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Help me not die in an electrical fire.
June 19, 2008 9:44 PM   Subscribe

What is wrong with my electricity? Lights started to flicker, circuit breaker didn't trip, circuit started to buzz, now afraid the house is going to burn down.

What I believe to be the offending circuit is now turned off.

The story. A couple days ago, I noticed some lights in the bedroom flickering. After some investigation, I thought it was due to a weed wacker being used outside (our house is wired weird, so this made sense). Didn't notice again until tonight. Computer was off, lights were flickering in the bathroom. Turned off lights, everything seemed fine, turned lights back on, and the bathroom lights and the bedroom lights started flickering (have compact fluorescent lights and a mercury vapor light for a tortoise). Turned off bathroom light, turned back on again, this time the whole area of the house went dark, then lights started to flicker and come to life. Lights continued to flicker for a good 30 seconds after the bathroom light was flipped off before coming on fill power, like the couldn't get enough draw to fire.

Moved on to phase two of testing, unplugging non-essentials, but leaving lights on because they seemed to be an indicator of the problem. Turn off circuit, turn back on, no flickering. Turn on Mercury Vapor light and could hear the circuit making buzzing noises, but the circuit did not trip. Manually tripped, unplugged mercury vapor light. Reset circuit, nothing comes on. Reset circuit again, nothing comes on.

So now that circuit is off, and I'm a bit freaked out. Husband says its probably fine, I'm afraid that maybe we started a fire in the wall. Can that happen since we were quick to shut it down? I'm also concerned that the circuit breaker didn't trip, so if its not limited to that circuit, could the house burn down? And what could possibly be wrong that the circuit didn't trip?
posted by quin to Home & Garden (16 answers total)
 
OK, so my wife and I just got done dealing with these exact symptoms. Exact. Our home is almost 100 years old, in Utah, but I don't know the history of the electrical wiring.

Fortunately, my father was an electrician back in the day and maintains his certification for odd jobs. This is what he found:

He took off the circuit panel - unscrewed it and took it all the way off - and he found that the wire leading into the suspected faulty breaker was completely fried. This made sense because every so often, I'd smell a burnt plastic smell in the area of the breaker box but never thought anything of it. This was for like 10 months or so.
So at this point, the wire is just connected by the thinest of margins. It's sparking and smoldering - very unsafe. There were 2 options: call the power company and have them fix the wire and its connection (this is because the wire leads through some metal conduit and into the outside power box, which is the power company's domain. It should be a free visit and repair, I think.), or my dad can turn off the power, disconnect the wire, clean the wire and replace the very fried breaker (it was a 20V breaker, I think - only about $3 at Home Depot) and reconnect the wire hoping that there's enough slack to make up for the 2 inches off of the end that got fried.

He decided to do it himself. About 20 minutes and $3 later the problem is completely fixed (well, $14 later, since I took my dad out to lunch).

I'd suggest removing the cover to your breaker box and see if you can see any damage, melted plastic, exposed/smoldering wires. It sounds like the connection to the offending breaker is just about on its last leg. Hopefully it's as simple as that.


To elaborate on my symptoms a bit (maybe they might sound familiar to you), if the lights weren't flickering, it was my router & modem continually resetting, and my TV and receiver turning on and off. It progressively got worse and worse over the last month.

Hopefully that helped. But I'd definitely take the cover to your breaker box off and see if you can see any physical damage (but don't touch anything until you turn the power off).
posted by Detuned Radio at 11:13 PM on June 19, 2008


I would strongly advise against you removing the cover on your breaker box. It is entirely too easy to kill yourself with the kind of power that's exposed behind that cover.

Call an electrician.
posted by Class Goat at 11:18 PM on June 19, 2008


Turn on Mercury Vapor light and could hear the circuit making buzzing noises, but the circuit did not trip.

The buzzing noise after turning this on leads me to suspect the ballast for the mercury vapor light.

That does not explain this, beyond a simultaneous breaker malfunction or a wiring malfunction caused by the mercury light:

Reset circuit, nothing comes on. Reset circuit again, nothing comes on.

posted by TheOnlyCoolTim at 11:37 PM on June 19, 2008


I would strongly advise against you removing the cover on your breaker box. It is entirely too easy to kill yourself with the kind of power that's exposed behind that cover.

You may safely examine the wiring behind the breaker box cover by shutting off the main supply to your house if you have access to it. You should not, without knowledge, attempt any repairs if you see something wrong, and also probably shouldn't open the breaker box if you don't have access to or there appears to be no switch to shut off your whole house.
posted by TheOnlyCoolTim at 11:40 PM on June 19, 2008 [1 favorite]


Circuit breakers trip when current leaks to earth.

A break in a circuit that's being bridged intermittently by a spark is more like a switch that's flicking on and off really really quickly. As long as it doesn't leak energy to earth, the breaker won't trip.

My guess is that you had a bad connection (a broken wire with a very small air gap), your testing caused the wire to shift, increasing the air gap, so the spark could no longer bridge it. If it was me, I'd at least open up all the light fixtures and do a visual inspection for broken/burnt cables (light fixtures are the most likely place because they get hot), but after that I'd give up and call an expert.
posted by Leon at 3:10 AM on June 20, 2008


You may safely examine the wiring behind the breaker box cover by shutting off the main supply to your house if you have access to it.

In every house I've ever lived in, the only way to actually turn off the main power to the house was by snipping the seal on your electric meter and pulling the plug. The local electric company usually gets kind of annoyed if they find out you've done this. Otherwise all you can do from inside the house is turn off your main (typically 60 or 100A) breaker, which disconnects the downstream circuit breakers but leaves exposed (when the cover is off) the still-live direct connection to the pole, which above the 100A breaker is not current-limited by anything other than the destruction of the pole transformer (or, more typically, the screwdriver you accidentally short across the mains acts as the fuse, in what could reasonably be called a Big Damn Explosion ~1 meter from your face).

Given your entirely reasonable concerns, call an electrician. Even if you pull out the breaker and its replacement solves the problem, you will still be lacking the accompanying peace of mind of someone with a license and insurance telling you that (a) it was a faulty breaker, (b) that's the only problem, and (c) therefore a chunk of your wall is not slowly smoldering.

Re: your last question -- standard (non-GFCI) breakers only trip in situations where the current is too high. If it's too low (eg, spasmodically zero), they don't care. What you don't know is whether the on-off-on-etc. condition is caused by a problem in the 100A breaker, the bus bar, the branch circuit breaker, or the branch circuit wiring. In any case, flickering usually = arcing, arcing = corrosion, corrosion = more heat, and heat is not your friend here.

All of this is under the assumption that you're seeing the flickering because there's a bad connection somewhere near, or in, the panel. It's also possible for this to happen with a freaky short-circuit in the wall, in combination with a bum breaker. It's unusual, but (sorry) so are house fires.

I'm going to shut up now. Call an electrician. They will likely tell you your problem in < 1 hour. Your house is worth considerably more than $300.

(Yes, I know it's entirely possible to safely swap out individual breakers in a panel by yourself. But it's also unlicensed electrical work, which given your concerns is the last thing you want to be engaging in right now, given its implications for your insurance should something bad happen.)

IANA Licensed Electrician, IANY Electrician, seek competent professional advice and not strangers on the internet when your house may be at risk, etc.

posted by range at 3:29 AM on June 20, 2008


SO does that all the time! Fucking around in his shed. At the last place occasionally the whole street would do it too, but I don't know that it was related.
He'd plunge the house into darkness with this kind of simultaneous bang/pop/beep sound The beep is from all of the appliances shuting off. "What happened?!" "Tripped the circut." (..Well duh) :)

Anyway, so as long as that thingy is working you should be right :) It's like the surge protect on a power board. ..kill switch??
Is it called a circut breaker? The place we're in now has upstairs and downstairs on two separate ..circuts. I only know one way to know if that's working though. Pitch black and the reasuring sounds of cursing - and all is well!

Maybe you need new fuses?? Headlights go funny when they need new fuses. I know the older ones have ceramic fuses and they can be a bit of a bitch to find. But you can change them without any dramas. Or pull one out so people have no hot water in the morning. Funny. And that's about all I know.
Oh! Do you ever get zapped? 'Bitten' by any taps? Or go through lightbulbs like it's not funny? That would be crappy wiring...

And it's a long story but years ago, cops came round and wanted the name of the Electrician that had 'fixed' the whatever-it-was. He'd repaired it beautifully, only wired it up so the meter now counted backwards. A harmless yet heinous crime. So no fixing things even if you're an electrician - let alone yourself! There are perils at every turn.

Recap - Is your Circut breaker working? (It probably is because how could you have a circut if the breaker was already broken? But better a stupid question than dead. )
- New fuses maybe? (Too easy.)
- But wiring or ect? Never Ever Touch!!
posted by mu~ha~ha~ha~har at 3:48 AM on June 20, 2008


Something similar was happening in our house earlier this year. First electrician out couldn't find anything, but the symptomatic room was not acting symptomatic when he came. Second electrician out saw the problems happening, and it still took him a solid hour to work his way through the circuit and finally find a power outlet in the laundry room that had a loose connection. It was intermittently heating up when there was a draw on the circuit, then it would arc, the power would flicker, and it would cool down a little. Lather, rinse, repeat. The back side of the power outlet was charred black from all of the repeated arcing of electricity. It could have easily become a house fire.

That same month, the principal at my son's school was having a similar problem in her house. She had had electricians out several times, and none of them could find the source of the fire. Her's *did* cause a house fire, one that put them out of their house for months and required tens of thousands of dollars in repairs. Fortunately nobody was injured and the fire was put out before the house became a total loss.

My point is: call an electrician. If they can't find the problem, call another electrician.

And don't go mucking around with the backside of your main electrical panel unless you yourself are a licensed electrician. Your life is worth far more than the hundred bucks or so for a service call from a licensed professional.
posted by Lokheed at 5:02 AM on June 20, 2008


quin's wife here - I made the initial post, I was a little freaked out so grabbed the first laptop at hand (We had a small eletrical fire once before, so I'm a bit paranoid). Anyway, I think we found the problem, maybe. Once of the circuit breakers, the one that controls this area of the house, is actually loose.

And no worries, I have no intention for us to do the wiring outselves. I was just trying to get a handle on what was happening to be sure there wasn't still a risk as well slept. Doesn't appear so. :)
posted by [insert clever name here] at 5:40 AM on June 20, 2008


In every house I've ever lived in, the only way to actually turn off the main power to the house was by snipping the seal on your electric meter and pulling the plug.

Alright, we've seen different houses. I've seen the main breaker in a completely separate box of its own.
posted by TheOnlyCoolTim at 6:05 AM on June 20, 2008


This is potentially quite dangerous. Get an electrician in to look at this stat. Loose wires are a common cause of intermittent power, and fires.
posted by caddis at 6:18 AM on June 20, 2008


Same thing happened at my dad's house. "Someone" caused a bad short circuit in a device (connecting up an old computer's AC power switch backwards, I think). The breaker tripped, but afterward, the lights were flickery. Turned out the inrush of current caused a weak connection out on the electric pole, on the main feed of the house. The power company repaired it and everything was fine.

One important thing to check or have checked is whether you have aluminum wiring- there is an issue with that kind of wiring in certain houses of a certain age.

Circuit breakers trip when current leaks to earth.

Not normal ones- they trip when there is too much current through the circuit. Which can be caused by a short, but not necessarily. If it's a 10 amp breaker and it sees more than 10 amps, it will trip whether that's caused by a short to ground or a bad device drawing too much current or too many devices. GFCI circuit breakers do measure this.
posted by gjc at 7:04 AM on June 20, 2008


Circuit breakers trip when current leaks to earth.
Not normal ones- they trip when there is too much current through the circuit.

Hmm. Looks like I'm out of date - I was describing an ELCB, not an RCD. Of course, I learnt all this stuff at my father's knee, so I shouldn't be surprised I'm obsolete now.
posted by Leon at 7:41 AM on June 20, 2008


Where exactly is this buzzing noise coming from?

Circuit breakers with a build up of carbon on their contacts can become intermittent and begin to buzz. The buzz would only be noticeable when standing beside the breaker panel. It would also be a loose wire leading out of the panel..

Changing a breaker, or rewiring a circuit, can be a DIY project for certain knowledgeable individuals, but it shouldn't be your first (or fifth, really) electrical wiring project.
posted by Chuckles at 7:21 PM on June 21, 2008


It could also be a loose wire.
posted by Chuckles at 7:22 PM on June 21, 2008


IMHO, I'd make sure to test all your smoke alarms ASAP. Maybe add one or two in suspect areas. Just in case. Prepare a grab-bag too of anything important you'd need if there was a fire in-between now and getting it fixed. That should include back-ups of any important data you wouldn't want to lose to fire or fire dept water damage.
posted by hungrysquirrels at 12:35 PM on June 22, 2008


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