Before you call for emergency electrical repairs…
Sometimes, it’s a burned lightbulb. Or a tripped breaker.
Systematic exploration with a few tips from a pro can help you avoid the cost and embarrassment of paying for emergency electrical repairs that amount to a breaker reset or fixture lamp change. And, if you want to get ankle deep in electrical troubleshooting before calling a professional, head on over to the excellent resource devoted to homeowner guidance, The Circuit Detective.
- What activity was going on when the circuit stopped working? If you did not witness the moment of circuit failure, then when was the last time anyone in your household remembers it to have certainly been operating (go back as far as needed to be CERTAIN)? Has any construction activity been going on between last certain normal operation, and the failure?
- What else has failed? Identifying the full extent of the problem can give you an essential clue that makes a solution obvious and easy, or at the least will ensure that your electrician making a service call will know the extent of problems that need fixing. A single circuit may serve locations on different floors, and usually when one part of a circuit goes out, other parts go out, too.
- Are you sure you have replaced the lamp with a known good lamp? Miscommunication among members of the household, or replacing one bad lamp with another bad have been recurring themes in some of my easiest service calls. In a case like this, you may wind up paying $85 for me to drive to your building and do paperwork to collect the $85 and pay taxes on it. That is, you may wind up paying the overhead for a ‘service call’ visit, without hardly receiving any real service.
- Is GFCI protection involved? GFCI receptacles may be inserted into a circuit, protecting ‘downstream’ loads, and tripping if they detect a ground-fault at the downstream location — possibly in another room or even on another floor. GFCI’s may be reset by pushing a button on the face of the device. If a GFCI won’t reset, it may be because a) the circuit has no power (breaker tripped?), b) there is a continuing ground fault in the circuit, or c) the GFCI device has failed. GFCI’s age and fail at a higher rate than circuit breakers, and are subject to more everyday wear-and-tear. Installed outdoors, they should be weather-resistant type (WR), but a majority of installations are not. GFCI’s consume some power in monitoring the circuit for faults, and they generate heat that may attract roaches, which can gum up the works inside. The most common place for GFCI’s is in a kitchen, where the GFCI device and other receptacles protected by it may be all within sight of each other. However, GFCI’s may protect loads in a whole other building, such as a detached garage. Bathroom GFCI’s often protect the lighting and/or exhaust fan circuit. If you never use the receptacle, you may not think to reset it in order to restore lighting — especially if it’s behind a mirror. A GFCI located in a basement or garage may protect kitchen loads, outdoor loads, or anywhere in the building.
- Are you sure you have reset the breaker? The mechanical position of a breakers’ handle does not necessarily correspond to its electrical state (OFF / ON / TRIPPED). Start by looking for tripped breakers. Most will trip to a mid-way position, but breakers may trip without indicating, especially as they get older. Once you identify a tripped breaker, TURN IT OFF, then ON. For safety reasons, breakers do not reset with a single action. They must be turned off to clear the latched fault condition. Older breakers may seem to move to and stay in the on position without first being reset, but the electrical circuit contacts inside the breaker will not close (turn on) without first resetting a tripped breaker by turning it off (if a breaker resets without being turned first off, then it should be replaced).
- Don’t see a tripped breaker? If you can’t see a tripped breaker, and your breaker labels don’t clearly indicate which breaker operates the disabled circuit, then your next option is to reset every breaker in your building (excluding any “Main” breaker = a breaker that disconnects all the others from power). By doing so, you will either clear the fault, or re-activate it (in case of re-activating, you may hear a loud or a soft pop or thud, or the breaker handle may simply not latch in the on position. Ideally, if you are resetting multiple breakers, you should use a buddy to help identify the specific breaker that fixes the problem when it comes back on. This breaker should be labeled (all breakers should be labeled) and then monitored for subsequent tripping activity, and you should contact an electrician for repairs if any breaker trips more than once per year. Such a breaker may be fatigued, or the circuit may be overloaded, or there may be an intermittent fault in the circuit, all of which are problems that you should address with the help of a professional. Whether you have circuit trouble or not, you should consider mapping your breaker panel to facilitate future breaker resetting, service calls by electricians, or renovations/remodeling in your home. A map may also give you information necessary to shift loads within your building to avoid overloading a particular troubled circuit, rather than spend money on new circuits you don’t really need.
- Success? The troubleshooting isn’t over, yet. Why did the lamp burn out? Why did the GFCI or breaker trip? You should note the date of the failure, the steps taken to clear it up, and anything else that occurs to you about recent events in the building. If the problem recurs, you will want reliable information about its history. If a GFCI or breaker trips more than once per year, you should reduce load on the circuit, identify faulty equipment that is connected, and/or consult a professional.
Troubleshooting tips haven’t helped?
Off-site Links ->
- Annapolis Home Inspection, LLC Aluminum branch circuits, homes 1965-1972
- ComplianceAndSafety.com OSHA Electrical Safety Training
- Electric Monk TV (YouTube) Video channel for PhillyLicensedElectrician.com Robert Monk
- EnergyConservation HowTo A tinkerer genius discusses energy conservation and his ladder system for accessing the attic (where a lot of energy-saving work happens).
- PennFuture Energy Center Energy and energy efficiency news for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania
- Phila area rife with building efficiency upgrade opportunities Philadelphia Inquirer article discusses recent study showing Philadelphia’s inner-ring suburbs stand to save from energy conservation retrofits.
- Philadelphia Row-house Manual A design, maintenance, and modifications manual for our most widely-used form of housing.
- Robert Monk Robert Monk’s personal blog
- SolarCities (DOE) Solar PV Levelized Cost Interactive Comparator Simple graph compares ‘levelized cost’ of energy from solar PV to conventional grid rates, with a time-slider interactive feature.
- The Circuit Detective – Solve Home Electrical Problems Yourself! Electrical troubleshooting procedures pitched to homeowners.
- The Energy Co-op Blog from a leading alternative energy provider in PECO territory, includes fun conservation tips.
- Weatherization: the anti-Solyndra Salon.com article praising the continued success of the federal Weatherization Assistance Program (WAP), low-income energy-savings and job-creation.
- West Philly Tool Library Official site of WPTL, Philly’s own community tool lending library: like a book library, but tools!
- WestPhillyLocal .com Site name say sit all.
- Bartram's Gardens Founded in Philadelphia’s colonial era, today the gardens continue pioneering in horticulture and agriculture with a variety of herbs, trees and other vegetation in an arboretum/gardens on the Schulkill River banks, and a new farm abutting sadly neglected
- HiddenCity Philadelphia Surprising places it takes an adventurer to discover; events, too.
- Philly Household Hazardous Waste Drop-off Schedule City of Philadelphia dates and places for disposing of spent batteries, CFL lamps, unused paint and cleaning products, etc. LovePhilly: don’t pour these in the drain or send them out with the trash.
- Reading Terminal Market Purveyors of fine foods and foodie stuff, all under one roof downtown under the PA Convention Center
- Secret Garden on the Rails Jacques-Jean Tiziou shows some dramatic natural and urban and naturalized-urban scenes along abandoned rails of Philadelphia
- Sketch Burger, Fishtown A vegan-friendly burger joint with a #1 in Philly contender beef burger, best fries that somehow stay fresh for 1/2 hour while you tackle burger, and a vegan cafe vibe of friendly folks.
- WXPN: Philly sings in key of love Love songs by Philly artists