Here are just a few questions our customers frequently ask. These questions and answers are intended to be a resource for you regarding your electrical system and are not intended to be a “troubleshooting guide” for electrical problems in your home. If you become injured or your property is damaged as a result of your own electrical work, Sparky Electric will not be held responsible. You should always contact a licensed electrician to perform electrical repairs or make modifications to your electrical system.
What is a short or a short circuit?
A short or short-circuit are the same thing. A short happens when the energized or “hot” wire comes in contact with the neutral (grounded white) wire or the ground (green or bare) wire. When this happens a massive heat is produced and is “seen” by the breaker which then trips off to protect the wiring system.
What does a breaker really do?
Basically, breakers react to a preset thermal (heat) level placed on the circuit wire. Simply put, electricity is electrons in motion. Motion is met by friction. Friction causes heat. Heat trips the breaker. The more you try to use on a circuit the higher the heat. If too much is used too long the breaker trips. The amp size of the breaker tells you the load capacity of it.
What is GFI or GFCI protection?
GFI or GFCI protection are the same thing. Technically they are “Ground Fault Circuit Interrupters”. They are installed two ways — in outlet form or a breaker in your breaker panel. This safety device was designed to protect you from an electrical shock. Most often you will find that bathroom, kitchen, garage and outside outlets are protected with GFCI in the circuit. If you lose power to outlets in these areas, check to see if the GFCI has tripped. If the GFCI has tripped simply push the “reset” button on the outlet or reset the breaker. If your GFCI device does not reset at all, you may need to have it replaced. If your GFCI device trips again right away, you may have a fault current that needs to be investigated and corrected. Call your licensed, qualified electrical contractor for help in correcting the fault.
Why does my microwave-hood cause lights to dim and sometimes trip the breaker?
Manufacturers recommend a new 20 amp 120 volt circuit be installed for this type of microwave system. If you are seeing dimming of the kitchen lights, and other lights, you probably had the microwave-hood installed in place of a standard range hood. The original hood was probably correctly wired on the kitchen 15 amp light circuit. Your microwave is an appliance like your dishwasher and uses more power. Call a licensed and bonded electrical contractor to install the proper circuit.
Some of the light fixtures in my house burn out light bulbs constantly. Is there a short causing this?
Probably not. A short would cause an entire circuit to trip off at the breaker. Besides old age of the light bulb there are a few reasons for short bulb life. First, are you using the right size of bulb in your fixture? I would recommend never using bigger than 60 watt bulbs in any wall or ceiling fixture in your home. Some fixtures come with a warning not to use over 60 watts. Some are higher rated because of having a porcelain socket. Still, all larger size lamps will cause more heat at the socket. In all ceiling fixtures and most wall fixtures this heat will cause damage to the socket and the wiring system. If the socket or wire connections are damaged enough the bulbs will burn out sooner. Check your bulb sockets for heat damage to the shell and wire. The inside of the socket should be bright and shiny. If it is dark and looks burned you need a new fixture. If it is a favorite fixture you can have the sockets replaced. Using a 130 volt 60 watt bulb will also help bulb life. Some areas will have 120-130 volt power instead of 110-120 volt. 120 volt bulbs will have a shorter life. Using fluorescent or LED bulbs may also help with power and heat problems.
I just bought a house and my home inspection says that the electrical breaker panel is obsolete and should be replaced. Should I be concerned?
There have been many breaker panels designed and manufactured to replace fuse panels through the years. Many enjoyed short life spans and went away, such as: Murray modular breakers, Square-D round bus breakers and Wadsworth blade breakers. A few more have had designs lasting several years, such as: Zinsco, Federal Pacific and Pushmatic.
Pushmatic are a bolted to bus style that you push on/push off. Their sales diminished greatly after the 1980s. Possibly because their on/off windows wore out and could not be relied on to tell the truth. They were also more expensive than other brands.
Federal Pacific used a design that was reverse of all other brands in their on/off configuration. They were designed to turn off when moved to the center of the panel and on when moved towards the sides of the panel. This made cover removals very touchy and critical circuits could be turned off inadvertently. This design confused the general public so it is now in the obsolete basket.
Zinsco breakers plugged on to two vertical bars running down the center of the panel. This limited the panel sizes for numbers of breakers that could be used. To match the breaker capacity of other brands the Zinsco panel had to be much wider than a normal stud space opening of 14.5 inches. Naturally Zinsco lost market and slipped away, but not before making headlines and a bad reputation to help it on its way.
I have an older electrical panel and heard that there are some dangerous breaker brands to be wary of. Which ones should I watch out for?
Zinsco and Federal Pacific Electric breakers have both had troubling histories. Due to design and manufacturing flaws each company had lot numbers over long periods of time that were defective and were not found out until electrical faults occurred. Most defects were in their trip settings. In the case of FPE their breakers would nuisance trip under lower loads than they should.
During this same time frame Zinsco was found to have many of their breaker sizes defective. They would have large size: 100-200 amp breakers tripping under minimal loads of 15-20 amp and the smaller sizes just failing to trip until well past their set limits. The Zinsco brand lost its market when customers could no longer trust the safety of their breakers. The company and its future owners all redesigned and corrected the problems but it was too late. Their reputation was gone. Unfortunately that reputation still lingers in the real estate market. Some minimally trained and uninformed “Home Inspectors” have declared FPE and Zinsco dangerous and explosive breaker systems. Most now have at least noted that the brands have ‘had past problems’ and a licensed electrical contractor should be consulted. The damage has been done and both brands are slipping into history.
This contractor will say the FPE breaker is simply a design issue and will work, but replacement breakers are hard to find — and sell at a premium. I will tell you that Zinsco is less than reliable, but with the remanufactured and replacement breakers the system will function as it should.
I have fluorescent lights in my kitchen. After replacing the light bulbs they still don’t light or one is flickering. What is wrong?
There are a couple of possible answers. The bulbs have two prongs on the ends. You need to make sure the prongs are properly inserted in the end sockets and rotated 90 degrees to set against the socket receivers. If you have properly installed the lamps the next problem is probably the ballast. If you replace the ballast yourself make sure you match the ballast to the lamps used and follow the wiring diagram on the new ballast. If you convert from the old style T-12 magnetic to the newer T-8 electronic you will need to carefully follow the new ballast connection diagram. If you feel unsure of what you are doing, be safe and call a licensed electrical contractor.
The remote control for my ceiling paddle fan quit working. What is wrong?
Normally you have a remote controller because the fan is too high to reach chain pulls or there was no easy way to wire in a switch. If the controller did work and no one has done anything to the fan’s built-in pull switches, you may need to change the battery in the remote. If this fails you may need to replace the fan with a new unit.
My ceiling paddle fan is controlled by a speed switch on the wall. The switch now either works too slow or not at all. What is the problem?
First, turn the speed switch all the way up. Next, pull the chain pull switch on the fan. If the blades start to turn, pull the chain pull until it is running at top speed. Then use the wall switch to reduce the speed. If this all works you are done. If the wall switch does not control the speed you will need to replace it. Additional problems could be a bad fan needing replacement or the wall switch has quit allowing any power to run through it and needs replacing. If “do it yourself” repairs are not your thing, or get out of hand, please call a licensed electrical contractor for help.
I have a motion sensing light in my back yard. Some nights it stays on all night or just blinks on and off. What is going on here?
Most people install motion sensing lights to allow light for a pet in the back yard, or to thwart a potential burglary. If you are experiencing too many “false alarms”, read on.
Motion sensing lights have a sensitivity dial mounted below the sensor itself. This dial may be set too high for the amount of regular motion in the back yard. Try turning the dial down to decrease the sensitivity of the motion sensor. The sensor will still pick up the motion of a pet or intruder, but will not be activated by a tree or plant blowing in the wind.
I have a light pole in my front yard that does not work even after I have replaced the light bulb. Is there a short causing this problem?
A short circuit is a potential problem for a light pole. In some cases, the installer did not properly protect the light pole wire, and it was cut by an unknowing gardener sometime later. More commonly, however, light poles stop working because the photo cell has died. The photo cell is a small round apparatus with a red “squiggly line” inside of it that can turn the light post “on” or “off” by sensing sunlight or the lack thereof. The photo cell can usually be found on the side of the light pole, or in a weatherproof box on the front of the house. The repair of the light pole is usually as simple as replacing the photo cell.
A dimmer in my house is very hot to the touch. Should I be concerned?
A dimmer is nothing more than a small transformer that causes the light bulbs to dim by decreasing the voltage applied to them. As the dimmer decreases the amount of voltage going to the light bulbs, excess heat is generated and radiates from the switch via the switch plate. The heat that you feel is nothing to be concerned about unless you can smell plastic burning or notice the lights flickering.
I have light switches in my house that don’t appear to do anything.
In most occasions the switch does do something, it just isn’t obvious. Many light switches that do not appear to control anything control what is called a “switched outlet”. Switched outlets are sockets in a room in your house that are controlled by a wall switch. These sockets are designed so that a floor lamp can be plugged in and controlled by a wall switch. Most new homes are built with switched outlets as the lighting source because they are less expensive for the builder to install than an actual ceiling fixture.
I have an outlet in my house that does not work. Should I be worried?
Before you worry, find a small table lamp and plug it into the outlet in question. Then, find all of the wall switches in the room and start turning them on. If you find that the table lamp turns on when you flip a wall switch, you will have stumbled on the solution. Some of the outlets in your house are controlled by a wall switch. This allows a floor lamp to be plugged into the wall as a light source. If you cannot find a switch that turns the outlet “on”, check around the room and see if other outlets or lights are out. Next, check the electrical panel to see if any circuits are tripped. If they are, reset the circuit breaker. If you cannot find a light switch or tripped circuit breaker and the outlet still does not work, be sure to call a licensed electrician to evaluate the problem.
I found a tripped circuit breaker in my electrical panel, but I cannot turn it back on. What do I do?
There are a few possibilities here. The first is that the circuit breaker has simply tripped, and needs to be reset. To reset a circuit breaker, the switch must be set completely to the “off” position until you feel a “click”; once the switch has been set to off, set the switch back to the “on” position. If it returns to the “on” position without tripping again, the circuit breaker has been successfully reset. If the circuit breaker will not reset and trips when the switch is set to the “on” position, there may be a short circuit or overload on that circuit. If the circuit breaker cannot be reset, please be sure to call a licensed electrician to evaluate the problem.
My home has aluminum wire. Is this something for me to be concerned about?
All houses, including new houses contain some aluminum wire. For example, the service cable that connects your meter base to your electrical panel is an aluminum cable. Some of the feeds for your large appliances such as a heat pump or range may also be aluminum. Aluminum used for these applications is still completely safe. The type of aluminum wire that has gained a bad reputation is aluminum branch circuit wiring. Aluminum branch circuit wiring can be found most commonly in houses built between 1965 and 1973. Branch circuits are circuits for your lighting and wall outlets. The reason aluminum wire tends to show more problem areas in branch circuits is because of the greater amount of splices in a branch circuit. Every wall outlet and every wall switch in your house contains at least three splices: one for the ground, one for the neutral, and one for the hot. Each of these splices is a place for a potential loose connection. Because aluminum has a greater expansion coefficient than other metals used in wiring devices, it tends to create a loose connection at places that it is spliced. These loose connections eventually begin to spark and generate heat, which can lead to a fire if left un-repaired. If you have aluminum wiring of any kind in your home and have a question or a concern, please call a licensed electrician.
Why do my lights dim when I switch on a vacuum cleaner?
Like your refrigerator, dishwasher, or washing machine, your vacuum cleaner features an electric motor. While running, an electric motor consumes a steady amount of electrical current (called RLA, or “running load amps”). However, when starting, an electric motor consumes approximately seven times the current that it would normally consume while running steadily ( called LRA or “locked rotor amps”). Take for example a vacuum cleaner that consumes five amps while the vacuum is running steadily. When you switch the vacuum “on”, that electric motor will consume approximately thirty-five amps of electricity until the motor has reached its operating speed. This creates a tremendous load on the circuit that the vacuum is plugged into, thus causing the lights to dim while the vacuum motor is accelerating to its operating speed. Once the operating speed is reached, the vacuum consumes less energy and does not cause the lights to dim.
A home inspector noticed that my home has some light fixtures wired with orange extension cords and lamp cords. Is this safe?
In a nutshell, “no”. Orange extension cords are designed to temporarily carry power to a location that does not have access to permanent power. They are not, however, designed to be permanently installed in your home’s attic or behind drywall.
Lamp cords are also not qualified to be permanently installed in your home’s attic or behind drywall. Lamp cords only carry two conductors: one hot and one neutral. The wiring in your home carries two conductors: one hot and one neutral, plus an equipment ground wire. The lighting and outlet circuits in your home are also installed with 14 AWG wire, which is rated to handle several light fixtures or appliances at once. If there is a short circuit or overload, the circuit breaker will trip before the 14 AWG wire overheats to the point of starting a fire. A typical lamp cord is either 16 AWG or 18 AWG (dimensionally smaller than 14 AWG wire) which is only designed to support the needs of one light fixture. That being said, a lamp cord used as a permanent wiring installation can easily be overloaded. If the lamp cord overloads, causing the wire to overheat and melt the insulation, the overload will not be sufficient to trip the circuit breaker, thus creating a serious fire hazard. If you see orange extension cords or lamp cords used as permanent wiring in your home, please consult a licensed electrician.
The lights in my house sometimes dim slightly then return to normal. What causes this?
You could be experiencing a “brown out”. Brown outs typically occur during the summer months when air conditioners run continually to keep buildings and houses cool. The power grid gets stressed, causing less electricity to be available to your home. This may cause your lights to dim temporarily.
The other possibility is that there could be a loose neutral connection the power line connecting to your home or inside your electrical panel. If you experience this problem, first alert the power company. If they cannot determine a problem, call a licensed electrician to handle the problem.
My electric oven, cook top, air conditioner, and water heater do not work. To make things worse, some of the lights in my house work and some don’t! What is happening?
You may have lost a phase. Your house has three wires entering your meter base: two hot wires, each carrying 120 volts (called “A” phase, and “B” phase), and a neutral wire. Your 120 volt appliances such as your refrigerator and microwave, lights, and plugs only need one phase (either “A” phase or “B” phase) to work. Your 240 volt appliances, however, such as your oven, cook top, air conditioner, etc need both “A” phase and “B” phase (two phases at 120 volts each gives you 240 volts). If one of the phases becomes broken either at the power line, underground, or in your electrical panel, your 240 volt appliances and any lights or outlets on the broken phase will not operate. If you experience this problem, first alert the power company. If they cannot determine a problem, call a licensed electrician to handle the problem.