Why is the wiring in my bathroom not connected to a breaker?
July 25, 2014 5:09 PM   Subscribe

On Monday, Mr. Pants texted me to let me know that as he was preparing his morning toilet, the lights in the bathroom flickered and went off. The lights haven't worked since then and we've been unable to determine on which breaker the circuit resides. Any idea how to figure out what the power source of my bathroom is? Other weird electrical mysteries follow in the expanded text...

We've had a family friend who's a competent amateur electrician take a look and he's stymied and so are we. Here's what we've done:
1) replaced the switches and outlets in the room
2) tested light fixtures and bulbs in the room
3) turned on and off all the breakers to eliminate the possibility that the circuit had been cross wired
4) tried to follow the wire through the house using tone on the wire

I'm aware that YANME but... I'd way rather spark the free and competent amateur electrician to some solution rather than employ a professional because I'm frankly broke and my house is a money pit. Any thoughts on what's going on? I appreciate it.
posted by wizardpants to Home & Garden (23 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Are you in a single-family dwelling, or a multi-family one (apartment, condo, etc)?
posted by Juffo-Wup at 5:13 PM on July 25, 2014

Do you have a GFCI outlet in the bathroom? (Those are the ones with "Test" and "Reset" buttons on them -- they're supposed to keep you from getting electrocuted if you drop your hair dryer in the bath.) I've seen wirings that have run from the GFCI up to the lights, so if your outlet is flaky, so will be your lights. TLDR: plug something into the outlets and see they all work. If not, try test/reset on any GFCI outlets.
posted by spacewrench at 5:16 PM on July 25, 2014 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Good questions. It's a single family double wide on land, not in a park. The GFCI outlet was replaced the day of the incident and the rest of the outlets and switches were replaced earlier today.
posted by wizardpants at 5:28 PM on July 25, 2014

The GFCI might not even be in your bathroom. Around here it's legal to upgrade wiring by installing a GFCI on the first outlet on any circuit, which combined with the fact most homes have been remodeled several times and the wiring makes no sense, can lead to a merry game of find the right outlet!
posted by fshgrl at 5:30 PM on July 25, 2014 [2 favorites]

Do the outlets in the bathroom also not work? Are there any other light fixtures or electrical outlets in your house that don't work?

What fshgrl said is also true here. You should check *every* GFCI outlet in your house and (very firmly) press the "test" then "reset" buttons on them.
posted by Juffo-Wup at 5:35 PM on July 25, 2014 [1 favorite]

Just nthing the others who are recommending checking all your GFCIs. My father-in-law had a similar problem, and when we went through from the basement to the top floor we discovered the GFCI in the main floor bathroom was tripped and was cutting off power to two bathrooms upstairs.
posted by Naib at 6:04 PM on July 25, 2014

I had a gfci that would trip when the coffee maker was on, because it thought there was water (steam).
posted by Chaussette and the Pussy Cats at 7:08 PM on July 25, 2014

Response by poster: Hello. It's definitely not GFCI, the house has been swept and the problem still exists. I'm most concerned that I can't determine what breaker this circuit is on, and wonder if anyone has any ideas on what that might mean.
posted by wizardpants at 7:56 PM on July 25, 2014

It would be useful to pick up one of those $10 testers that show when an outlet, or switch, or even just a wire, has power in it (you don't have to touch any metal, just put the tip near the hot lead). Use it to test every outlet and switch in the house and see what else doesn't work. May help you trace the issue back to the source.
posted by BillMcMurdo at 7:56 PM on July 25, 2014 [2 favorites]

I had a gfci that would trip when the coffee maker was on, because it thought there was water (steam).

That is not how GFCIs work. GFCIs do not detect or attempt to detect the presence of water.

GFCIs work by measuring the difference in current flowing through the 'hot' line of a circuit and current flowing through the 'neutral' line of the same circuit. In a correctly-operating circuit, all of the current flowing from the 'hot' wire flows back through the 'neutral' wire. If there is an imbalance between the current flowing through the two wires, it (typically) means that current is flowing through some other unintended path which might well include the body of a human being. When a GFCI detects this condition, it turns off the power to the circuit in question in order to reduce the risk of electric shock.
posted by Juffo-Wup at 8:11 PM on July 25, 2014 [5 favorites]

Also, I repeat: Do the outlets in the bathroom also not work? Are there any other light fixtures or electrical outlets in your house that don't work?
posted by Juffo-Wup at 8:13 PM on July 25, 2014

Some manufactured homes have GFCIs outside on exterior walls, or underneath, for water line heat tape; but on the same circuit as interior stuff. The crossover connections between the two halves of a double wide can be another trouble spot.
posted by Snerd at 8:47 PM on July 25, 2014

I've seen houses that had sub panels hidden away in odd places. Maybe there is a 2nd panel between the one you're aware of and the bathroom.

Do you have HVAC equipment up in the roof space? Maybe it's tied into the bathroom instead of being on its own circuit. Could be GFCI involved there as well. In my house there is an outlet up there that's a GFCI one.

Now that I'm a home owner myself I have come to realize that there is no limit to the stupid and dangerous things people do when it cones to wiring their houses.
posted by Hairy Lobster at 8:51 PM on July 25, 2014

It is easiest to trace a circuit when it is working. Much harder when it is not. To answer your question of why the wiring might not be connected to a breaker, the reasons could be:
-There is a hidden connection somewhere and one of the wires has slipped out of wire nut or screw.
-Something severed the wire in the wall or ceiling. Possibly a nail or screw used to secure trim or picture hanger. The connector allowed the current to pass, but now swelling from rising heat and humidity or vibrations has broken the connection.
-A wire had come loose and your amateur electrician disconnected something else trying to fix it.
-Something may have chewed through your wire.

Paths forward:
-Call licensed electrician.
-Contact the manufacturer of your double wide and see if they have a wiring diagram of your model.
-Get one of the testers McMurdo linked.
-Get one of these. Because it is a light socket, you will probably need one of these to adapt. If your circuit is broken these may not work.
-If you live near a Harbor Freight Tools, get one of these.
Harbor Freight has a bunch of goodies for tracing wires like this, usually considerable cheaper than other places.
Some stud finders have sensors to detect live circuits and metal. These may help you trace the wire if there is the circuit is broken.

When you finally get everything working: number your circuit breakers, make sketches of every outlet/light/fixture you have, and note which circuit breaker they go to.
posted by Yorrick at 8:56 PM on July 25, 2014 [2 favorites]

We need you to ATFQ about how many components are affected here. It would narrow down the troubleshooting a lot. Since you say you replaced multiple switches and outlets (plural), and that you've tested light fixtures (plural), I'm assuming this affects more than just one light fixture.

That probably means the problem isn't with any one component (light fixture, switch, or outlet.) It's pretty unlikely for multiple component failures to happen at once. It's also very unlikely that your bathroom was somehow powered direct from the street, bypassing your breaker panel. So I'm thinking either you have a bad breaker, or a fault in the interconnecting wiring between the breaker and the bathroom. Replacing all the switches and outlets was probably premature.

I hesitate to suggest you take a multimeter and test your breakers, because just from your question I'd wonder if you could figure out how to do that safely. Maybe your sort-of electrician friend could do that. What you could do instead, is figure out what breaker it SHOULD be by turning them all off, then one by one turning them back on and seeing what has power* and labeling them. Chances are you end up with one left over that doesn't seem to do anything. Replace that breaker.

I would also take a multimeter and test the wiring in the wall at the bathroom light switch. Does that even have power, or is it dead?

If all the breakers are closed and passing current, and the bathroom wiring itself is still dead, well that's bad. You probably have an open or short in the wiring in the walls somewhere.

*tip: the ones that are two breakers tied together into one fat switch, those probably aren't the one you're looking for.
posted by ctmf at 10:33 PM on July 25, 2014 [3 favorites]

Best answer: If the lights flickered before they went off, that's a pretty good indication that for a brief moment they were being supplied though a collapsing electric arc, such as would happen when a rat or perhaps corrosion finally finished chewing through the conductor in a wire. Switches (including GFCI interrupters and overload circuit breakers) would cut the power off too quickly for you to see a flicker.

With a gap in the wiring between the breaker that's supposed to supply your bathroom and the wiring in the bathroom itself, there is no electrical test you could do to work out which breaker the bathroom wiring is supposed to be connected to. You'd need to figure it out by physically examining the wiring.

The least-cost way forward is probably going to involve disconnecting the supply wiring for the bathroom, then figuring out which wire leaving the breaker panel doesn't affect anything else in the house when it's disconnected, then running a new bathroom circuit from where that one used to connect to its breaker.
posted by flabdablet at 10:54 PM on July 25, 2014 [2 favorites]

The other day the power in my kitchen went out - no microwave, no coffeepot, no lights. I went to the breaker box and tried every switch and switch combination possible and managed to shut off all the power in the apartment, but everything came back on except the kitchen stuff. I said the heck with it and went back to the computer. A couple hours later I suddenly remembered the GFCI (though I didn't know what it's called) by the microwave. I reset it and ta-da! Everything works just fine and I didn't have to call the maintenance man in on a weekend.

You say you've replaced the outlets and (remember, I'm not an electrician) I have to wonder if one of the GFCI outlets you had had tripped and you didn't reset it but instead removed it and put in a whole new outlet, would the new one retain the tripped mode? Tripping must mean that something interrupts the circuit in the wiring behind the outlet, right?

Anyway, I remain suspicious of those outlets when the power goes out and a regular breaker box flipping frenzy doesn't bring it back.
posted by aryma at 11:45 PM on July 25, 2014

How did you replace all the outlets and switches in the bathroom without electrocuting yourself if you didn't know which breaker(s) to turn off?
posted by jshort at 4:45 AM on July 26, 2014 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Didn't realize there was a FQ I had not A. The problem is clearly not the components in the bathroom. All six are not working. There's two switches, an a outlet and three fixtures. Everything was replaced by Competent Amateur Electrician who had myriad mechanisms for determining that switches and outlets were safe to replace. I personally replaced nothing because I have a healthy fear of death. There's no power to anything in the bathroom which made the circuit breaker tracer non-functional. Hopefully this answers what people were asking.
posted by wizardpants at 6:48 AM on July 26, 2014

Seems to me that if Competent Amateur Electrician could determine that replacing electrical components in your bathroom carried no risk of violent electric death, then he must have measured the lack of supply voltage to the bathroom, and should have been able to conclude - given the inability to restore said voltage by messing with breakers and GFCIs - that there was a break in the wiring.

This in turn should have prompted the conclusion that replacing components inside the bathroom itself was a complete waste of time. Competent to avoid being fried on the day, maybe; competent electrical problem solver, not so much.

Get Competent Professional Electrician in to run your new circuit. Tradespeople cost less than having your house burned to the ground by well meaning family friends.
posted by flabdablet at 7:02 AM on July 26, 2014 [3 favorites]

Yeah, thanks wizardpants, now I'm pretty sure we're on the right track. I'd still rule out bad breaker before pulling new wiring. It's not unheard of for a breaker to stop working, and it's relatively cheap.

I'm afraid I agree with flabdablet in that I'd get a licensed and bonded electrician to do new wire if it comes to that. It doesn't sound that hard and I could probably do it. But never having done it, who knows what I don't know and don't even know it, if that makes any sense.
posted by ctmf at 11:25 AM on July 26, 2014

Competent Amateur Electrician has wasted time and money replacing things not needing replacement.

This doesn't look good as far as how competent they might be. You don't know enough about electricians to be able to judge exactly how competent they are, maybe they are fine if you need an outlet replaced but not so good at running a new circuit to the bathroom. They are clearly lacking the experience that would give them the judgement to determine replacing all the outlets is not going to be helpful, no matter how confident they may be in their own abilities.

Given your healthy fear of death, suggest you hire professional electrician so as to ensure you won't be electrocuted in your bathroom, which is pretty much the worst room in the house as far as potential problems (water+electricity) with bad wiring. There's a lot of shortcuts that can be taken where things will work just fine until one day someone touches this while doing that -- THAT is the problem with having someone who doesn't know what they are doing rewire your bathroom, not being hurt while working on the electrical system.

If you can't afford a pro, you might be better off reading a current up to code book on wiring and doing this yourself. Your amateur electrician might have the disadvantage of being certain they know things they don't, but can choose to be sure to research what to do and how to do it.
posted by yohko at 2:18 PM on July 26, 2014

Best answer: I feel for your budget issues, I do, but I get the sense that you have unfortunately inherited some bad old wonky wiring going into your panel, or possibly a random screw driven somewhere into your circuit, as mentioned. I regret that you will have to pay the big bucks for licensed professional help. Sorry. Do it.

Not to diss your buddy, it looks like he helped to narrow down some of the obvious possibilities.

(Please don't get a book and do it yourself).
posted by ovvl at 2:25 PM on July 26, 2014

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