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Old 05-31-2015, 05:50 PM   #1
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Circuit keeps blowing


Yesterday a wire in our main bathroom cut all the power to our master bedroom, the bathroom, and one of our spare bedrooms. The other bedroom on this breaker still had power. I replaced the light switch that was turned on when the circuit blew (but didn't trip the breaker), and the exhaust fan switch next to it. I discovered the hot wire was too thin and was not making good contact with the new switch stab hole, so I trimmed it and fixed the problem. This morning my wife turned on a light in the master bedroom and the circuit blew again. The wire in the bathroom switch is still holding and I replaced the switch in the master BR. All the outlets have been replaced and show power, but won't work just like yesterday.

How can I find where the problem is this time? Do I need another circuit since this one seems overloaded (15A for 3 bedrooms with ceiling fans running constantly in the summer and a bathroom) and possibly not up to code? This is 1976 wiring. Could the light switch in the bathroom have blown? Do I need to hire an electrician to figure this out? I really don't have the funds right now and am perfectly capable of DIY, if I only knew what to do.
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Old 05-31-2015, 06:25 PM   #2
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first, get rid of the back stab switches and receptacles. They have caused more trouble than just about any single thing I have run across.

You very well could be overloading the circuit but it isn't really possible to tell by what you have given. Ceiling fans do not draw much of a load actually but bathroom can be a source for a lot of draw. You said the breaker did not trip so so far, it appears you have not overloaded the circuit.

I suspect you have lost your neutral somewhere along the line if the receps read power (but how are you actually determining they have power) but don't work, that is generally due to an open neutral.
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Old 05-31-2015, 06:36 PM   #3
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Most likely another one of the wires stabbed in the back is loose. Look at everything on the circuit and try to guess how the cables are routed. The problem is in the last working device or the first not working device in the chain.
Move all the wires to the screw terminals in every device you open even it is not the one causing the problem.
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Old 05-31-2015, 06:41 PM   #4
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One of the common things that will break part of a branch but not all of the branch are a faulty or tripped GFCI but since you said this was 1972 wiring and didn't mention having a GFCI, that's probably not the problem. As long as you're tracing this out, though, when you find the first outlet on the string from the panel, think about replacing it with a GFCI or replacing the breaker with one.

The second common thing (in my limited, unprofessional, experience) that will interrupt part of a branch and not the entire branch is those back feed wires you're talking about. Over time they just fail - especially if there's any reason why the wires might be flexed or stressed over time so contact can be intermittent and allow corrosion.

You mentioned that the wire was too thin and not making contact. That's a pretty vague statement. If your house was professionally wired and was inspected, it is doubtful that the wire is too thin. It's probably 14ga compared to thicker 12ga on a 20 amp circuit. What makes you say it is too thin?

Many of the back push-in holes for devices allow 12 or 14 gauge wire so the 14 gauge might appear too thin even though perfectly legal. But the 14 gauge is more likely to fail in that hole than the 12 just because it is thinner and can go in not straight and not making as solid of a mechanical contact inside the hole.

There's one good solution to problems with the push-in connections, though. Don't use them. I've never seen a screw-down connection fail but have seen plenty of old and of my own push-in connections fail. Use the screw terminals to wire your outlets and switches.

One problem you'll see with 1976 wiring is that there may not be enough wiring left in the box to go to a screw terminal or to pull the wire out 6 inches from the box (a much newer and safer code requirement than was the code in 1976). In these cases, I wire my outlets or switches outside the box with a 6 inch lead and then use a wire nut to connect to the existing wire.

There are new splices that are UL approved that take less space and are easier and more reliable to use than wire nuts in the hands of amateurs but I am not sure if those are legal; perhaps one of the pros can answer that.

Assuming that no critters are in the walls eating your wires, I'd bet money that your problem comes from the push-in connections.
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Old 05-31-2015, 08:28 PM   #5
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The stab connectors were one of my concerns - when I said the wire was too thin, I think it was a result of wear and cutting it back fixed that...or maybe not. I'm pretty sure it's 14 ga. solid. I have not seen any damaged screens on the soffit vents, so I doubt any critters have gotten in. My father-in-law moved into one of our storage bedrooms and has the ceiling fan running and a few electrical devices on half of the day, on top of the animal room ceiling fan and our master bedroom ceiling fan.

I will pull the stabs out and wrap the wires around the screws. I did notice that a couple of the switches were wired backward, as well as some of the outlets I replaced previously - they obviously worked for over 30 years, but is that "passable?" I work in low voltage Telecom and we have standards to adhere to, so why wouldn't other trades? (I have worked around other trades with questionable contractors; not sure why I just asked that) I guess what I want to know is why isn't the wiring more organized and easier to troubleshoot?

Cheap labor, deadlines, undercutting developers in the 70's. It looks like there was more than one person working on the electrical - some were screwed, some were stabbed, there are different bonds and wire colors, not to mention the way the boxes were stuffed and wire nut sizes. I know nothing about standards back then.

I hope I am providing enough info, if not let me know. Back to work...
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Old 05-31-2015, 11:54 PM   #6
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Nope, still got nuthin. There's gotta be a way to tap into another neutral wire, right?
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Old 06-01-2015, 12:22 AM   #7
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You cannot use a neutral from a nearby circuit to replace one from another circuit.
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Old 06-01-2015, 08:40 AM   #8
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what are you testing your circuit and receps with?
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Old 06-01-2015, 10:30 AM   #9
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I have a sniffer that tells me there's obviously power at each location when the breaker is on. I tried a multimeter ONCE and fried one of the probes, so I won't do that. I called a couple of electricians that answered my wife's homeadvisor.com request and the earliest one could come is tomorrow and gave me a ballpark figure of $180 - $90 for the service call and $45 for each half hour. With my explanation, the guy said it sounds like a neutral wire somewhere - just a matter of finding it. I said "Yep, can't find it."

I shocked myself twice "being careful" and knowing how stupid troubleshooting hot wires are, so I am removing myself from the circuit completely. Thanks for all the help, and I'll be checking back to see if there are any more ideas that could save me some money! This is truly beyond my DIY "expertise" and I am starting to accept the fact that it kicked my butt and I'd rather give my money to this guy than more money to the hospital and/or morgue.

:D
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Old 06-01-2015, 10:43 AM   #10
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Jim Port View Post
You cannot use a neutral from a nearby circuit to replace one from another circuit.
I was actually thinking about using a wire from the same circuit, different outlet or switch. Does that make sense? It would involve fishing a wire through the wall which would be a big no-no I'm sure, and if I do that I might as well pull new Romex and while I'm at it I might just find the fault...

Yeah, my brain doesn't shut off when stuff like this happens. I should just become an apprentice and LEARN how to do things properly. I surely don't mean to piss anybody off with my ignorance; I'd rather have people laughing at me.
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Old 06-01-2015, 10:53 AM   #11
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Quote:
Originally Posted by DIYtestdummy View Post
Yesterday a wire in our main bathroom cut all the power to our master bedroom, the bathroom, and one of our spare bedrooms. The other bedroom on this breaker still had power. I replaced the light switch that was turned on when the circuit blew (but didn't trip the breaker), and the exhaust fan switch next to it. I discovered the hot wire was too thin and was not making good contact with the new switch stab hole, so I trimmed it and fixed the problem. This morning my wife turned on a light in the master bedroom and the circuit blew again. The wire in the bathroom switch is still holding and I replaced the switch in the master BR. All the outlets have been replaced and show power, but won't work just like yesterday.

How can I find where the problem is this time? Do I need another circuit since this one seems overloaded (15A for 3 bedrooms with ceiling fans running constantly in the summer and a bathroom) and possibly not up to code? This is 1976 wiring. Could the light switch in the bathroom have blown? Do I need to hire an electrician to figure this out? I really don't have the funds right now and am perfectly capable of DIY, if I only knew what to do.
Take down light fixture and find shorted wires inside box.

Always go first to the most obvious place this short will reside. You have told us where to start. Now we are telling you. The light fixture or the box holding it up.
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Old 06-02-2015, 02:28 PM   #12
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It tuned out to be an outlet behind the heaviest dresser in my FIL's room. I NEVER would have found it! I'm guessing that room is the start of the circuit - everything else was working in there. The outlets on the outside wall are probably on a different circuit, but I didn't think to check those either. $110. Meh. Replacing all the outlets and switches would have been cheaper. Oh well.
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Old 06-02-2015, 03:09 PM   #13
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Quote:
Originally Posted by DIYtestdummy View Post
It tuned out to be an outlet behind the heaviest dresser in my FIL's room. I NEVER would have found it! I'm guessing that room is the start of the circuit - everything else was working in there. The outlets on the outside wall are probably on a different circuit, but I didn't think to check those either. $110. Meh. Replacing all the outlets and switches would have been cheaper. Oh well.
$110 is a good deal. But this is still a problem. The other receptacles and switches are still back wired, so it can happen again. If you go through and move the wires to the screw terminals, you'll never have to scratch your head on that problem again.
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Old 06-03-2015, 06:36 AM   #14
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Just wondering...make sure the wiring is not aluminum if you are replacing devices. '76 is in the sweetspot when aluminum was being used in my area and I see a lot of it hacked up around here
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