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Old 07-11-2012, 03:30 PM   #1
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Arcing between circuit breakers and flickering lights


Hello, looking for help troubleshooting electrical problem in my home. Several weeks ago we started noticing some hallway and bedroom lights flickering/dimming.

This perplexed me, as I'm used to this being due to some load on the circuit which was dragging the voltage down, but I am not aware of any new load on this circuit. Last week I was in my garage, where my circuit breaker panel is, and happened to hear some buzzing. I pulled the front off m panel and noticed some arcing between a couple breakers across from each other. I could see an intermittent arc if I was at just the right angle and could look down in the small space between two breakers where they are pushed down onto the tab in the middle of the panel.

The arcing does not happen at the same time as the flickering. The breakers in question are a 20A single breaker on the left side and a tandem 15A breaker on the right side.

The panel appears to be original (house built in 1970), and it is an ITE panel. I found the one breaker on the left to be warm, and the contacts were somewhat pitted/corroded, as were those of several breakers in the panel, so I replaced them, but the problem persists.


I have been unsuccessful in deciphering a pattern to when this happens. Sometimes the lights can be on for several minutes before the flickering begins, and sometimes they will start right away. It doesn't seem to matter which lights on that circuit are turned on, they all seem to do it.


I have turned the power off and gone through and tightened all connections, including black/hot connections at the breakers as well as neutral and ground connections at the terminal blocks in the panel.
The only thing I can think of is that maybe there's some kind of intermittent short at a switch, outlet, fixture, etc somewhere along the circuit and that this is causing a sudden milli-second load to drive dimming/flickering of the lights. Would this also explain the arcing in my panel between breakers?

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Last edited by oh'mike; 07-11-2012 at 08:07 PM. Reason: added spaces
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Old 07-11-2012, 03:34 PM   #2
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Arcing between circuit breakers and flickering lights


The buss bar is damaged in your panel. That is what is causing the arcing. Move the breakers to a new spot on the buss bar and see if that helps.

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Old 07-11-2012, 05:18 PM   #3
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Arcing between circuit breakers and flickering lights


All the other pitted contacts under other breakers are ticking time bombs.

You may prolong their life a little by (turning the main breaker off) and sandpapering both the clips on the undersides of the breakers and the fins of the bus bars. Note that if the breaker has a loose fit over the fin then either that breaker or that fin or both cannot be used without more arcing. It is possible although your chances are not good that youcan squeeze together the contacts undert he breaker for a tighter fit.
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Old 07-12-2012, 10:57 AM   #4
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Arcing between circuit breakers and flickering lights


I was thinking the pitting would be a problem. I actually sanded the tab lightly with some emery cloth to improve the finish. The breakers are pretty tight on them though. Is there any kind of compount (paste of otherwise) that can be put on to improve contact in the event of pitting like this?
To be honest, the pitting looks very shallow/minor to me and it's hard to believe it could be causing so many issues.

Some more info: I was in Lowe's last night and picked up one of those $5 receptacle plug/outlet checker. I plugged it into one of the outlets on this circuit and it indicated incorrect polarity, i.e. hot wire and neutral wire were switched. Could this be causing any of the problems I'm seeing? I checked one other outlet downstream of this one and it had same thing. I haven't been able to go through and trace the circuit to find all lights and outlets that are on this circuit and breaker, but I assume this means everything on this circuit has wrong polarity.
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Old 07-12-2012, 11:17 AM   #5
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Arcing between circuit breakers and flickering lights


Start getting estimates for a service panel change asap.
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Old 07-12-2012, 11:56 AM   #6
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Arcing between circuit breakers and flickering lights


I really struggle with the idea of an entirely new panel needed for some issues on ONE circuit. That sounds pretty extreme. Is that really my only option?
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Old 07-12-2012, 01:28 PM   #7
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Arcing between circuit breakers and flickering lights


Quote:
Originally Posted by mscotter View Post
I really struggle with the idea of an entirely new panel needed for some issues on ONE circuit. That sounds pretty extreme. Is that really my only option?
The easy answer is to replace it.....somewhat the same mentality of modern mechanics......when they are not sure, they start replacing stuff until they find the problem.

I don't think your swaped hot/neut is the cause of the arching. Buit its an easy fix. Work your way back until you find the first outlet on that branch...or the last outlat in the same branch the has correct polaity. Chances are it is swaped there or at the next outlet.

On your panel....look at the breakers and base plate. Look for any pitting or black marks. The buss bar is one piece so I doubt the issue is there. Could be the breakers. Move them to a new location and see if the problem follows.
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Old 07-12-2012, 01:34 PM   #8
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Arcing between circuit breakers and flickering lights


The polarity issue may not be related, but should be addressed ASAP. Which breaker is the circuit in question on... one of the ones that is arcing or a different one? Is the tandem breaker the correct one for the panel?

JV may be correct... if the bus is damaged in several locations, a new panel is probably in your future.
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Old 07-12-2012, 02:19 PM   #9
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Arcing between circuit breakers and flickering lights


The breaker is on the circuit with the reversed polarity. The arcing is only on this circuit. For the life of me, I don't know why this would be, but it really looks like the arcing is from the single 20A breaker on the left over to the tandem breaker on the right. Understand, this is a small space in the middle between the two breakers (~1/8" gap?), and I only saw it because the sound drew me to it and I turned out the lights in the area and got my head at just the right angle. I've attached a picture with the area circled.
The new breakers I got are Siemens, which are supposed to be correct for this panel (brand is ITE). To be clear, I've only seen these little arcs on this circuit, no others.
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Arcing between circuit breakers and flickering lights-circuit-breaker.jpg  

Last edited by mscotter; 07-12-2012 at 02:22 PM.
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Old 07-12-2012, 06:26 PM   #10
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Arcing between circuit breakers and flickering lights


Quote:
Originally Posted by mscotter View Post
I really struggle with the idea of an entirely new panel needed for some issues on ONE circuit. That sounds pretty extreme. Is that really my only option?
But you said that the issues affect several circuits.

Quote:
Originally Posted by mscotter View Post
I found the one breaker on the left to be warm, and the contacts were somewhat pitted/corroded, as were those of several breakers in the panel, so I replaced them, but the problem persists.
Continue feelling the breakers for warmth every now and then. If a breaker is warm then there is still a problem under or in it.

A loose connection can cause dimming without much of a current draw on the circuit, and that loose connection can still get hot and suffer more pitting and experiencing arcing. The longer the arcing goes on the worse it gets.

While you are at it, tighten all of the screws and set screws holding wires in the panel. (Leave the big set screws on the big lugs for an expert.)
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Last edited by AllanJ; 07-12-2012 at 06:29 PM.
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Old 07-12-2012, 10:46 PM   #11
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Arcing between circuit breakers and flickering lights


You can also try changing the switches, I have had defective ones that have causes the lights to flicker.
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Old 07-12-2012, 11:25 PM   #12
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Arcing between circuit breakers and flickering lights


How does that fix the pitted busbars and arcing breakers?
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Old 07-13-2012, 01:46 AM   #13
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Arcing between circuit breakers and flickering lights


Lets get back to some basic facts...

Is there pitting on the contacts? If so, how much? Pics?

As AllanJ suggested....have you felt the breaker to see if it's hot?

Do you have a voltmeter to measure the voltage?

Now might be a good time to go buy a real voltmeter and start making measurements.

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