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Electrical Troubleshooting Q's & A's

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Electrical Problems

I have been having problems with some of my light fixtures. I recently moved into this home.

1. One of my bulbs exploded (it was the wrong type).  I tried to replace it with the correct type but the  light will not turn on. Another light which is part of the same fixture works fine.

2. A bulb blew out. When I tried to replace it, I encountered the same exact problem as in (1) above.

3. One of our outside lights will not go on. I checked the voltage for the fixture, and it is live. But I cannot get it to light. It seems to me that all of these problems are somehow related.

Any advice on what to do would be greatly appreciated.

When you checked for voltage... what was the voltage? When bulbs blow quickly it may be the circuit some how got wired as 220V (I have seen this!) An ordinary bulb doesn't last long at 220V

If you have 110 at the fixture.. as measured from the center point of the light socket to the outside part, then a light should light.. if it doesn't really the only thing it could be is a burnt out bulb.

What gets me... is you say one light works.. but the other won't in the same fixture.. now THAT would only be possible if the wiring in the fixture was bad. How new are the fixtures?? If they are very old, get new ones, or have these rewired.

So.. first check the voltage.. make sure you have voltage.. and it is only 110. If it is, then check the bulbs.. If there is no voltage in the bad socket but is in the others in the same fixture then check the wiring in the fixtures.. If there is no voltage anywhere.. well then of course check the fuse/circuit breaker.

No Power to Lights

I recently bought a 25 year old house. There is a wall in the livingroom with 2 lights on it. We had to remove the lights to re-gyproc the wall. After we hooked the lights back up, they were working. The lights are connected and when I turned one of them off (they each have a power switch on the individual light) they both shut off and would not come back on. I thought it was a blown fuse but all fuses seemed to be fine. I tested the hot and neutral wires running to the lights with a voltage tester and there is no power. Is there any way to rectify this problem or at least discover what the problem is? Of course there is both a way to discover what the problem is and a way to fix it. Ok... you did the right things so far, it seems. You may want to double check some stuff.

You checked the fuse that feeds that circuit. Now.. are you sure you know which circuit it is, and it there anything else on that circuit. It is HIGHLY unlikely that those two lights are the only things on that circuit. So, as confirmation that it is NOT the fuse, you know other outlets or lights on that circuit work, right? Try a fuse you KNOW works in there.

Next.. the wiring on the lights. The power goes first to one, then the other, I presume. When you remove the plate from the wall and can see the wiring, are all the leads still connected as before?

Check the connections especially on the light supplying power to the other. (It will have more wires. The power coming in, and the feed to the other light.) At that light, you should have (probably) three black wires connected together and 3 white wires connected together. The incoming, the light, and the line feeding the other light. Check each of those connections. Undo the wire nut, check the wires and reconnect them. CHECK this of course with the fuse OUT. and as a precaution, since this circuit may be screwy, check the leads with your voltmeter to assure you they are dead before touching any wires.!!

When all is wired and taped up again, and the fuse plugged back in. Check the circuit again with your voltmeter. With the switch on, touch the center and the side of the socket where you plug in the light. If it is still dead, you will need to look back to the next junction box that feeds these lights. There again, check the wiring. It is possible that outlet or switch box contains the loose wire and we are barking up the wrong tree.

Canister Lighting Problem

I have 4 overhead canister lights in my kitchen. One recently "went bad". I tried replacing the light obviously wasn't that easy. So I then tried to replace the canister & socket (okay, actually a handyman did it)...but that also did not fix the problem. All three of the other lights are fine and all of the lights are controlled by the same switch.

I am going to assume you tried a bulb that you knew worked in the bad one, and then put it back in one of the others and it still worked. Just checking, I have chased a problem more than once and found it was just something simple like that.

So you have replaced the canister and socket? That means you replaced the whole light fixture?

If you or your handyman can pull the fixture down from the ceiling and check the voltage on the wiring you can tell if it is in the wiring or just the fixture. If there is power to the wires at the light, then the light should be replaced (or at least inspected to see where the break in the wiring is) If there is no power there, then look at the next light's wiring to see if the wires to the bad light have come loose.

The warning is necessary... be VERY careful around the wiring. Keep the circuit breaker off unless you are just checking for voltage

Electric Outlets Don't Work

I have two outlets on one wall that don't work. I have replaced both outlets so have concluded that isn't the problem. There is power in the black wire so I assume the problem is continuity in the white wire. Other Outlets and lights on the circuit work. Any suggestions on the cause and solution would be greatly appreciated.

You checked the black wire and it was energized. Since the white seems to be the problem, then I assume you tested black to ground to determine there was juice there. But when you test black to white, you get nothing.

Thus, the white has an open some where. Do you know where the feed to the outlets comes from? Is there an outlet that feeds them, or perhaps fed from a light fixture in the floor below?

Not knowing what floor these are on, and if you have access to the ceiling below, I am not sure where to tell you to look. But you need to find where they are being fed from. Then you check to see if the white lead is connected. If it is, and it checks out fine there, then you will have to look for an open between the supply and the outlet. .... For instance, have you done any work where the wire may run?? Driven a nail into the wall to hang a picture or anything like that? Is this a new problem, in that the outlets used to work and suddenly don't? Or perhaps they have never worked?? Are you certain they are on the same circuit, as other outlets which work? Are there any tripped breakers in your box, or blown fuses?

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Electrical Wiring- Plugs Not Working

After I changed the switches and plates on most of the switches in my bedroom, some of the plugs won't work, including plugs that I didn't touch. I checked the circuit breakers and they are not tripped. Also ,this doesn't affect every electrical outlet on the same circuit and also affects circuits that weren't involved. Any info. would be most helpful. By the way, all these plugs worked before.

Ok.. start at the beginning and retrace your steps. With the breakers open of course.. check the wiring in each outlet and switch you worked on. Somewhere there was a power feeder wire to other switches or outlets that didn't get wired back up right. If everything is attached and the are no wires without a connection, you will need to carefully trace out the flow of the wiring. Something wasn't put back the same way. So you will need to find the hot lead that feeds the rest of your circuits and get it reconnected to a hot.. or.. find the neutral that isn't connected correctly.

By the way.. that will help. If you have a tester.. check the outlets that don't work from the hot to the ground.. if there is voltage, there then it is the neutral that is not wired right... if there is no voltage in either.. than it is the hot that is miswired.

4 out of 9 Plugs on Breaker Not Working

Recently I lost power on 4 plugs on a breaker that has a total of 9 plugs on it running the length of the house.  The other 5 plugs work fine. When I plug my outlet checker into the bad one it reads "open neutral."  I have replaced the bad outlets and still the same result. Nothing I can determine caused the outlets to go bad all of the sudden. What is also weird is that sometimes these plugs work, but most of the time they don't?  Do you have any suggestions?

Yes.. watch out. You most likely have an open somewhere... When an open line makes poor contact, it generates heat and can start a fire... so it is important to find the open as soon as you can.

If you have done any work on any of the outlets that feed the ones that don't work.. look there. Or a light fixture in the line to the bad ones. Make sure the wires are all connected in every box in that circuit.. chances are you will find your problem there.

If all the outlets, and connections are ok, then... have you done any work in or on the walls or ceilings the wire runs through.. (or do you have mice??) An open may have occurred while working in or on the walls.. Driving in a nail.. etc.


As an electrical engineer, this is one of the most common problems I see, and potentially a fire causer too! What happens is the neutral runs from the circuit breaker or fuse in your main panel and like Christmas lights loops from one outlet to the next (usually a white wire on the silver screw on the outlet). Over time (or from overloading) the connection becomes bad or intermittent on the poke through or quick connect hole in the back of the outlet (as opposed to the screw connection on the side). Work backwards from the end of the circuit or the first bad outlet and look for an intermittent connection on the back of an outlet on the neutrals, and all the other outlets before it will work OK. Its usually so simple to find simply by tapping the outlets one by one until the lights start flashing on and off, and usually even looks overheated. Then replace that outlet, preferably using the screw connections, and then wrap the entire perimeter of the outlet with tape several times.

Dead Outlets

All the outlets in one room recently shorted (?). It happened after my wife (just had to mention that!) plugged & turned on the vacuum (lights flickered first) while the TV, VCR and halogen lamp where all on (not sure why this should pose a problem anyway). The circuit breaker wasn't switched off so I replaced it figuring it was faulty, however that didn't fix the problem. I will most likely replace all the outlets in the room to see if there is a loose ground wire or something like that. Any suggestions would be greatly appreciated.

First, check for a tripped GFCI. It's unlikely these outlets are protected by one but check to make sure.

Don't replace all the outlets yet. Do check each one for a loose wire.
If you replace any outlets, use the screws on the outlets to secure the leads. Do not use the push-in holes to secure the leads. These will loosen in a short time and cause problems.

Another thought:
Same thing happened to my parents basement suite just a couple of weeks ago. My brother did the same thing you did because the breaker hadn't tripped. They called in the electrician who had done the job (the basement had been recently renovated). He inspected every switch and socket on the circuit and found a loose/detached wire in a light switch.

Turned out that the wiring had been done by his inexperienced assistant. So he had to make sure the other circuits were safe. The electrician was not pleased! Therefore, he learned a lesson.... his assistant needs more training or supervision. Goes to show you that a rather simple omission can cause a major problem.

Lights Brighten

When I turn on my garbage disposal in the kitchen, the lights in the kitchen brighten for a half a second then go back to normal. What is causing this? Something a layperson can track down and fix?

Check this url:


The info on the site reads:

"What does it mean when the lights brighten when a motor starts?

This usually means that the neutral wire in the panel is loose. Depending on the load balance, one hot wire may end up being more than 110V, and the other less than 110V, with respect to ground. This is a very hazardous situation - it can destroy your electronic equipment, possibly start fires, and in some situations electrocute you (i.e. some US jurisdictions require the stove frame connected to neutral).

If this happens, contact your electrical authority immediately and have them come and check out the problem. If you say "loose neutral", they will come.

Note a brief (< 1 second) brightening is sometimes normal with lighting and motors on the same 220V with neutral circuit. A loose main panel neutral will usually show increased brightness far longer than one second. In case of doubt, get help."

Flickering Lights

The lights in the upstairs bathroom and one bedroom will flicker for about 5 minutes when they are switched on, then remain steady. Also, the radio gets staticky at the same time. The hallway and adjoining bedroom lights are fine, as are the downstairs lights. Is there something I can check before calling for an electrician? The house is 20 years old, has aluminum wiring. I've been here for 4 months and the problem has just begun. No work has been done since I moved in.

Incandescent bulbs... right? (Because florescent will often do that. but incandescent should NOT). You should have the electrician check all the wiring connections. The trouble with aluminum wiring is at the junction between it and copper wiring. The dissimilar metals cause corrosion.. and bad connections.

Kitchen Outlets Blow Fuses

I am replacing all of the outlets in my house with newer ones. I have reached a problem while trying to replace two outlets above the kitchen counter on either side of my sink. The 4 fuses for these two outlets are housed in 2 devices that I am unfamiliar with. Each device has two sockets to screw the fuses into with a small door contraption that closes over the top of the fuses after they have been screwed in. The devices also have two sets of prongs on the back of them. The devices are inserted into slots in the fuse box.

After I hooked up the outlets I inserted the devices that house the fuses into the fuse box and turned the power back on.
All four fuses blew. The windows in the fuses were black (which I have read indicates a short somewhere). I took all of the wires off of the outlets and inserted new fuses again.
This time the fuses did not burn out (without the wires being connected to the outlets). Each of the outlet boxes has a black, a red, a white and a ground wire. I tested the wires for incoming power and found this to be true for the blacks and the reds. Could someone tell me where I am going wrong? If I can't solve this I will call an electrician but if it is something simple I would like to try.

More than likely the outlets are fed from two different circuits (common on kitchen outlets since code requires the kitchen be fed from 2 seperate circuits. The outlets have THREE wires going to them and that is the clue. The tab should be removed from the hot side (brass colored screw side) to seperate the circuits.

Short Circuit?

Every time I try to turn the washer on, the circuit breaker to the electrical outlet switches off. When I plug other appliances into the same outlet, there is no problem. Has the washer short-circuited and what should I do?

It is not likely that the washer has a short circuit (thought it is possible). BUT try this:

Plug the washer into an extension cord, plugged into an outlet on a different circuit. If it doesn't trip that circuit, then most likely the circuit breaker is just going bad and should be replaced. If it DOES trip that circuit, then, yes, have that washer checked out. If the motor is bound and won't turn, it will trip its breaker.

Low Voltage?

My problem started in Master Bath where hair dryer would continually trip GFI. Small night light would work fine. Now my microwave will come on and look like it's working but it is not heating anything. A second microwave in the house will come on but then shut off within a few seconds. These things are happening in different parts of the house. Power company says voltage is fine to the house. Breakers all seem okay (not tripped). Any ideas.

A possibility The voltage tests OK? When you test voltage you are using a very thin internal wire in volt meter. Even if only a thin wire was coming in to supply the house it would read full voltage! I think that a supply wire coming into the house has a partial connection, loose or stripped!

I have seen this happen on many service calls.  A stripped wire or inadequate power will not be sufficient to run appliances.

Bulbs Burn Out Every Few Days

I have a ceiling light where lightbulbs are burning out every few days. What would cause this?

When did the problem start??Bulbs burning out quickly can be caused by too high a voltage.. either because it was wired wrong or your house's voltage is too high. (This can happen sometimes). Do the lights burn unusually bright??

The wiring in my home is both old and new; this fixture has not been touched and was ok for ten years (until last week). We added a new dishwasher in the next room that will occasionally trip a circuit. Is that the root of the problem?

Yes, that is the likely culprit. It sounds like there is something on that circuit that is drawing too much current {dishwasher tripping the breaker}. It sounds like your bulb is on that circuit as well, causing that same over current to "pop" the bulb.... hope that helps!!!}

Tester Reads "Open Hot"

I have replaced all two prong electric outlets in my bedroom with 3 prong outlets. After installation, using a ground tester, three of the outlets showed a green light on the tester (meaning connections OK). But, on one electric outlet, the tester showed no lights. According to the tester scale this means "open hot". Question is "How can I correct the problem?"

You did not mention if you grounded the new receptacles. Replacing a two prong with a three prong will not ground it.

Check the outlet that feeds the bad one. Chances are, the hot wire which feeds this one is not connected. (I assume of course you checked the wiring on the bad one) As for replacing the two prong with 3.. if you check the Ask our Electrician forum, you will find plenty written on that topic there.

Testing Electrical Outlets for Ground

How do you test an electrical outlet to see if it grounded? Is their any tool that I can use to see if an electrical outlet is grounded?

I have always used a small continuity tester. You can get these at a local hardware store for probably 3-5 bucks. They have a small light inside one of the handles. If you insert one end in the female plug and the other to the ground it should light up if grounded. Check both sides of the female plug(One at a time). Worse comes to worse be careful, remove receptical. and see if there are three wires. I assume the outlet is a grounded six hole duplex recept?

Another answer: I bought a simple 3prong tester at a hardware store for just a few dollars. You just walk to the outlet and plug it in. It has three lights on it. The combination of lights tells what kind of circuit you have.



Open Ground = Light 2 ON

Open Neutral = Light 3 ON

Open Hot = No Lights

Hot/Ground Reversed = Light 1 and Light 3 ON

Hot/Neutral Reversed = Light 1 and Light 2 ON

Correct Wiring = Light 2 and Light 3 ON

Product is made by A.W. Sperry Instruments, Inc.

Hauppauge, NY 11788. Model CA-300A

I keep this trusty little device handy. It's really works well. Rated at 125 Volts.

Thermal Fuses in the Electric Heating Unit

Our home has electric baseboard heat, we cannot heat our home to a comfortable level. There are thermal switches on the heating element, they appear to be electrically open most of the time. The heaters get warm, then seem to shut off. I have eliminated all of the thermal switches on each unit, except for one (1), as a safety precaution. Where can I purchase new thermal switches ??? or should I just replace the entire thing?

They are safety devices, check for obstructed airflow...bad move to disconnect/jumper baseboard unit ???

Separating Fan/Light Switch

We have a very noisy ceiling fan in the bathroom, which comes on when the light is turned, although they are separate. The light being over the sink, the fan, over the shower. Is there a way to have the fan go on separate from the light? I would like to attempt to do it myself, however, what should the approximate cost be to have it done by an electrician? Please help, before the fan makes me crazy!

One idea, maybe you could intercept the wire that goes from the light to the fan, and put a switch in between them to control the fan. The power is going from your on/off switch to the light, then from the light to the fan, right? Is it possible to get at the wiring near the light or near the fan, in order to put in a box and a switch?

Since the fan is noisy, you may want to replace the fan. They make some that are very quiet. When wiring in the new one, you can just disconnect the old fan from the present switch and add the new fan/switch with its own wiring. This will involve fishing the new wire down the wall. (not too difficult if you have access in the attic above?) You should replace the present switch box with a double switch box, so that may involve a little drywall patchwork.

Click here for our Grounding Your Outlets Article
Click here for our Electrical Tips Article

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