Most Common Electrical Power Problems with Solutions
Receptacles Controlled By Switches
In some homes and offices, a receptacle (outlet) on the wall is controlled by a light switch near the entrance to the room. This allows you to plug a lamp into the receptacle and turn it on and off with the switch.
If an appliance that is plugged into a receptacle has no power, first turn on all the light switches in the room. Sometimes the device will come on, which means that it's controlled by a switch.
Hint: A receptacle usually has spaces for two plugs. Sometimes one is permanently energized and the other is controlled by a switch. This is known as a “half-hot” receptacle.
In any location where there may be moisture (like kitchens, bathrooms, garages, and outdoors) special receptacles (outlets) are used for safety. These are called GFIs. The idea of a GFI receptacle is that with the slightest electrical problem, the GFI immediately shuts off the power. This is an important safety feature.
When you lose power to a receptacle in a kitchen, bathroom, garage, or outdoor area, check to see if it's a GFI receptacle. There's one pictured on this page. If it's a GFI, you can restore power by pressing the "TEST" button and then pressing the "RESET" button. If the GFI shuts off power repeatedly, plug in a different appliance to test whether the problem is the first appliance or the GFI itself. If the GFI is defective, call a good electrician.
Hint: Sometimes, you may have a receptacle that has lost power in a kitchen, bathroom, garage, or outdoor area but it's not a GFI. It may be “protected” by a GFI that has tripped off somewhere else. You can check for this situation by making sure that all the GFIs in your kitchen, bathroom, garage, and outdoor areas are working properly.
More Technical Stuff About GFIs
A GFI receptacle (also called a GFCI receptacle) can measure differences in power as small as 3ma (a very small amount). When the GFI detects more power coming in from the “hot” side than going out from the neutral side, it will shut off. This is a good thing because that extra electricity has to go somewhere, and it's important to protect you and your family from it.
All GFI receptacles should be tested monthly. This is done by pressing the "TEST" button. If pressing the "TEST" button does not make the button labeled “RESET” pop out, then call an electrician. If the “RESET” button does pop out, the GFI is OK. Press in the “RESET” button to reset the GFI.
Circuit Breaker Tripped Off
The first thing to understand is that a circuit breaker can have tripped off even when it looks like it's in the “ON” position. This is because a circuit breaker will sometimes trip off internally, without the "ON/OFF" handle flipping to the “OFF” position.
This is what to do when you have a loss of power that you suspect may be caused by a tripped circuit breaker.
- Shut down any computer equipment that may be affected by a loss of power.
- Go to your circuit breaker panel and firmly flip the first breaker OFF and then back ON again.
- Do the same thing with each circuit breaker until you have flipped all of the circuit breakers OFF and then back ON again.
- Now check and see whether the device that didn't have power is now back on.
- If your power has been restored… you're done! If your power is still out, it's time to call an electrician.
Note: About 25% of all electrical power problems can be solved using the above technique. Good Luck!
More Technical Stuff About Circuit Breakers
Inside most circuit breakers there are two types of protection: One is thermal. The other is magnetic. The thermal strip measures heat build-up caused by overloading. When it reaches a certain temperature, it will shut off the breaker. The magnetic coil measures sudden increases in current (such as a short). At a predetermined limit it will shut the breaker off. Older breakers sometimes have only one of these features. For maximum protection, a breaker with both types of protection is recommended.
There are usually three spots on the outside of a breaker that show wear. If the "ON/OFF" switch (located at the top) has broken off or is loose, we recommend the breaker be replaced. Next is the load lug. If it is burnt or abnormally loose, we recommend the breaker be replaced. Last, and most common, is the stab. The breaker stab is what makes contact with the bussing in the panel (the bussing carries the power throughout the panel). The stab connects to the bussing through friction and spring tension. The spring tension, over time, may break down. If so, arcing or burning may result. If the stab has become burnt, discolored, or is abnormally loose, we recommend that the breaker be replaced and that the bussing in the panel be checked.
NOTE: It is possible for a breaker to appear OK in regard to it's outward appearance and its capacity to carry continuity, but still be questionable, bad, or intermittent. The opposite may be true as well. A breaker with a poor outward appearance may be perfectly safe and structurally sound. Therefore a decision to replace a breaker should not be based solely on appearance, continuity, age, etc. A good electrician can recommend the proper course of action based on taking into account all the relevant factors.
Short Circuits occur when two electrical wires accidentally touch each other. A short circuit will immediately cause one of your circuit breakers to trip off or one of your fuses to blow.
To fix a short circuit, ask yourself this question: “What was happening right before the short circuit?” If you had just plugged something into a receptacle (outlet) or turned on a light or an appliance, then this gives you a clue.
If you just plugged in an iron, for instance, you can simply un-plug the iron and then re-set the circuit breaker or replace the fuse. If everything is now OK, then your electrical system is fine and it's time to get a new iron!
If, however, you can't find an appliance which is causing the problem, then it's time to call a good electrician to locate and repair your short circuit.
No Power At All
When nothing works in the entire building this means:
- A. The electrical power from the utility company is not getting to your electrical panel. Call the utility company.
- B. The electrical power from the utility company is not getting to ANYBODY'S electrical panel. Wait for the utility company to restore power.
- C. Your main circuit breaker is broken or turned off. Try to re-set the circuit breaker.
- D. All your circuit breakers are flipped off. Re-set all breakers.
- E. Something else. Time to call an electrician.
We offer our experience, knowledge and recommendations on any lighting problems for our clients. You can contact us anytime to get electrical services.