How to Check for Electrical Problems
LESLIE: Well, our friend Steve in Oregon is looking to prevent some problems from happening by looking how to check for electrical problems.
Steve, what’s going on? Do you suspect a problem? Are you just looking to be safe?
STEVE: Well, I actually am suspecting a problem. My heater in my house seems to be kicking on and off when it wants to. I’ve replaced the thermostat. I’ve got electrical outlets that are like they overload when one or two things are plugged in and I’m thinking it’s maybe a sub-circuit breaker.
TOM: Well, is it always the same circuit that overloads?
STEVE: Yes, it is. And I’ve actually replaced that circuit.
TOM: You’ve replaced the circuit breaker?
STEVE: Yeah, and I’m thinking it’s one of the sub-mains.
TOM: OK, well if you replaced the circuit breaker so we know that – the circuit breaker could in fact be doing its job, Steve. I mean the way a circuit breaker works is it’s measuring the amperage that’s going into the circuit and if the circuit is pulling more amps than what it’s rated for, such as a – say it’s a #14 wire; it will be rated at 15 amps; if it starts to pull 16 amps, it turns off. So the fact that you’re tripping that breaker may not mean …
LESLIE: Means it’s doing a job.
TOM: Yeah, exactly. And so that’s a good thing. But that doesn’t help you figure out why it’s doing that. That could be somewhere else in the circuit. What I would do is if you can reproduce the problem, if you had an Amprobe on that circuit, which could be attached to the wire at the panel itself, you’d be able to tell how much amperage that circuit is drawing and try to figure out what you’re doing that’s causing it to trip. But if there’s a load on that somewhere, it should not be going off if you’re just using a couple of appliances. There could be a short somewhere in the circuit itself that’s giving you that issue. So it sounds like you’re going to have to dive into it a little deeper. The fact that the breaker is tripping could be a good thing.
STEVE: Could it be the wiring is too old in the home?
TOM: Well, it may not be the age; it just could be that there’s a short somewhere.
TOM: I mean let me give you an example. I was doing a segment at my own house, from one of my television programs, and we decided – the director decided they wanted to do a quick, little tip on how to change an outlet. And so you know, when you’re in television you really want to pick the outlet that’s easiest to access; one that can get the proper lighting and the cameras can get on. So we pick this outlet over my kitchen counter to do this with. And I was taking the outlet apart and as I turned it around, to my absolute shock …
LESLIE: (chuckles) Literally.
TOM: … I found out the entire back of the outlet was burning out on me. And I had no idea that that was happening because it was performing perfectly until I pulled it out of the wall. So you know, things can happen and sometimes you don’t know until you get some other indication: the outlet stops working; it starts tripping the breaker; or it starts to smell. And so that’s why you may need to look deeper into this to figure out why the circuit is overloading and tripping the breaker.
STEVE: Well, when it’s doing it, it’s also tripping the sub-main, too.
TOM: Well, this is not good. I think this is beyond do-it-yourself level and you need to get an electrician to really trace down where those shorts are occurring and why it’s tripping those. Because that’s a lot of power to force it to trip a breaker and a sub-panel breaker as well. There’s clearly some arcing going on here and we need to get to that because this could lead to a fire. It could be serious. OK, Steve? We want you to be safe.
STEVE: Yeah, I understand. That’s what I was thinking is maybe I should get an electrician out there and have him take a look at it.
TOM: Yeah, you know you do the basics and then when it gets a little bit more complicated, you call in a pro. There’s nothing wrong with doing that.
TOM: Alright, Steve?
STEVE: Well, I think that pretty much solves my problem.
TOM: Alright, good luck and thanks so much for calling us at 1-888-MONEY-PIT.