Recomendations for a Good Wire Tracer?

Somewhere in my house, I have a broken electrical connection. This is the second time a circuit has developed a fault in the middle in the last
6 months. The first time, a neutral connection let go where some idiot had used a "back stab" (great name, considering how they fail) connection in an outlet. Years of wiggling the outlet did it in. I was flat out at work & had to pay several hundred bucks to get an electrician to chase it down.
This time, I can probably fix it myself, but I'd prefer not to ruin the entire weekend looking for it. Part of the circuit is live, and then someplace, it ain't. The house is a 1952 vintage ranch, and the wiring may run in the attic, or through the basement ceiling, when it isn't going short distances in walls.
I have a cheapo Greenlee circuit tracer, but it's designed to plug into a live outlet for mapping out breakers. I know they sell ones that put a strong enough signal on the wires that you can track them in walls, presumably battery powered for dead circuits. One catch is that the basement ceiling is expanded metal lath. I don't expect to trace things there, although a really good on might work up through the wood floors.
The electrician who fixed the first break had some kind of tracer, but didn't have much luck with it. Apparently even a small load (a night light in an outlet we didn't know was on the circuit) was enough to kill the signal. I'd prefer something that was a bit more reliable.
Any recommendations? Something I can pick up at Lowes or Home Despot would be good.
Thanks!
Doug White
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wrote:

The first thing to come to mind is a beeping circuit tracer. I bought a Greenlee GT-16 Adjustable Non-Contact Voltage Detector from an Amazon vendor. You hold it next to the wiring and it beeps until you find the break. This won't work inside walls. If you get one, make sure it's adjustable. Non-adjustable beepers aren't reliable, being either too sensitive or not sensitive enough. This is a power detector type, so you'll find the break quickly -if- you have access to the wiring.
If you know exactly what the circuit is for and what outlets/lamps it serves, it might be quicker and cheaper to just run an entire new run than to troubleshoot it. Romex is a lot cheaper than an electrician's time, even at copper's current expanded price.
One last thought: Have you gone throughout the house and replaced every single instance of backstabbing with real outlets and switches with real screw terminals? If not, do so now. It may solve the problem for you. Some circuits are run in series, so a badly stabbed switch up the line may be the problem, not the copper wiring.
-- Education should provide the tools for a widening and deepening of life, for increased appreciation of all one sees or experiences. It should equip a person to live life well, to understand what is happening around him, for to live life well one must live life with awareness. -- Louis L'Amour
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My guess is that's what has happened. I doubt a wire has just "let go" someplace in a wall. I can replace outlets that are on either side of the break, and hope I get lucky. The catch is that I don't know for sure where every item is on that circuit. The middle of the problem is my daughter's room, which has a ton of stuff packed aginst every wall. All the outlets are barricaded behind furniture & tall bookcases. She swears there are only two in the room, but I'm unconvinced. Only one is on the circuit in question, and I already replaced the other one. If I could trace the wires in the walls, I'd have a better chance of making sure of finding both every connection, AND the order of things. I've got a couple things that still have power, and a bunch of stuff that doesn't. Tracing the wiring would help identify where the broken "bridge" is between the circuits. For now, I have two outlets that I'm hoping are involved, one live & one dead. I'll open those up & pray there isn't any intervening circuitry, or that the "bridge" is routed some other place.
I've taken a brief look on-line. Tracers seem to come in two flavors: cheap (< $150) and ineffective, and very expensive (> $300) and unclear how effective. The serious pro models seem to run $800 & up. I could have paid for a moderately good one for what the first adventure cost me, but for now I will try it the old fashioned way.
Doug White
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Doug White wrote:

Years ago I was at a friend's house when some outlets died. We started tracing it out, and discovered that it ran from one bedroom to an outside outlet, then back to the other bedroom. Of course it was about 10 F outside while I replaced the bad backstab piece of crap.
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That is what I would do first. The cost is minimum and in my opinion you will have made the house less likely to have a fire from a bad connection. It may or may not solve the problem, but I think you should do it first. With any luck it will solve the problem at no expense for a circuit tracer.
Dan
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wrote:

I'd remove the circuit breaker, turn it back on to complete the circuit, and test continuity through it and the wiring, verifying where it was good and exactly where it stopped. YMMV.

I first bought a signal injector (GE, $25) and found that it injected to every outlet in the house. Hmm, too sensitive and no way to turn it down. It's for sale, cheap. ;)
Then I got the Greenlee, and it works as advertised. I haven't used it for a break in a wire, but checking open wiring, it showed me that the switch was good and the problem was in the fixture.
If I were you, I'd hunt down every single outlet in the house and get those fire hazard stab connectors out of it immediately. I still can't believe that they're up to code ANYWHERE. Shame on the NEC guys and the NFPA guys for that one. I'd fire any electrician working for me if he installed even -one- of those.
Isn't it "Daughter, move your crap NOW!" time, Doug? (or something nicer, depending upon her willingness level)
-- Education should provide the tools for a widening and deepening of life, for increased appreciation of all one sees or experiences. It should equip a person to live life well, to understand what is happening around him, for to live life well one must live life with awareness. -- Louis L'Amour
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Doug White wrote:

You have to think like a lazy electrician. Go to the last good outlet on the string and look for another one close to that one. I assume you have mapped out the dead and live outlets on the circuit. I would open up the last good outlet and check the connections, then go to the dead ones and pull them one by one and check them. Maybe just thumping the wall next to the outlet might bring it back to life. I would try that first and maybe you will get lucky and find the loose wire.
John
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    Got a question -- is there any chance that this house was wired or re-wired using aluminum wire? The original wiring was not likely to be aluminum based on the 1952 date -- but mid 1960s to early 1970s might have aluminum wiring -- and this is supposed to be quite bad with the back-stab outlets and switches. From one web site (http://www.faqs.org/faqs/electrical-wiring/part2/section-16.html ):
=====================================================================3) "push-in" terminals are an extreme hazard with aluminum wire. Any connections using push-in terminals should be redone with the proper screw connections immediately. ===================================================================== And repeating failures suggest aluminum wiring.
    I'm not an electrician, but I am an electronics technician, and an ex-neighbor from my apartment building bought a house and moved in, and I was visiting when he had a problem which I traced to poor connection on one of the outlets. (Common practice is to loop through several outlets, and whichever one has a loose connection will stop the feed of power to that outlet.) His was aluminum wiring, and even with the screw terminals, it had worked loose enough to send up smoke when his daughter ran a hair dryer in her room. (The smoke was in a different room adding to the fun tracing the problem.) If you are stuck with aluminum wiring, and can't pull new copper into the whole house, you want to make sure that you have outlets rated for use with aluminum wiring, and probably pull each outlet and tighten the terminal screws every year or so.

    Does not sound like fun. Especially without a map of how the wiring actually runs.
    If it is aluminum wiring -- just pull each switch and breaker and tighten the screws -- to hold you for a while.

    This sounds like a "fox and hound" used in telephone wiring. One part generates a tone with lots of bandwidth to make it easy to pick up with the amplifier package -- a tiny speaker and enough gain so when you are close to the wire you get a tone. (Usually also designed to power the headset in a lineman's handset.)

    The "fox and hound" you are more likely to find at an electronics place which caters to the phone and computer wiring trade. (And, of course, you may hit an area where those terms are not used, so you may need to call them "tone generator" and "tracer".
    If you connect his between the hot wire and ground, make *sure* that the breaker is off -- and tape over the breaker handle until you are done with this one, so someone else does not turn it on while you're tracing.
    Part of the problem is that you may have no idea what is wired to what. If you knew that, you could start plugging in the tester which you already have starting closest to the breaker and then move out one outlet at a time until you lose the power (or the neutral or the ground). Then pull the last good outlet and the first bad one, and check up on tightening the screws. If back-stab type, replace both outlets, and eventually you will replace them all in the house.
    Anyway -- the problem is almost certain to be at the switches, outlets, and breakers, not in the wire in the middle of a run.
    Best of luck,         DoN.
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DoN. Nichols wrote:

If you can attach a electrical noise generating device, a buzzer with points, to the disabled circuit I bet you can trace the wires with a portable radio set on AM and tuned to the low end of the band. If the signal is too strong tune up to the top end of the band. The portables usually exhibit good directional sensitivity and always worked well for tracking down interfering noise sources.
John
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First, thanks to everyone for their support & suggestions. I have emerged victorious, and can get back to my weekend plans.
Fortunately, I do not have any aluminum wiring to deal with. I also don't have a lot of backstabbed outlets to fail, but there may be one or two left lying in wait. The original outlets weren't very robust. I suspect that when they failed, the owners got a quick & dirty electrician who installed replacements using the backstab connections. Some of the original outlets have let go (literally; the plug can just fall out) since we bought the place 8 years ago, and I've replaced them myself.
The key discovery was that several items in the basement were live, and that extended past my daughter's bedroom. That meant the failure had to be in one relatively small section of the house. The first outlet I checked was the one that had triggered the problem when a vacuum cleaner was plugged into it. It turned out to be A) relatively new, B) not backstabbed, and C) at the end of it's run. This one had clearly been replaced when the master bath was remodeled, because it actually had a ground wire in the box. I should check that it is really grounded. Many of the three prong outlets in the house aren't, and the original wiring is all two wire, so the boxes aren't even grounded.
There was another 3-prong outlet about 4 feet away that appeared identical. I assumed that it had probably been replaced during the remodel as well, but a quick bit of screwdriver work revealed that it was both ungrounded AND backstabbed! Sure enough, one of the hot wires was loose & singed. The wiggling involved in opening it up had restored the full circuit, so I had my culprit. It's been properly replaced with a new 2-hole outlet using screws, and everything is back to normal.
The outlet in question was behind a chair, and hasn't been touched in years. There was a bit of corrosion on the wires from moisture from the bathroom, and I suspect the connection got weaker & weaker over time, and the starting surge from the vacuum cleaner was enough to vaporize the few copper atoms still holding on. It's right next to the bathroom door, which is fairly heavy, and vibration from the door opening & closing several times a day probably aggravated the situation.
As time permits, I'm going to go looking for any additional 3 wire outlets that aren't actually grounded. That may be a clue that they were replaced by the same nitwit, and I can deal with them before they fail.
Doug White
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At least I have not had aluminum wire. But I have had all manner of other problems in apartments and houses.
It turns out that the simplest approach is to turn the power off one day, and open and correct each and every box, be it a switch, a light, or an outlet. I usually replace all outlets at that time, and any switch that doesn't feel right. Wiring devices are cheap, so there is no reason to mess around. The only real cost is the time to do all this. But one need do this just once per house or apartment.
Yes, apartment. A friend of mine almost lost everything she owned to a bad wiring device. Fortunately, a retired fireman saw the smoke, and called the fire department in time. I had the opportunity to do the what=happened analysis before the renovation.
I usually find lots of "carpenter wiring" in that first sweep. Simply tightening all connections is worthwhile. As is eliminating all just-push-the-wire-in-the-hole connections.
Joe Gwinn
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    [ ... ]

    Note that some outlets and switches may have a hole in the back for the wire, but still have the screw clamp a good solid metal plate down on the wire, is there is still a good tight connection.
    But any which depend *solely* on the wire stabbed into the hole on the back are serious trouble.
    Glad that you found the problem.
    Enjoy,         DoN.
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wrote:

Hurrah!
When I moved into this house 9+ years ago, I spent about $25 and bought all new outlets, switches, and covers for every room in the house and gar^H^H^Hshop. I also added 3 240v outlets for tools. It took me a day, but I then had GROUNDED outlets. The old ones were 2 lug, not 3.

I had 14/3-wire but it was grounded to the outside of the box. I almost climbed under the house and ran separate grounds.

Bueno, bwana.

No doubt.

That's free, intelligent insurance. Go for it!
-- Education should provide the tools for a widening and deepening of life, for increased appreciation of all one sees or experiences. It should equip a person to live life well, to understand what is happening around him, for to live life well one must live life with awareness. -- Louis L'Amour
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Any standard outlet checker should tell you this, so finding them should be trivial...in theory. --Glenn Lyford
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Doug White wrote:

How much time don't you want to spend? Get an outlet checker for about three bucks at the home store, then one at a time, starting at the panel, check each outlet on that circuit; when you get to the one that's not working, open it up and fix it. If when you open it to fix it, you find that it's OK, then back up one and fix the output side of the outlet that's previous to it (closer to the panel) on the string.
Have Fun! Rich
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