Lights in my condo flickering. Put on any load and they really take off.
March 29, 2015 10:57 PM   Subscribe

I came in tonight and lights are flickering, as is the orange light in the surge protector that the printer/puter/tv is plugged in to. When I put it under a load at all IE if I print something, the lights *really* flicker. What is this about?

I changed out surge protectors with a different one from the bedroom, turned it on, printed a page -- the lights flicker a lot, same as with first surge protector. Neither of these are low quality surge protectors. All unplugged from that socket now, plugged into another socket and it's the same jive. Flicker city.

I'm going to turn off the main breaker, sleep with the windows open, yay Austin in springtime. I have enough battery in this puter to check answers, and obv. going to get a qualified electrician here in the morning to give me the lowdown.

But do any of you have any idea what is going on here? Maybe a breaker dying? I am not interested in having this place burn down tonight; while that would of course be interesting, I can let that line of interest fade I think.

I've got just a bit of battery left on this puter, tapped into a neighbors wi-fi, probably can run an ext. cord from her place tomorrow blah blah blah so I'll have the basics.

Any ideas?
posted by dancestoblue to Home & Garden (9 answers total)
I am in no way qualified to make any real answers for you, but this worries me.

Just in case you check back in tonight... might want to go around and feel the walls and around outlets and switches and make sure nothing is warm. If it is, probably be a good idea to have the fire department come see what they think.

Stop back in tomorrow and let us know you're safe and it's solved, pretty please... I'm going to be thinking about you.
posted by stormyteal at 11:16 PM on March 29, 2015

Response by poster: Ha! And double Ha!

I'd forgotten about this one outlet that is in the front wall of my condo, of the two plugs that are in that outlet one is run off of the circuit that runs all of the exterior lights, thus is "live" from dark through dawn. It's a mistake that I've never made use of, could easily had a light rigged to it or whatever but so what, I didn't do it. But I did stick the information in the back of my mind.

Until about ten minutes ago. I took a lamp over there -- "Let there be light!" And lo, there was light. So now I'm charging this puter battery, feeling a tad less cut off.

And yes, stormyteal, I absolutely did whatever I could to determine hot spots or bad connections but mostly I know enough about electric to leave it alone, so ...

I'll check back in as I have new reports.
posted by dancestoblue at 11:40 PM on March 29, 2015

One time I noticed the lights flickering in my apartment, so I went out to investigate. Turned out the next building had the same problem, which pretty much ruled out interior wiring.

I was on the phone with PG&E telling them they probably had an arcing transformer when the transformer in question blew up, rattling windows up and down the street and sending one large cast iron manhole cover... somewhere.

I guess my advice is to avoid utility poles and manholes, in case there is an explosion. I'd say it took about 30 minutes from the start of the flickering to the explosion.
posted by ryanrs at 12:05 AM on March 30, 2015

If it is your entire condo that is exhibiting this problem a likely cause is a poor or floating neutral to ground connection; either at your panel or at your building's power source. Not something that you can fix on your own.
posted by Mitheral at 4:28 AM on March 30, 2015 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Mitheral is giving the right advice. Sounds to me like a loost neutral too. Not something you should try to fix if you don't know what you are doing.

As Mitheral noted, it could be in your panel, or it could be beyond your panel, meaning that the problem is not in your house, but in the community building, or in the power company equipment. Is this happening to your neighbors?

I would call the power company first. They will tell you to call an electrician - fib, and tell the power company that you already called an electrician, and he said it is a power company problem. They will send someone out for free to check on it. If they tell you that all their stuff is good, then you need to hire an electrician yourself.

You need to fix this. It is a potential fire hazard.
posted by Flood at 5:40 AM on March 30, 2015 [1 favorite]

To build on what Mitheral said, a loose / floating neutral can potentially be indicated by some lights getting brighter when a large load is run in the same house / off the same electrical panel. For example, in my house a while back, certain lights would get clearly brighter when the microwave was running. I guessed it was probably a loose neutral, so I called the power company. I gave them my diagnosis, not that they had any reason to believe I knew what I was talking about, and I described the symptoms. The description was enough for them. Later that day, they sent a technician, and after half of a day, three trucks, five technicians*, and one man-sized hole in my yard, everything was fixed. Except the hole in my yard. They didn't seem too concerned about doing more than shoveling some of the dirt back in.

* It took so many people and so long because they apparently didn't know where my power was coming from. It's underground, sure, but the power company didn't know where their line to my house was. They were literally disconnecting random wires up on a pole to try to figure it out. Each one went to someone's house, but none went to my house. Apparently the power company can just disconnect your power at any time, without notifying you, in a random fishing expedition because they don't have maps(?). And they'll dig a hole in your yard without asking, too.
posted by whatnotever at 5:51 AM on March 30, 2015 [2 favorites]

You should probably unplug anything electronic. If you do have a floating neutral, when you put a load (printer) on one hot rail it puts a higher voltage on the other hot rail. For instance, if the printer pulls its hot down to 50 volts, anything plugged into the other hot will see 180 volts. Not good for electronics.
posted by H21 at 8:34 AM on March 30, 2015 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Update: City of Austin had 7 power outages around the city, which rather trumped the guy in a condo issue; they finally got here, late in the day, didn't tell me they'd come, didn't call me as they were to have but hey, 7 outages, these guys were busy, it's all okay. I called their office about 5:30, figuring to get nothing/nobody but apparently they stay open past normal business hours; the clerk I was speaking with pulled up their notes, told me that it is not Austin Utilities problem but rather that the main breaker is trashed.

I've been shocked enough to stay away from juice, I'm fine with a hammer or a saw or a wrench but sparks, hey, I find them interesting, in much the same way I'd find grizzley bears interesting, had I come across a momma bear and her cubs or some such. Called the condo assn, hopefully they'll get on it tomorrow.

Not resolved yet, almost certainly tomorrow, marked Flood as best answer due to the idea of lying to the power company to get their take on it -- worked great. I'm not opposed to a lie here or there, ease the day some maybe, and no one got hurt, I'll call it a win.
posted by dancestoblue at 6:54 PM on March 30, 2015

Response by poster: Occurred to me today that I'd not checked this as resolved.

I looked at a few vids on youtube, talked with a friend who's been around electric some, turns out that changing out the breaker is easy-peasy.

I wore some heavily rubberized gloves that I mostly use when working with glass, wore them and they got in my way more than anything else -- they're rather clumsy -- but what the hey, I've got them, so use them, right? Right. Also I used a good screwdriver, rubber on the handle, common sense.

Ten minutes, fifteen minutes max.

All these electrician mopes on youtube say that you should never, ever change out a breaker unless you've got all of the power to your entire city shut off, and/or maybe even your entire state, but then, right after saying that, they proceed to do it hot. Comical.

The breaker itself was like 35 bucks at Home Despot -- ouch. I was thinking like ten or fifteen bucks -- ha ha.

So anyways, this one is resolved.
posted by dancestoblue at 10:48 PM on April 16, 2015

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