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
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.
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.
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?
| Phil Howard KA9WGN | http://linuxhomepage.com/ http://ham.org/ |
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.
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?
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
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
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:
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
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).
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
Sorry I can't help more,
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!
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:
and in picture 42:
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:
Steven Banks wrote:
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
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:
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!
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.
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.
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
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?
| Phil Howard KA9WGN | http://linuxhomepage.com/ http://ham.org/ |
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.
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