Weird Home Circuit Breaker Problem?

Hello Everyone,
I have a strange problem. Only strange because I'm NOT an electrician.
Was cleaing the house as I do on ocassion, went back to turn the vaccuum on
and all the power went out for that circuit. I don't remember any poping, snapping, or fizzle sounds.
Thinking it was a circuit breaker, I got two new ones (20amp) and replaced what I thought was the faulty one with a new one. Still no power to the light switches and or outlets that are on this circuit. Now the weird stuff...
When I place a voltage detector near or in the outlets and or near the light switches, the detector reads that there is power in the outlet/light switch areas. In fact with an appliance plugged in to the outlet, the voltage detector reads voltage yet when the lamp is switched on... no light.
Please throw me some tips/hints/clues, any would be appreciated. In the mean time, I'll try to dig up some more information if I can.
Thanks, Steve Banks
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Ah... forgot to say that while the voltage detector shows voltage on these outlets, when a voltage tester is plugged into the wall sockets of the offending circuit it doesn't show any power at all.
Steve

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On Mon, 18 Oct 2004 23:40:02 -0700 Steven Banks
| Ah... forgot to say that while the voltage detector shows voltage on these | outlets, when a voltage tester is plugged into the wall sockets of the | offending circuit it doesn't show any power at all.
Is that a three prong grounded voltage tester?
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message

electrician.
turn the vaccuum

remember any

(20amp) and replaced

power to the

Now the weird

or near the

the outlet/light

outlet, the

switched on... no

appreciated. In the

can.
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Thank you gentlemen! It is appreciated... you guys are great.
I may be back to ask for more detail.
Steven Banks

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Steven Banks wrote:

Basically, it sounds like you have a bad connection on the return "neutral" circuit - not the "live" wire. The live wires have voltage present on them - hence your detector senses the field produced by this voltage. However, you need a return path to make things work.
You are, I think, in the USA - so, being a Brit I am hesitant to give advice on fault finding on your systems! However, if you have a fuse board where all your circuits radiate from, I would look there for a loose connection - possibly a screw that has worked loose, but on the return path. However, be aware that a bad connection on the return path makes all the wiring, both "live" and "return" go to the line voltage, if anything at all is switched on.
I would suggest that you need an electrician, if you are in any doubt as to your own competence.
Note that this can be very dangerous. If there is a bad connection on the return path and it makes intermittent contact - there is a high risk of fire at that point.
--
HTH
Sue

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Again thank you gentlemen,
Question, this "loss" of the neutral leg, could it be in the offending outlet? We are talking about a "loose" wire either in a wall outlet, light switch or fixture correct?
Thanks, Steve Banks

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Probably is! use your multitester in ohms or contiuity mode and test link to link thru the circuit. Wire probably burned at the outlet or switch. While your at it check the outlet rating i bet it is only 15 amp with wire to match. Should say on back. If so either rewire it all or switch to 15 amp fuse.

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I must emphasize a point properly made by another poster. If the circuit breaker trips, then it was protecting you from something far more serious. Don't just assume the protective device has failed. First assume a serious problem exists. First find the problem before 'fixing' it. A simple $20 multimeter is an essential tool. Your problem is unique. To solve it, you need that simple tool to first see it - and to learn. That power detector device is insufficient other than to quickly identify a hot wire (so that you don't get shocked). You don't need that tool. You need a tool that can actually see the electrons wire by wire.
The meter would have identified a missing neutral. However, what originally tripped the circuit breaker? The task is not complete until you have a specific and obvious answer to that question. If the meter does not clearly answer that question, then you absolutely require an electrician - to avoid a possible house fire. Don't lose sight of the original problem by getting too involved replacing things.
The fact that you immediately blamed and replaced a circuit breaker scares me. You did not first use a meter to first learn the problem before 'fixing' it - again a potentially life threatening solution to the original and still unanswered problem.
Where is the loose neutral? Another question quickly answered by the so inexpensive and so ubiquitous meter. Use a meter to first learn where voltage does and does not exist between each pair of three receptacle contacts (H-N, H-G, N-G). Remember your purpose is not to fix the receptacle. Your objective is to discover why a circuit breaker originally tripped. Everything else is secondary to solving that 'why' problem because it is a human safety issue.
Steven Banks wrote:

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First off, to Sue, Tom any everyone else who answered... THANK YOU!
There are two things in life I do not trust nor like, electricity and natural gas. So your explicit recommendations for safety is in the forefront of my mind, I will heed your warnings and not take them lightly.
The original cause for the "outage" (I call it an outage because the breaker never did "trip"). So far I can identify that this breaker services these items:
Wall sockets: Two on one wall, one has TV, VCR, DVD, Tivo via a 1899 joules 81,500amps surge protector. These were ON. One of these wall sockets had the vaccuum in the plug. Wall sockets: Two others on another wall of which only one was being used for lamps (which weren't turned on) OFF Light switch: Controls two outside lights, a foyer light (expect faulty wiring in this hanging lamp too), and the third switch I have never been able to identify what it controls. All OFF
I had been vaccuuming and everything was OK. Later when I went to turn the vaccuum cleaner back on, the vaccuum and TV went out. No smoke, no pop, sizzles, or any decernable sound indicating eletrical malfunction. Again sorry for descriptions, I'm a layman.
I do have an analog multimeter and a voltage tester, but let me share what I've found today.
Using a 2-part circuit finder I have found the correct breaker that services the outlets and lights that are not working. I did this by a process of elimination. This instrument also let me know somehting else. When plugged into one of the offending outlets, the light is dimmer than on a normal working outlet and the LED and audible alert does not trigger when I hold the hand unit next to the test plug. So this tells me that there is power but the circuit is not completeing correct?
Again, I'd just like to be able to talk intelligently with whoever performs the work. I'd liek to know what the problem is even if I do not do the work myself (which is most likely the case).
Thanks, Steve Banks
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Steven Banks wrote:

Steve, the problem still looks to be a discontinuity in the neutral line. Your descriptions given here will allow any competent electrician to localise the fault within 30 minutes. Unless a cable needs to be replaced, then fixing it should take no longer. I am sure that he or she will show you the fault and there will probably be signs of overheating/arcing/burning for you to know that that was really the problem.
I would suggest that you be very wary indeed of applying any advice given here - other than to call in an electrician. I can appreciate your wish to pin down the fault precisely yourself, but so much depends on what the exact circumstances are - and that can only be found out by a competent electrician on site. You could be given advice that is positively dangerous, by someone misunderstanding your situation. Apart from anything else, it is remotely possible that you have two faults and not one.
Sorry I can't help more,
Sue
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Thank you Sue!
You were right on. Tech took about 40 minutes. Of course the last panel checked was the one! Murphy's law at work. There was a neutral set up in a three switch gang box that had about four neutral wires going into a red wire nut. That showed signs (like you said) of shorting/arching etc.
Damn glad it's fixed... the potential for a real hazardous situation was imminent, thank you so much!
Steve Banks

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These pictures are for aluminum wiring that is something like 50 times more likely to create problems compared to copper. But many pictures also demonstrate how to make conventional copper wire splices. First, all wires must be twisted together to make good electrical connections without the wire nut as in pictures 40 and 41: http://www.inspect-ny.com/aluminum/pl2p12.htm and in picture 42: http://www.inspect-ny.com/aluminum/pl2p12b.htm Wire nut (properly sized for the number of wires) screws onto that wire assembly in picture 45. Picture 48 demonstrates what happens long term if the wire nut assembly is not properly constructed. This web site is for aluminum wires. For copper wire, anti-oxidant (the inhibitor) is not required. Copper is far more forgiving. But the failure created by bad aluminum wire splices demonstrates why four wires should be electrically and mechanically solid before a wire nut is even attached. No wire junction should be dependent on the wire nut alone to hold that connection together.
Picture 50 through 54 demonstrate a worst case failure mode. Obviously most never experience anything so dangerous. But it demonstrates, again, why properly twisting wires before applying wire nut is important (as well as demonstrate why aluminum wire is that much more dangerous). All wires must make solid and multiple contacts with the other wires. Then a wire inside the wire nut, furthermore, bonds all those wires together. Picture 50 through 54 show consequences of not making good wire splices before applying the wire nut: http://www.inspect-ny.com/aluminum/pl2p13.htm
Steven Banks wrote:

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Even if you call an electrician, first collect (and record) facts as you are doing. What receptacles are and are not on the circuit? Which ones works? Disconnect everything from the circuit. What are the voltages for each outlet - IOW get numbers. Also how do those numbers change when a load (ie one light bulb) is powered by that circuit. Numbers provide much more information - and faster. Important numbers are all three relationships in every receptacle: H-N, H-G, and N-G.
Possible reason for your problem are receptacles wired using 'push the wire in' type connections rather than wrap the wire completely around receptacle screw. 'Push in' is acceptable for things that don't require reliable power - ie lights. This type of wiring can result in an open neutral. Unfortunately, too many electricians use this legal but unacceptable 'push in' method of wiring. Too often this type connection makes a soft connection causing light dimming. Where is the most likely suspect? In receptacle moved by plugging in the vacuum.
Learn what everything is in that circuit. IOW find where that mysterious switch connects to. Too often, our enemies cut off the wire, wrap it in tape, and bury it in a wall. If you cannot find it, then the electrician can with his fancy tools. Provide the electrician with information up front so that he need not charge you time running about collecting basic information. Cite the mysterious switch so that potential human safety problem can be eliminated. And again, don't use that Go-Nogo tester. You want numbers.
There is nothing mysterious or problematic with electricity. Electricity is quite basic. The problem is not electricity. The problem is that some people are an enemy of all. They don't demand repairs that meet two criteria: First it must work experimentally. Second, it must work theoretically. If not both - if every wire does not make sense - then we have a human safety problem. Again, it does not matter if lights work. Both criteria must always be met - else the working light is still a failure.
If you call the electrician, obtain more from his arrival. For example, that plug-in protector is , quite simply, ineffective. It can even contribute to damage of adjacent, powered off appliances. Anything that would work on an appliance power cord is already inside that appliance. Appliances already have internal protection. But that internal protection can be overwhelmed if an effective protector is not installed. A surge protector that has no earth ground is completely ineffective. Notice that plug-in protector does not even discuss earthing let alone provide a dedicated earthing connection.
Since you have already paid big bucks just for electrician to drive there, then have him take care of your 'nonexistent' appliance protection. You household electric earth ground must be upgraded and best exceed post 1990 National Electrical Code. IOW an earth ground rod very close to the mains breaker box. Every other incoming utility (cable, phone) must make a less than 10 foot connection to that earth ground rod before entering the building. Each earthing wire must make a short connection either using less than 10 feet of copper wire (ie cable and satellite dish) or via a 'whole house' protector (AC electric and phone). For AC electric, a minimally acceptable 'whole house' protector is sold in Home Depot as Intermatic IG1240RC. Minimally acceptable 1000 joules and 50,000 amps. To be equivalent, that plug-in protector would need be something like 3000 joules - AND make the less than 10 foot connection.
Another idea to consider: if using a real Christmas tree, then that electric circuit should be on an arc fault breaker. A Christmas tree fire can take out the entire house in 5 minutes. An arc fault breaker cuts off electricity before an electrical short can make a fire. Arc fault breakers are required in all new construction for bedroom circuits. But personal testimony has demonstrated how important that safety function can be if using a real Christmas tree.
Steven Banks wrote:

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Tom,
Thank you for quite an education. I pray that you are teaching at a college level. I happen to sit as a director for a foundation board for a local Technical College (Lake Washington Technical College). I instruct also in areas not associated with the school. But... I have a damn good sense for people who should be teaching.
I hope if you are not a teacher/instructor that you strongly consider doing so. To express yourself as you did here with typewritten text is truly great! It is very obvious you just don't want somebody doing something without knowing "Why!" Your diagnostic approach is appreciated.
You folks are the essence of what Customer Service is all about. Fortunately the electrician I had come out is employed by a company who educates and believes in Customer service also.
I can't thank you guys enough! Steve Banks

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Forgot to mention Tom,
When the Tech was here, we did discuss the newer standard for arc fault breakers. I have a few concerns that I think I'll have them back out for.
One is power fluctuation in a bedroom (lights) when the washer is on an agitating. So we talked about adding a new circuit to balance the loads.
Second. There was no outlet in the garage for the garage door opener. When I bought the house it was and still is plugged into a wall outlet via an extension cord (the cord is rated for the distance and job).
Thirdly our house has not one single outdoor outlet. So we discussed putting one out front and one out back. He also stated that this is now a code standard for new homes.
I'm happy with the journeyman's work, attitude, and the companies promptness. I would consider them for the future work.
Thanks, Steve Banks

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Steven Banks wrote:

Erm, I don't often get called "gentleman". ..
I do strongly suggest that you get an electrician to sort this out - she (or he) will be able to locate this problem very quickly and fix it safely. If there is a loose connection it is highly likely that the connection point will have over-heated and oxidised and the surrounding insulation been compromised. It needs repairing properly and just re-tighening a screw may leave a poor connection that may overheat later.
If lights and power circuits are both affected, then the problem won't be in a wall outlet or light fixture - it will be back at the connecting links between the incoming supply and one of the fuseboards or connections between fuseboards (assuming that you have several). If all circuits are affected, then it could even be a fault in the service supply.
A neutral fault does mean that it is highly likely that the downstream neutral wiring will be at live potential - as well as the live wiring. Do not underestimate the chances of getting electrocuted. I would switch off the main house breaker and then do continuity tests to localise this fault with the power off. Otherwise, the very act of disturbing wiring could cause an intermittent connection and start the fire that you luckily haven't had (yet).
There is a remote possibility that the break is part-way within a cable, rather than at a connection point. You most likely won't be able to find this sort of fault without some test equipment.
Again, do call in an electrician, please. If it is just a bad connection, it needs fixing properly. If it is in a cable, the cable will have to be identified and replaced/repaired. Either way, if it isn't fixed right, it could burn the place down.
Sue

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On Mon, 18 Oct 2004 23:34:59 -0700 Steven Banks
| I have a strange problem. Only strange because I'm NOT an electrician. | | Was cleaing the house as I do on ocassion, went back to turn the vaccuum on | and all the power went out for that circuit. I don't remember any poping, | snapping, or fizzle sounds. | | Thinking it was a circuit breaker, I got two new ones (20amp) and replaced | what I thought was the faulty one with a new one. Still no power to the | light switches and or outlets that are on this circuit. Now the weird | stuff...
Did the circuit breaker actually trip to the off position? Buying a new circuit breaker is NOT the normal response to a tripped breaker.
| When I place a voltage detector near or in the outlets and or near the light | switches, the detector reads that there is power in the outlet/light switch | areas. In fact with an appliance plugged in to the outlet, the voltage | detector reads voltage yet when the lamp is switched on... no light.
If you switch the breaker to the OFF position, does this reading stay?
--
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| Phil Howard KA9WGN | http://linuxhomepage.com/ http://ham.org/ |
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O'tay, bottom line... get the Yellow pages and make the call! I did, I have a person coming out today to take a look.
Sorry, but it is so different from "renting," just call the landlord and say "Get on over here!" Being a home owner has it's privileges and has it's expenses. I guess this is just one of them.
What the hell, I have some future work lined up for them anyway. Fortunately my lady has tucked away some money for house issues anyway.
Thanks, Steve

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Did you replace 20 Amp breakers with the ones you purchased with 20 Amp breakers? From your description, I'm not certain.
If you didn't, you will put the old ones back, right?
H
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