (vermin are a common cause of this). The first 3 are super easy to fix.

        Good luck!

        1. Breakers are either centered or soft when they’re tripped. I’ve tested them all by both methods. The next step is to open the box and test each one with a meter. I’ve got other things to do right now.

          1. I’ve got a couple of GFI circuits that are somehow piggybacked on the 220 and 440 circuits that run things like the hot water heater, dryer, and stove, and sappear mainly to power the appliance control panels separate from the main bus. When the 110 component trips you hear a click from somewhere (it sounds like its coming from the GFI outlet on the relevant circuit), but the breakers don’t trip and the GFI buttons don’t pop out. The way to reset the circuit is to cycle the breaker to off and back on. If its the stove circuit, the clock is off. If its the dryer, nothing happens when you push the on button. If its neither of those, its the water heater circuit. It’s always one of them, and they’re never tripped. I paid $42K for this house, so nothing surprises me.

      2. GFI’s don’t need power to reset. It’s a mechanical latch. If the Reset button is out and won’t latch in when you press it, likely that GFI outlet is your problem.

        1. This is true of *some* GFIs. It’s true of most of mine. However, there are some of which it’s not true, and they won’t reset without power.

  2. Fuse boxes– remember the advice to not replace a blown fuse with a penny? Sorta like all the Public Service Announcements over what to not do if you find “blasting caps.” The past is a distant, different place.

    And electricity had been invented, but it was analog, not digital.

    1. You beat me to the “penny in a fuse box” remark, but blew me away by knowing about the blasting cap PSA. How on earth were so many blasting caps lost back then that it was an actual problem?

      Of course, we could have been living in Great Britain, where during my youth the heart-stopping sign by any road or on any building was “UXB.” As one perceptive student in the US observed, these signs -which meant “Unexploded Bomb” – saved only one letter, and conveyed no information as a result. That’s because there’s no such thing as an “exploded bomb.”

  3. You could just declare the dead circuit as the new California standard for safer eco-friendly wiring and invite some writers for Vice or Gizmodo to come over and behold its many advantages.

    I’d suggest some of the obvious troubleshooting routes, but once you get your meter out those are obvious.

  4. How long have circuit breakers been around? When did they start replacing fuses. When I was little, we had fuses, but I think some had breakers. This was in the early 70s. I have seen some fuses that are used outside on a pole. These were long fuses.

  5. Just be thankful most of the homes wired with post and knob have been either remodeled or torn down.

  6. Why working on your electrical problem, I just want to note something about the new paradigm.

    The space news today is about a booster rocket that unfortunately will may get destroyed during a launch rather than recovered.

  7. Last piece of unsolicited (unwanted?) advice. Could be the breaker itself. Try swapping it to see if the outage follows the breaker.

    1. I would, if I knew which breaker it is (since it’s not tripped). Only way to find out is to take the cover off the box and read voltages at the outputs. I haven’t done that yet because the urgency went away somewhat by running an extension cord temporarily to her office. 🙂

      1. Heh. What I did to power a window air conditioner for my home office w/o tripping breaker whenever I used the laser printer…

        Somebody should have labeled the breakers in your box. Guess we both know now who that somebody is…

      2. I once had a wiring break between the breaker and a wiring run that ran several rooms. As an interim measure, I ran an extension cord over to one of the dead outlets and then ran some solid wire stubs between the end of extension cord and the dead outlet. That energized the whole run the outlet was on, simply feeding the run from the middle instead of one end, and thus the usual lights and outlets came on. It’s definitely not the way to do things, but it does work in a pinch.

        1. As an aside, have you unplugged everything from the affected outlets? The GFI might not be dead, it might be detecting an ongoing ground fault from a bad appliance or device.

  8. Pop out your GFI and check the line side. If it’s hot, you can wirenut the line side to the load side and you’re back in business (taking the GFI entirely out of the run). Then you go buy a new GFI and put it back in. A properly wired GFI kills everything downstream of it, so they likely put all the other bathroom outlets on the load side. That done, they probably continued on with the same load-side wiring run because it was the shortest route to the other room.

    1. I don’t think that will let me trace dead romex through drywall.

      Though maybe if I make the circuit live with an extension cord, I can then trace it, and at least know where the wire goes, and even find out which breaker it is.

      1. But do what the nice men said: Unplug EVERYTHING and see if the GFI still won’t reset. If not, check for voltage in to the GFI.

        GFI outlets do sometimes go bad over time.

        1. There hasn’t been anything plugged into the circuit since it happened, and as I said, there is no reason to think that there is anything downstream from the GFI; it’s stand alone in the bathroom. I’m about to patch it into another circuit to see if that restores service. It will be a lot easier to trace the wiring if there is power on it.

          1. “No reason to think” betrays a touching faith in whoever originally wired any given house.

            My extensive experience is that the guy who actually did the wiring you’re troubleshooting can be relied on for one thing only: To do whatever damn fool thing will get him on to his next job fastest. Avoiding leaving booby traps for you is nowhere on his priorities list – ever.

  9. First rule: open wire could be either the line or the neutral. If it’s the neutral then the line is still hot. One of these non-contact probes would tell you that. Test it on a known good circuit first, every time.
    Rule two: if the neutral is broken, anything still plugged in will back feed and make the broken end of the neutral hot as well. So don’t attach something like a low voltage lan tracer until you are sure that there is no voltage to the circuit. There are tracers for line voltage circuits, Triplight makes one that probably costs a couple of hundred dollars that I have used but it won’t work with an open wire.

    Using a volt meter switched to AC volts (very important, measuring AC with a DC voltmeter will show 0 when dangerous voltages may be present), go to each dead outlet and measure the voltage between the line (the narrow blade) and the neutral. Then between the line and the ground. Then between the neutral and the ground. A good outlet will show line voltage on line to neutral, and line to ground. Line to ground voltage only means a broken neutral.

    If there is no voltage or very low voltage between the neutral and ground and line and neutral, switch to the ohm scale and measure the resistance between the neutral and the ground, it should be in the very low single digits. If not, then you have an open neutral.

    If either the line or the neutral or both are open, pull the outlet nearest the breaker box out and check the connections with the volt meter as above. There is a good chance that the outlets were daisy chained in line from the breaker box and a connection is loose or broken in the box. In this case, one wire will be hot and the other not.

    Otherwise, probably a connection has come loose in a junction box somewhere. Usually these will be in the attic but may be in the basement or crawl space. You can hope that the box is somewhere close to the dead outlet but this isn’t guaranteed. If it looks like the line is dead, the non-contact probe will help you find the right box, it will be the one with a dead wire coming out of it and other live ones going in. An open neutral won’t show up, you’ll have to open the box and look and wiggle the wires. A good plastic handled screw driver helps. Don’t touch the blade.

    Be careful, I’ve seen house wiremen do pretty stupid things and you also have any DIY that may have happened over the years.

  10. Just curious was it the outlet that went bad or the wire to/from the outlet that broke the circuit downstream? Did the electrician say?

  11. Good deal, though, for $225, plus they fixed a couple other things that had been an issue for a while.

    Like labeling the breakers in the box?

  12. It would have been cheaper, faster, and simpler if you could have crawled into a Jefferies tube to reroute auxiliary power.

    Just sayin’.

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