I (don't) have the power!
August 30, 2007 12:12 PM   Subscribe

2 outlets & a ceiling light stopped working at the same time. None of the circuit breakers were flipped. What would cause this, and how can I troubleshoot it?

I left the house in the morning, and everything was working fine. When I came back a couple of hours later, two of the outlets (well, four outlets in two wallplates) weren't working, and I couldn't turn on the track lighting on my ceiling, which is controlled by a wall switch.

The other outlets in the room work fine. It seems like a circuit was blown or something, but none of the circuit breakers were flipped. I tried flipping them all off and on again for good measure, but it had no effect.

Where else can I look to track this down without involving an expensive electrician? I have some basic equipment, like an LED tester (which confirms there's no power). Changing the lightbulbs didn't help.
posted by designbot to Home & Garden (15 answers total)
Do you have a GFI on any outlets? Something I didn't realize about them, is they will cut the whole circuit, not just the socket they are a part of.
posted by nomisxid at 12:19 PM on August 30, 2007

This is a single occupancy house, or is there a possibility that some of the wiring could be miswired into the panel of someone who shares a wall with you?

How old is the house & how old is the wiring?
posted by Good Brain at 12:19 PM on August 30, 2007

Response by poster: No GFI on the affected outlets. That would mean they have a little test/reset switch, right?

Single occupancy house, built in 1950, but with a few remodels since then, so I don't think the wiring is original. There's a circuit breaker box, which I don't think would have been put in when the house was built.
posted by designbot at 12:31 PM on August 30, 2007

I believe there are GFI outlets that do not have the test/reset switch though I haven't found out more than that about it. I will be watching this thread for ideas, as we've got two ceiling lights and a vent-a-hood that stopped working in a similar manner.
posted by Lyn Never at 12:40 PM on August 30, 2007

A similar thing happened once in my house. Mr. Bluesky put in a new closet light and then went out of town. The next day, three lights in three different rooms would not go on -- I called an electrician who figured out somehow that the wiring job by the mister was shorting something out. The circuit breaker never tripped on this on.
posted by bluesky43 at 12:44 PM on August 30, 2007

This happened to us recently, in a country house we hadn't used in a while. It turned out that there was a wall switch (like the kind you use to turn overhead lights on), that turned the current on & off for several outlets.
We called in an electrician to discover this little tidbit :(
posted by HarryS at 12:45 PM on August 30, 2007

Are there any GFI outlets that might be on the same circuit? If an "upstream" GFI trips, everything down from that will go out. (Which is why you can use one GFI outlet to protect a series of outlets, if they are wired correctly.)

If it was in my house, I would be inclined to open up each outlet and switch cover, and test the wires coming into those boxes, in case a bad plug or switch was causing the problem. But if you aren't comfortable doing this, I sure wouldn't want to be the guy who gave you the half-assed internet directions. I've had great luck troubleshooting electrical problems using a basic "home wiring 101"-type book that I bought at Home Depot. A lot of it is just simple step-by-step checking with testing lights, and being systematic in turning breakers on and off. So if you want to DIY this, I'd say that the $15 or so a book will cost is money well spent. But if you aren't comfortable with that, call an electrician, rather than giving yourself shocks.
posted by Forktine at 12:59 PM on August 30, 2007

If no breakers are tripped, then the problem is most likely an open circuit cause by a broken or disconnected wire somewhere.
Shut off power at the breaker box (main switch) then take the wall plates off the outlets and the light switch and have a look for loose/broken wires.
posted by rocket88 at 1:22 PM on August 30, 2007

This happened to me recently as well. In our house, all of the sudden, only certain lights and outlets worked. Nothing was tripped. No GCFI's.

Turn's out the powerline coming into our house lost a "leg." 220 house current is made of two 110 "legs." A branch rubbed the line and severed one cable/leg but not the other. So some things worked and some didn't.

Power company came out, sawed down the offending limb and spliced in new cable and voila, power. Check to see if one of the cables going into your box is dead.

I am not an electrician so use your common sense around all that voltage. Or, hire a pro.
posted by damiano99 at 1:27 PM on August 30, 2007

Don't overlook the possibility of those items working off of a wall switch, perhaps one that is non-obvious and rarely used.
posted by trinity8-director at 3:15 PM on August 30, 2007

Assuming that you know which breaker these items are on, you might want to check the breaker.. I had one loose once, drove me nuts for months before I figured it out....

Be careful.....
posted by HuronBob at 3:40 PM on August 30, 2007

If you know which breaker controls those outlets turn it off and back on. It is possible for a breaker to trip without the handle moving to the off position, manually cycling it returns it to operation.
posted by Mitheral at 6:14 PM on August 30, 2007

Seconding damiano99. We once lost power in about a third of our house. When you looked outside, you could see that there are three attachment points for wires going into our house from the main power lines, and one of those was just dangling loose.
posted by Andrhia at 6:35 PM on August 30, 2007

Many times, these things are wired in series, so if a wire is loose going into the first dead outlet, and the other two items are wired in series with it, all three would go out. I would shut off the power and check those three devices for a loose connection. Power is not something to be taken lightly, so when in doubt, I shut off power to the whole house.
posted by advicepig at 7:27 PM on August 30, 2007

Response by poster: I'm still not sure what was going on, but everything started working again a few days ago. I didn't do a thing.
posted by designbot at 1:29 PM on September 11, 2007

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