Need electrical help.
June 6, 2011 6:57 AM   Subscribe

Just moved into a new apartment with older electric service. I have a few related questions about how my wiring works, and I'd greatly appreciate your input.

1) The apartment has a fuse box (rather than breakers). I've never had a fuse box before. Any tips and tricks here for the care and feeding of a fuse box? For instance, some of the fuses are 15 amp fuses, and some are 20 amp fuses. Obviously, when I replace them, I'll match 15s with 15s and 20s with 20s--but how do I know they're right now? It's just a rental, so I have no assurance that someone back in the day was missing one or the other amperage and just used the wrong one.

2) The circuits on the fuse box are mostly unlabeled. I've seen circuit tracers like this one, but they seem to say they're for breakers. Do they work on fuses, too?

3) I have a wall switch that doesn't seem to control anything--there's no overhead light, and there doesn't seem to be a switched receptacle. How can I trace what this switch does?

4) I have at least three outlets that don't work. Using a receptacle tester, I've found that they're all open neutral--so, voltage but no current. If they've got voltage, I presume this isn't something funky at the fuse box. Since they're all reading as open neutral, I would guess that they're all in a circuit and there's one wire out (maybe). I'm not an electrician by any means--but I'm handy enough to cut the power to that circuit at the fuse box and reattach a loose wire, if that's all it is. Bad idea?

5) Assuming it is a bad idea, fixing these outlets should be the landlord's problem--these outlets are surely not code, possibly dangerous (I think I read that depending on how the circuit is wired, open neutrals can increase the voltage on a circuit rated for less, i.e., two open neutrals yielding 240v on a 120v circuit). Obviously, I will push for him to get a licensed electrician to fix it ASAP. But failing his doing this in a timely fashion, how much should I expect to pay my own electrician to fix these outlets?

posted by Admiral Haddock to Home & Garden (7 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I feel your pain - I live in an old (rental) Victorian that has a fuse box. We had a problem where two outlets and an overhead light stopped working, and while the electrician was fixing that (it was a "hot line" that failed), we asked him about upgrading our regular outlets to grounded outlets.

Apparently, it can't be done without upgrading the whole shebang - he said it would be *way* outside of code. Just something to consider when you think about hiring your own electrician - anything they do will have to be within code specs, and that might entail a lot more than you planned for.

"I'm handy enough to cut the power to that circuit at the fuse box and reattach a loose wire, if that's all it is. Bad idea?"

I would say that's a dubious proposal - you're already dealing with old and possibly wonky wiring - best to leave it to the electrician.
posted by HopperFan at 7:23 AM on June 6, 2011

Sometimes only the top or bottom half of an outlet is controlled by the switch, so you can plug your switched lamp into the top and your TV into the always-on bottom outlet. When testing your mysterious switch, check both the top and bottom outlet of each pair of outlets.

And definitely push your landlord to get it fixed -- it's his problem, and shouldn't be yours. If you pay an electrician, then you'll be pushing your landlord to reimburse you, which is a much tougher prospect.

If the outlets are ungrounded, be careful plugging grounded items into them. I got a unpleasant 'zap' from my PC's metal case, because something (the monitor I believe) was putting a little voltage to ground, which electrically charged the outside of everything metallic that was plugged into the same surge protector. Run a grounding wire to a real ground to avoid getting zapped yourself.
posted by AzraelBrown at 8:06 AM on June 6, 2011

"The circuits on the fuse box are mostly unlabeled. I've seen circuit tracers like this one, but they seem to say they're for breakers. Do they work on fuses, too?"

Yes. They work by detecting an induced frequency on the line. Electrically when a breaker or fuse is closed (IE: Normal operating mode) they both act like a simple wire.

99% of the time when a neutral just stops working it is a defective splice, someone has improperly replaced a device that wasn't pig tailed, or someone has drvien a nail into the feed wire. If you have copper wire, likely considering you have a fuse panel, then you can address the first two relatively easily if you can figure out where the problem lies. However in a rental I wouldn't do any of my own work. Either make your landlord or use the procedures in place in your area to withhold rent to hire your own electrician. In the latter case it could take an electrician a few hours depending on where the problem is located. The last punctured wire I did took me about 80 minutes but I was lucky enough to have some slack in the line. Parts were about $20.

Simplest thing to do regarding proper size fuses is to match the fuse to the receptacle. So regular receptacles get a 15A. T-slots get a 20. Dryers get 30A and full size ranges get 40A. The hard ones are direct wired devices like base board heat. Your landlord should be able to tell you what you need or an electrician can. Some fuse panels are keyed. If you look at the bottom of new fuses you'll notice that the 30A fuses are larger than the 15A to prevent using the wrong fuse in a socket.

One thing I would check when moving into a place with a fuse panel is that no one has put a solid piece of metal under the fuse thereby bypassing it. Coins are commonly used for this purpose. All you have to do is put the fuses out one at a time and make sure there isn't anything else int he socket.

If your outlets don't have grounds there isn't a requirement to add grounds while doing repairs. You can still buy ungrounded receptacles for this purpose. Or you can convert to GFCI to provide some shock protection (though not a ground) at about $20-30 per outlet. However this probably doesn't apply to you because you were using a plug tester.

Unless these outlets are in your kitchen you probably don't have a shared neutral from a 3 wire Edison or Multi Wire Branch Circuit which would result in the dangerous over voltage you are describing. Still as outlined above this problem can be caused by a nail puncturing a wire and is therefor a fire hazard so your land lord should be fixing this problem.
posted by Mitheral at 8:11 AM on June 6, 2011

  1. You mention you live in a rental, you don't know that everything is right and it's not your problem, it's the landlords. Just like you have no assurance that the pumping won't bust and flood all of your stuff. (You've got insurance, right?)
  2. Remove a fuse, see what no longer goes on. Replace and remove the next.
  3. Probably nothing now but at some point it switched something. If you've exhausted every possible electrical device in the apartment and the switch does nothing, it does nothing. There's nothing to trace it to. Ignore it.
  4. I'd be surprised that your lease doesn't forbid you to do that. The standard Blumberg lease used in NY does. Call your super who will either do it himself or call the electrician he uses. Doing it the wrong way opens you up to some serious liability. You're renting, you don't maintain where you live, the owner does, that's part of the reason you're paying so much.
  5. No idea, but good luck getting reimbursed for improving someone else's property. Do you really need these outlets and an extension cord just won't do?

posted by Brian Puccio at 8:12 AM on June 6, 2011

We're in a rental built in 1953 and found out the electrical system hadn't been updated after we moved in (we're house-hunting now and specifically ask about the electrics and bring a tester!). Assuming it wasn't to code, we went searching and found out that in our area, older houses with un-updated electrical systems are grandfathered in.

We ended up badgering the property management company into fixing two outlets so they had proper grounding - one for our washing machine, and one for the A/V and computer equipment. We were supposed to split the costs ($400) with the management company, but they have failed to bill us for it for a year and a half.
posted by telophase at 9:58 AM on June 6, 2011

Clarifications: the house is to code even though the electrical system is old and has no grounding because of the grandfathering situation in our city, so we couldn't pull that card to get it updated. And the $400 was the total cost we were to split, not just our half.
posted by telophase at 10:01 AM on June 6, 2011

Response by poster: Update: the electricians came today and fixed some of the problems.

Along the way, I did, in fact, spend an afternoon pulling fuses and making a record of what controls what. Very helpful to make a schematic. In the process, I found that one of the fuses was blown--but when it was replaced with a good fuse, the "bad" receptacles tested hot/ground reversed! Grar! I got the landlord to send the electricians.

It turns out that the bad circuit was wired "fused neutral"--so there was actually a dedicated fuse for the neutral, in addition to the hot. There's actually two circuits like that in this apartment (the rest are normal). The neutral fuse wasn't sitting right, and the electrician pulled it, scrubbed it and reset it in its socket, and everything works just fine now! Very happy to have power--I think now we'll get another AC--it is really, really hot in this apartment.

The mystery switch doesn't seem to control anything. Probably controlled ceiling light back in the day, but the light is long gone.

Thanks to all!
posted by Admiral Haddock at 7:47 PM on August 3, 2011

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