Switches that Don’t Control Anything
LESLIE: Next up, a call from Rob in Maine.
Rob, what’s going on? How can we help?
ROB: Hey, thank you very much for taking my call. I’ve got a junction box in my ceiling. We bought this house about a year ago and there are switches, light switches, in the living room that don’t control anything. So I’m assuming there are junction boxes in the ceiling and I’m just – and it’s a drywall ceiling. So I’m just wondering how to find them.
LESLIE: Isn’t there a tool that allows you to find the circuit? Like can’t you – isn’t there an electrical finding tool; if you were to turn that switch on, you could take this scanner and go across the ceiling and find exactly where that is?
TOM: Yeah, it’s called a tick tracer. And I used to use …
ROB: I’ve got one.
TOM: You’ve got a tick tracer?
ROB: Maybe it doesn’t penetrate deep enough but it’ll work if I hold it up to a light switch or to an outlet or …
TOM: Right, it detects a magnetic field. Are you speculating that there’s a junction box underneath the circuit or are you sure there’s a junction box underneath the sheetrock?
ROB: Well, there’s a switch on two walls in the living room and I’m – they used to control something.
TOM: OK, have you checked every, single outlet, top and bottom, to see if any of them are controlled by the switch?
ROB: I have, every one of them.
TOM: Top and bottom?
ROB: That’s right. Well, actually not top and bottom, no, but I’ve checked every outlet.
TOM: OK, because I’ve seen homes where one side of that outlet – I don’t know how they did it but one side is controlled and the other one isn’t.
TOM: So double-check that. And have you opened the box up or the switch and seen kind of which direction these wires are going?
ROB: I have. I put new plates on all of them. So yeah, they’re going up.
TOM: Is the sheetrock ceiling new?
ROB: (sighs) I don’t know. It’s hard to say. The house is old. The house is 65 sixty-five years old. I’m not sure how long ago they put a new ceiling in.
TOM: One thing you might want to do is take a strong flashlight, hold it flush against the ceiling, and see if it looks like there’s a deflection in that area. If there is a junction box sticking through that they tried to cover over or spackle over, you might be able to see it that way.
ROB: OK. I’ll try it.
TOM: The wires that are feeding that, are they hot?
ROB: They are. They are.
TOM: Alright, well this is going to be a matter of tracing this out from the top, the bottom, and the sides til you figure out where it goes. Those are the ideas that I would have: to check the outlets and then to see what you can do to identify whether or not something’s in the ceiling. What’s above this? Is there an attic above this?
TOM: It’s a second floor?
ROB: It’s a 1-1/2-story Cape but there’s no access on that side of the house.
TOM: Oh, there’s no crawlspace access there. What about from the opposite side? A Cape is not that wide. Is there access to the ceiling space from the opposite side? Are you able to look, basically, into that ceiling space in between through the floor joists in the crawlspace?
ROB: I looked up there and you can’t see any – just fiberglass.
TOM: Fiberglass everywhere.
ROB: Yeah, I can’t see anything. Yeah.
LESLIE: Can you lift out that insulation just to check underneath it?
TOM: Yeah, or press it down. Well, you’ve got a detective job on your hands there, Rob.
ROB: (chuckling) I appreciate your help, though. You’ve given me some good ideas to try.
TOM: Alright. Well, you give it a shot and let us know how you make out.
ROB: Thanks a lot.
TOM: Thanks so much for calling us at 1-888-MONEY-PIT, 888-666-3974.