Targeted power outage
June 26, 2006 4:47 AM   Subscribe

We had a severe thunderstorm yesterday evening where we live in northern Virginia, and later the lights would not work in the bathrooms. The power in the rest of the house works normally. At no time during the storm did the lights even blink. Afterwards, when I checked, the circuit breakers were all in the "on" position. I tried switching them on and off but to no avail. We live in a townhouse that was built in 1976. I'm wondering if there's any kind of quick fix I could do before having to call a professional.
posted by NinaLee to Home & Garden (17 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Do the bathroom outlets work? There could be a GFCI outlet in need of a reset.
posted by Snerd at 5:00 AM on June 26, 2006

check the bulbs?
posted by lemonfridge at 5:06 AM on June 26, 2006

Do you think it's possible that there's a fuse box hidden somewhere else that you don't even know about, as a secondary system? (This is the case in our 100 yr old house, where a circuit breaker controls main power but a fuse box is an interim link in the chain on one floor only.) Admittedly, this doesn't seem likely in a house as new as yours. Perhaps one of the circuit breakers was damaged by the storm and is in need of replacement?
posted by thejoshu at 5:33 AM on June 26, 2006

I think Snerd is probably right. It sounds like the GFCI tripped to me.
posted by Lame_username at 5:39 AM on June 26, 2006

I'm in NoVa in a 1970s townhouse as well. Since moving in last December, I've discovered that my circuits are not separated logically. If a GFCI trips in my downstairs bathroom, it also cuts off my entire living room. Sound like you're more fortunate than I and only your bathroom lights are affected.
posted by pmbuko at 5:42 AM on June 26, 2006

Unlikely, but are all of the dead circuits' breakers on the same side of the panel? E.g. all of them on the left side. That would mean that you've lost one whole phase -- test the other circuits on that same side of the panel, they're probably out too. If you've lost a phase, your neighbors might be having the same problem.

Also, the problem circuits could be "sharing a neutral", and that may have failed somehow. Probably best to get a professional for that. That violates code, by the way, AFAIK.

Tell us how many circuit breakers feed the bathroom lights, in what configuration (e.g. breaker #5 feeds upstairs master bathroom).

When you turn a breaker on and off, make sure that you really push it all the way over to the off position. Breakers trip off to a "middle position", from which you must push all the way off to reset.
posted by intermod at 5:44 AM on June 26, 2006

Response by poster: Thanks everyone for your advice. I've gone through most of the recommended procedures but without success. An electrician is coming either this afternoon or tomorrow. Thanks again for your efforts. I really appreciate it.
posted by NinaLee at 6:46 AM on June 26, 2006

Something similar happened to us on Saturday evening. A standard electrical outlet got fried and everything on the same circuit couldn't get power. After replacing the fried outlet, we flipped the breakers again and everything worked. It's an older house (1949) and our electrical system is such a patchwork spaghetti bowl it makes experienced electricians go "WTF."
posted by gargoyle93 at 7:06 AM on June 26, 2006

NinaLee, could you update on what the problem is? My landlord is having almost the exact same issue, and it didn't start until this recent spate of storms.
posted by timetoevolve at 7:24 AM on June 26, 2006

My wife just called (we're in DC), and she's having a very similar problem at home. Odd.
posted by MrMoonPie at 8:22 AM on June 26, 2006

intermod writes "That would mean that you've lost one whole phase -- test the other circuits on that same side of the panel, they're probably out too. If you've lost a phase, your neighbors might be having the same problem."

Residential power only has a single phase. Both 120V halves of your 240V supply service are on the same phase. You could lose one of your feeds but that would take out half your house.
posted by Mitheral at 10:29 AM on June 26, 2006

I'm pretty confident Snerd has it. Find an odd-looking outlet in your bathroom which has a reset button; the one in my bathroom has a red reset button and a red light which is on when the outlet is OK. When that outlet is tripped the red light goes off and nothing else in the bathroom, including the lights or the fan, will work. Press that reset button. Everything should then be functional.

It's strange to think a passing thunderstorm has the necessary electromagnetic field strength to set those off!
posted by jamjam at 10:57 AM on June 26, 2006

Response by poster: Here is a recap and update on the problem. Either after or just prior to the end of a thunderstorm, I found that the lights and electrical outlets no longer worked in our four bathrooms and one adjacent walk-in closet. Everything else electrical in the house seems to function normally. Although there was exceptionally heavy rain and a number of lightening strikes that seemed fairly close, I don't recall the lights ever going out in the part of the house where I was even for an instant. Since my first posting, I have found that our two outdoor outlets and the front porch light are also out. And what is probably more essential to the diagnosis is that one of the circuit breakers actually was and still is in the "off" position. (I won't go into why I earlier thought it was on.) When I press it into the "on" position, it stays there for several seconds and then snaps back to off. There is what may be GFCI switch at the bottom of the circuit breaker panel (a small square yellow button). I've pushed it without anything happening. I have removed the face plates from the outdoor outlets and tried dry them with a hair dryer even though they do not appear to be wet, and I have partially dismantled the porch light and done the same. None of this has been effective, and now we're getting another torrential downpour.
posted by NinaLee at 11:00 AM on June 26, 2006

NinaLee writes "When I press it into the 'on' position, it stays there for several seconds and then snaps back to off. "

Do your outlets work when you turn this breaker on (use a radio to test if you are alone)? If so you could have a bad breaker that was weak last week and the electrical storm was the perverbial straw. A power spike that wouldn't effect your lights (say 150V for fractions of a second) can be enough to take out a breaker.

GFCI breakers have a test button (which when pressed will trip the breaker) but no reset button as is found on GFIC outlets.

The breaker may be unrelated to your problem.

Because a GFCI outlet is cheap compared to a breaker and will protect outlets down stream of the GFCI outlet it is common to just wire the first outlet of the curicuit with a GFCI outlet. I've seen a series of GFCI outlets right next to the panel with each outlet servicing a GFCI required branch location. Kind of handy as it made for lots of outlets in the mechanical room. So take a look around your house for a outlet that is GFCI but not in the bathrooms, it may be your culprit.
posted by Mitheral at 12:07 PM on June 26, 2006

If things are wet it could keep re-triggering the GFCI.
posted by exogenous at 2:01 PM on June 26, 2006

Response by poster: Everything that was out before is now back. I pressed the reset button on the GFCI outlet in the basement bath (the only such outlet I could find in the house) then pressed the circuit breaker switch that was off back to on. It stayed on and I was then able to turn on the lights, the fans, etc. I'm not sure why this didn't occur when I first tried it. In any case, your advice about the GFCI was right on target and saved me at least $96.00--what the electrician said he'd charge for just showing up. Thanks again everyone.
posted by NinaLee at 6:19 PM on June 26, 2006

And now for my anticlimactic followup:

Those of you in the DC area know that there was some serious rain Sunday night. We thought we’d escaped unscathed, but around 10 am on Monday, MrsMoonPie(who was home sick) noticed that half of our power was out.

When I got home, the first thing I did was check the circuit breakers and GFCI outlets. Nope, not that. Then I ventured to look into our crawlspace. I saw a lot of standing water, which was not a good thing. Since the guy who renovated our house had done such a shoddy job on the electrical wiring, I assumed that the odd electrical outage was related to the flooding. We shut off the breakers to the affected circuits, and hoped that things would dry out by morning.

I got up today, and things had, unfortunately, not worked themselves out. The water had, fortunately, subsided in the crawlspace, so I pointed a fan into the crawlspace to dry things out. I dug out and installed our window air conditioner (oh, I forgot to mention that the central AC was one of the affected circuits), then called an electrician.

The electrician was polite and friendly, and said he’d send a guy right out. While I was talking to the guy on my cell phone, I walked closer to the window to get a better signal, and noticed water rushing down the street. After I finished speaking to the electrician, I went outside, and saw a Pepco truck. I went to get a better look, and saw that the technicians were pumping water out of a manhole. I went to talk to one of the guys, and explained the problem I was having, and, yeah, that’s what they were working on—turns out one of two transformers blew, and the whole block had half their power out.

So I called the electrician back, and cancelled the call (again, he was very nice about it). We’ll need to get a sump pump, I think, since the flooding is a problem, even if it’s not related to the electrical issue. But the immediate crisis has ended.
posted by MrMoonPie at 10:30 AM on June 27, 2006

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