Do I have a poltergeist?
August 21, 2006 10:49 PM   Subscribe

Why is my electricty going on and off? It's not a blown fuse/circuit because it comes back on again. What would cause this? What should I tell an electrician to do in order to get them to fix the problem?

In one part of my house (conveniently the area where the washing machine is) the power seems to go out and come back randomly. It's not quick, it goes out for a few hours and then comes back.

At first I thought the washing machine wasn't working and I had some blown out lightbulbs. The next day I replaced the bulbs, created light and found the washing machine working again. So I shrugged it off as a fluke. Then, I was washing some clothes and sitting under the lights when the power to this part of the house went out again. So it's not the machines, it's the electricity. Or a nasty ghost.

Further investigation reveals that some (though not all) of the electrical sockets nearby are affected as well. For instance, the dryer which is plugged into a different socket, though located right next to the faulty socket is not affected.

I plan on calling in an electrician, but I fear that they will show up when the power is on and everything is working just fine. Murphy's Law and all. So what do I ask them? How do I make sure this problem gets solved when I do call them in?

A few thoughts - there are monsoons/big thunderstorms that occur around here, but this problem doesn't seem to come and go with the storms. The problems are happening in a newer addition to the house (probably built in the 80s or so) and I've had issues with the lights in that part of the house flickering too. The last electrician told me it was probably loose wiring and there was nothing he could do to fix it.

Help me! I'd love any advice you could offer.
posted by mulkey to Home & Garden (8 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Call your utility company. Most likely, one of the two 240 volt AC legs feeding your house has an intermittent connection, or the transformer feeding your house is bad. I had the same problem a few months ago in a house in a sub-division with buried cables. The cable feeding my house from the distribution transformer had broken down, and they used a field listening set (that detects spark arc energy in the ground by sound) to locate the break, dig it up, and replace the cable.

Maybe not so coincidentally, all the underground distribution wiring in our neighborhood, put down in the mid-1980's (northern Florida), is now being replaced. We're 6 months in to an 18 month project.
posted by paulsc at 11:00 PM on August 21, 2006

I once had a similar problem. It turned out to be corrosion in the connection from the outside powerline to the house, and the wind and birds would cause one connection to make and break.

In the US you have 2 AC (alternating current) wires coming in that have a 240 volt potential between them. Almost all circuits in the house are just 120 volts (one of those lines and ground). The circuits in the house should be divided between the two external lines.

Next time the you have a partial power loss, make a map of all the bad electricty in your house. It would also help, when the electricty is good, to make a map of all the circuits in your house (i.e. go to the circuit panel, turn off a breaker, and see where you lose power).

This way you can determine if it is the external lines or some problem past the breaker panel.
posted by MonkeySaltedNuts at 11:05 PM on August 21, 2006

Best answer: I second PaulC - have the local utility come out and check the connections at the line before you call an electrician. If your dryer is working, check and make sure it is heating, the motor only uses 1 leg of the circuit, the heater uses both.
I worked for a local PUD and this kind of problem is a lot more common than you might guess. Try this site for electrical troubleshooting tips
posted by ptm at 11:14 PM on August 21, 2006 [1 favorite]

We had a similar issue where the whole house's electricity would cut out for a second or two every so often. Hydrop came and re-did the outside connection and that fixed the problem. So like the other posters say, it's probably the mains.
posted by GuyZero at 4:50 AM on August 22, 2006

Another possible problem is a bad circuit breaker. I had one that was actually loose in the circuit box, and would sometimes either trip, or just cut the power...again, a job for an electrician...
posted by HuronBob at 5:13 AM on August 22, 2006

And a third possible problem -- though the 80's is a bit late for this -- is that you might have some aluminium wiring (instead of copper) in your house.

AL wiring needs to be tightened on the fixture screws every, oh, 10 or 15 years I think it was, because it has a much higher physical coefficient of expansion with temperature changes than copper, and it gets loose.

It's worth investigating, since it was pretty popular, and it's burned some houses down over the years. It's fine as long as you maintain it, but most people wouldn't think to "maintain" their electric wiring. As i say, just another thing to check for...
posted by baylink at 7:15 AM on August 22, 2006

Best answer: As an electrical contractor I can tell you electricity is not an art, it's connected or it's not. The 'not' part can be intermitant or permanent, but it's always at a point of either splicing two wires together or at a screw or lug termination point that gradually loosens from the physical expansion and contraction of heat or a defective or blown breaker/fuse.

No simple one-off solution, rather a checklist of steps to eliminate possibles.

Everyone is right here, it could be the utility company connection, it could be the breaker connection, it could be Al wiring connections.

Like monkeysaltednuts says, when it works, turn off one breaker at a time (to determine what is out, carry a drill to plug into outlets to test them) and map out which breaker feeds what devices and fixtures. It's a handy map to have anyway.

Does your outage coincide with any one breaker? If so retighten the breaker (or fuse) screw or replace the breaker (they can go bad in the sense that internally they heat up and thus expand where overloaded or defective, physically separate the plates and therefor disconnect the current and then as they cool the plates re-connect - a possible match to your symptoms.)

If the outage covers more than one breaker, one of your main feed wires feeding the top of your panel could be loose in it's lug and need re-tightening.

If that checks out, the loose connection is either within the locked meter box or beyond that, the utility company connection.
posted by Kensational at 11:42 AM on August 22, 2006

Response by poster: Thanks all - these are great suggestions and I've learned a lot already (and the electrician isn't even here yet).
posted by mulkey at 3:43 PM on August 22, 2006

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