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What Are The Most Common Electrical Problems?

Electricity is like magic. It is invisible and you don’t always know how or why it works. All you know is the result. It powers your devices and makes your life so much easier. Now, what are some common electrical problems that people face?

How Do I Fix Electrical Problems?

Because it works magically and invisibly, it’s easy to forget it really isn’t magic and problems can arise. Our modern society depends on electricity so much, that it’s a big shock when it doesn’t work properly or at all.

When there is a problem, we quickly realize how little we know about electricity, let alone how to figure out and repair the problem. 

The one thing we do remember is that it can “zap” us. Though we still usually underestimate its dangers. 

Electricity is a double-edged sword, it powers many wonderful things — thank you for our dishwashers, air conditioners, and power tools -— but it is powerful and can be destructive and cause harm. So it needs to be handled with respect.

Electrical Problems Safety Alert

Before we get into the common problems and fixes, we want to stress the importance of electrical safety. 

Electricity can cause severe damage, serious injuries, and even death if mishandled. 

You need to be comfortable working with electricity before attempting any electrical DIY. If you have even the tiniest bit of hesitation, it is best to call in a licensed electrician. 

Before starting any electrical work, turn off the electricity to the fixture, outlet, or switch you are investigating from the main panel. Then test the component (outlet, switch, etc.) with a voltage detector or voltmeter to make sure the power really is off. 

Do NOT skip these steps.

Okay, you are now safe to proceed. 

However, if you think you are impervious to electricity and have decided to move forward without turning off the breaker or by only turning off the light switch to the fixture, let us assure you, you are not! Go back and turn off the correct breaker in the panel.

What is Causing My Electrical Problems?

Sometimes you need to be a detective to pick up the clues there’s a problem in your home’s electrical system. And sometimes by the time you notice a clue, there is already a big problem. 

Common clues are:

  • Components that aren’t working properly
  • Flickering lights
  • Breakers constantly tripping
  • Hot outlets or switches
  • Buzzing or sizzling sounds from your outlets or switches
  • Sparks coming out of your outlets
  • Shocks from outlets or switches
  • Weird smells from the electrical system

If you notice a weird smell, you need to investigate immediately! This means the problem has generated enough heat to melt the plastic insulation on the wires and there is a risk of fire.

The majority of the clues will trace back to one of these issues: 

  • Faulty part
  • Bad wire
  • Loose connection
  • Poor installation
  • Combination of the above

And they will cause one of the following:

Electrical Problems- Overloaded Circuit

Circuits are designed to safely carry a set amount of electrical current. An overload happens when you try to use more electricity than the circuit is designed to safely carry.

Short Circuit

A short circuit is an abnormal flow of electricity that leaves its designed circuit — the wiring — for an easier shorter path back to its source. It essentially takes a shortcut and bypasses part of the circuit. 

Ground-Fault

A ground-fault is a type of short circuit. It occurs when electricity leaves its circuit and uses the grounding system to travel back to its source instead of the designed circuit or a pathway of its own choosing.

Arc-Fault

An arc-fault is another abnormal flow of electricity. It occurs when there is loose or corroded wiring. Essentially there is a “gap” in the circuit. This can result in electricity “jumping” or “arcing” the gap to continue its journey along the circuit.

Regardless of the root cause, they all leave similar clues, so it is up to you or a licensed electrician to figure out what is the actual problem.

Keep reading to learn about the most common problems and how to fix them.

Common Electrical Problems

Why Does My Circuit Breaker Keep Tripping?

Circuit breakers are an important safety feature in our electrical system. Their job is to turn the power off when they detect a problem in the circuit. 

Some of the reasons your circuit breaker is tripping are:

Circuit Overload

An overloaded circuit occurs when you try to use more electricity than the circuit can safely deliver. This causes the breaker to trip, stopping the flow of electricity. 

For example, if I use my microwave and toaster oven at the same time on the same circuit, it overloads the circuit and the breaker trips.

One solution is to use fewer devices at the same time on the same circuit.

If you want a more permanent solution, talk to an electrician about options to increase the amount of electricity the circuit can supply.

Low Amperage Service

If you are constantly overloading your circuit, it could be because your house has too low an amperage service to support your electrical needs. 

Today’s homes are built with a standard 200 amperage service. Older homes were built with a lower amperage service of 100 amps, with some as low as 60 amps. That’s because when the houses were built, there were fewer electrical appliances, devices, and gadgets, so they didn’t require as much electricity. 

But today’s households have a lot of electric appliances and devices (laptops, cell phones, etc.) and this increases our demand for electricity. 

If you have a lower amperage service, there’s a good chance it will not be able to supply the electricity you need. You should talk to an electrician about upgrading your service. 

Short Circuits

The breaker usually trips when it detects a short circuit. You will sometimes hear a zap or a boom. And sometimes you will smell a metallic, burnt rubber, or burnt plastic odor.

Short circuits can be dangerous. The electricity has left the circuit and the built-in safety features, and has found its own route. They demand more electricity and can cause arcing and very high temperatures which can lead to a fire. 

Another potential result is the electricity could use your body as part of its quicker, easier path back to the source.

Ground-Faults

Ground-faults are a type of short circuit. It occurs when the current leaves its circuit but uses the grounding system to travel back to its source.

There are special Ground-Fault Circuit Interrupter (GFCI) breakers that are installed in the main panel instead of a standard breaker. They will detect a ground-fault and shut off the flow of electricity to the circuit. This protects you, the devices on the circuit, and the circuit itself from the damage a ground-fault can cause.

If you don’t have this type of breaker — they can be expensive —, you can install GFCI outlets. GFCI outlets are the ones with the reset button . When the GFCI outlet turns off the flow electricity, “trips”, you push the reset button to turn it back on.

GFCI outlets contain a mini breaker that shuts off the electricity at the outlet, and to the rest of the circuit downstream when it detects a ground-fault. This protects you, the outlet, the items further along the circuit, and the circuit from the straying electricity. 

You should install them in your kitchen, laundry room, and bathroom. Really any room where water is used. This is because water is conductive and can cause electricity to travel in paths all over. For example, you could cause a ground-fault if you plugged a wet plug into the outlet with a wet hand. Also, water significantly lowers the resistance of our skin and greatly increases the chance of electrical injury.

Also, all your outside outlets should be GFCI outlets.

Arc-Faults 

Arc-Fault Circuit Interrupter (AFCI) breakers are another special type of circuit breaker and it stops the flow of electricity when it detects arcing in the circuit. Normal circuit breakers are not designed to detect arcing in a circuit.

If your AFCI breaker trips and it’s not because you overloaded the circuit, you will need to get an electrician to find the arcing in the circuit. This is not a DIY job and not a job to put off.

The current Canadian electrical code requires AFCI breakers. If you have an older home and don’t have AFCI breakers, we recommend you look into getting them.

What Is Wrong With My Outlet?

When you have a dead outlet, there are a few things you can check before you call in an electrician.

First, you need to determine if the problem is the outlet (receptacles) or the device you plugged in. 

Before you assume it is the outlet, plug the device into another outlet. If the device still doesn’t work, odds are the problem is the device, not the outlet. Double — triple — check by trying the device in a few different outlets, it is rare that all your outlets are dead.

If the device works in the second outlet, then the first outlet was the problem.

Second, check to see if there is a switch for the dead outlet. 

Yes, this is a thing, especially in older homes. Our electricians have all been called out for dead outlets only to find out the outlet was connected to a switch and the switch was turned off.

So look for what you thought was a light switch but could never figure out what lights it worked, and turn it on. If the outlet now works, you’ve saved yourself the cost of an electrician’s visit.

If you don’t have a switch, move to the next step

Third, unplug the device and check the circuit breaker. If the circuit breaker is tripped, reset it. 

There are a few reasons for a tripped circuit breaker. Check out the circuit breaker section.

Turn off or unplug another device or fixture on the circuit and try the original device in the original outlet again. If it works, don’t use the same combination of devices at the same time. 

If the circuit trips again, there could be a short circuit, ground-fault, or arc-fault occurring in the circuit. This could be more complicated to diagnose and you should consult a professional. 

If you are comfortable working with electricity, you could remove the outlet and make sure all the wires are snugly connected under the terminal screws. Remember to take the steps outlined in the Safety Alert. If they are tightly connected, you will probably need to call an electrician to assess the problem.

My Outlet Is Wobbly, Is it Safe to Use? 

No, it isn’t safe. You don’t want your outlet moving around when you use it. If it isn’t secure, it could eventually shake the wires loose or even free, leading to shorts and sparks (arcing) which could lead to fires.

Your outlet is installed within an electrical box secured within your wall. One reason your outlet is moving could be because the outlet has come loose from the electrical box. Another reason is the electrical box has come loose from the wall. Turn off the electricity to the outlet at the main panel and either securely attach the outlet into the electrical box or the box to the wall.

Some Questions You May Ask Yourself Regarding Electrical Problems…

Why Is My Outlet Shooting Sparks? 
Why Is It Buzzing? 
Why Did It Give Me a Shock? 
Why Is It Hot? 
Why Does It Smell Funny? 

If your outlet is doing any of these, it is leaving you a pretty significant clue that something isn’t right. Immediately stop using the outlet. And don’t use it until you have figured out and fixed the outlet’s problem.

You should also turn off the breaker in the main panel for the circuit the outlet is on.

If you are comfortable working with electricity, safely remove the outlet and check the connectors. Is there a loose wire? It could be as simple as making sure all the components are tightly connected.

If tightening all the connectors doesn’t work, call an electrician.

A damaged, discolored, or hot outlet could indicate damaged or deteriorated wiring that is no longer properly insulated and is causing problems. This could lead to arcing and then to fire. 

According to the National Fire Protection Association, “Electrical failures or malfunctions were the second leading cause of U.S. home fires in 2012-2016 (behind fires caused by unattended equipment), accounting for 13% of home structure fires.”

It is important to get this looked at by a licensed electrician before using it again.

Why Do My Plugs Constantly Fall Out of the Outlet?

First, check to see if the electrical problems are within the plug.

If the issue is the outlet, it’s because the outlet’s contacts (holes) are loose. Outlets don’t last forever, and essentially the contacts have been worn down over time due to continued use. This can happen in an outlet you constantly use — say to charge your phone — or in older homes. 

This can be a bigger problem than just the plug falling out. If the outlet doesn’t hold the plug snugly, you could get arcing which is dangerous and can lead to a fire. 

You will need to replace the outlet and if you have an older home, check to see if there are any other electrical issues that can occur over time, such as damaged wiring. 

My Outlets Are Upside Down, Will They Work?

Not a problem, it looks weird but it will work. Unlike switches, outlets don’t have an up and down and will work in either configuration. 

In North America, we prefer the two slots up, the one hole (the ground) down configuration. In other parts of the world, they prefer the two slots down, ground hole up configuration.

What Is Backstabbing?

Backstabbing — also called quick wire or push wire — is a method of wiring an outlet where the hot and neutral wires are pushed into holes in the back of the outlet instead of being securely wrapped around the terminal screws.

This method may be to code but it is definitely not a best practice.

It can lead to loose wires which can, at best, cause operating issues and at worst, cause a fire.

Why Do I Have 2-Prong Outlets?

Prior to the 1960s, two-prong outlets were the standard. In the 1960s, three-prong outlets became part of the Canadian Electrical Code and replaced two-prong outlets.

The problem with two-prong outlets is they aren’t grounded. 

Three-prong outlets are. The third prong on a three-prong plug is the ground. When it is plugged into the outlet, the third prong is in direct contact with the house’s grounding system making them safer than the two-prong outlets.

Your house’s grounding system is a safety feature, it is essentially a backup plan for when, hopefully if, electricity leaves its designed circuit. It gives the errant electricity a new route to the earth so the electricity doesn’t use an unsafe path that could cause damage or injury.

You can’t just replace your two-prong outlets with three-prong outlets. You need to make sure there is a grounding wire in the outlet’s electrical box. If there isn’t, you will need to hire an electrician to run grounding wire and make sure not only the outlets are properly grounded but that your house and all the other electrical components including your main panel are properly grounded.

If your house or any of its electrical components are ungrounded, you want to get this fixed pronto. An improperly ground electrical system is a big hazard.

There is a chance when grounding your house, your electrician may find other electrical problems. If your house is older, other components and wiring may have deteriorated over time. Like most things, electrical components and wiring have a service lifespan. If your house is newer and it wasn’t grounded properly, it begs the question “what else wasn’t done properly?”

Electrical Problems- Flickering Lights

This just might be the most common question our electricians get asked. 

There could be several reasons your lights are flickering and not one of them is that your house is haunted. The reasons range from very simple to complicated. 

The problem could either be with the light bulbs (simple fix) or in your home’s electrical system (more complicated).

Electrical Problems- Light Bulb Issues

The problem could just be a loose light bulb. Tighten it and see if that solves the problem.

Light bulbs often flicker just before they die. So change the light bulb and see if that stops the flickering.

If neither of the above work, check to make sure the light bulb is compatible with the fixture. Are you using non-dimmable bulbs in a light controlled by a dimmer? Are you using LED bulbs with a standard dimmer? LED bulbs need a LED dimmer switch.

Also, make sure you are using the correct wattage for the fixture. Fixtures have a wattage rating. If you put in a bulb in with a higher wattage than the fixture is rated, it’s called overlamping. Overlamping won’t cause flickering but it can have serious consequences. It can overheat and melt the wiring which can cause a fire.

So make sure your bulbs are compatible with the fixture.

Electrical System Issues 

If the problem isn’t with the light bulb, it’s most likely a problem with the electrical system. This is more complicated. If you are even a little bit hesitant about working with electricity, call an electrician to investigate. It is always better to be safe than sorry.

Flickering lights could be a symptom of a loose connection. It could be in the light fixture, the switch, or further back along the circuit. It could even be a loose connection in the main panel (breaker box). Anything to do with the main panel should only be dealt with by an electrician.

A clue to where to find the loose connection is how many light fixtures are flickering.

If just one fixture, it’s a good chance it’s just within the fixture or its light switch, a fairly simple fix. But the more fixtures that are flickering, the farther back along the circuit the issue is and the more complicated the fix, and you really should get an electrician in.

If the flickering is isolated to one or two fixtures and you want to investigate yourself, please take the safety precautions outlined in the Safety Alert. Do NOT skip these steps.

First, check the fixture connections. Is it properly installed? Look over all the connection points. The wires need to be snugly connected to the correct terminals. If there are frayed, broken, or uninsulated wires, these will need to be replaced.

Second, if the fixture is fine, move to the light switch. Do the same here. Check all the connections and the condition of the wiring. 

We don’t often think about our wiring, but it deteriorates over time. The insulation can crack, peel, and fall off and leave exposed dangerous wires. The condition of your wiring is something you should check from time to time.

If your lights only flicker when it’s windy, it could be a loose connection at the weatherhead (service head) where electricity enters your home. Call your utility but keep in mind they might not do anything unless you have already hired an electrician to look at all other potential solutions.

Why Won’t My Lights Work?

The reasons and fixes are similar to the ones for flickering lights.

First, tighten the lightbulb, and if that doesn’t work, put in a new lightbulb.

If the light still isn’t working, check the circuit breaker. If it has tripped, reset it. If the light comes on again and then the circuit breaker promptly trips, call an electrician. There’s a problem along the circuit and you should use an expert to find and fix it.

Now if the circuit breaker hadn’t tripped, you can run through all the connections in the fixture and the light switch. Remember to follow the advice in the Safety Alert section. 

Make sure everything is correctly and snugly attached. Also, look for damaged wiring. That is a fire hazard and will need to be fixed.

If none of the above work, it is time to call an electrician. 

Electrical Problems-Hot Switch

If your switch is hot to the touch, you hear sizzling, or smell burning, stop using it immediately. Turn it off. Too much heat in your circuit is not a good thing. 

Turn off the electricity to the switch from the main panel, then remove the cover plate and take a look at the switch. If you see any loose connections or damaged wires, they are probably your culprits. 

Both can cause arcing where electricity is “jumping” between loose connections or over damage in the wiring. Arcing generates excess heat and can lead to fire. 

Dimmer Switches

Dimmer switches are normally warm to the touch but they should never be hot. 

They’re warm because of the resistance the dimmer puts on the circuit. Electricity dissipates as heat energy when resisted, heating the objects around it.

Most of the heat spreads through the metal mounting plate, but some spreads through the switch cover resulting in a warm switch cover. 

A hot dimmer switch usually indicates it’s overloaded, meaning the wattage of the lights is higher than what the dimmer is rated for. You can find your dimmer switch’s rating on its front, right under the cover plate.

Some of these problems have simple fixes. You can easily tighten, replace, and make sure the light bulb is the correct wattage.

If this doesn’t fix the problem, it’s probably a more complex problem and you will need an expert to help with electrical problems. 

A final reminder, when in doubt, use an electrician, especially if you have more than one problem or they are ongoing. Don’t put yourself at risk. Electricians are trained and experienced in working with electricity and will be able to identify and fix your problem more quickly and probably more safely than you can. If you have questions about aluminum wiring and power surges, check out these articles.

References

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