Home Electrical Reality Check

Stepping Back: "Am I Missing Something Obvious?"

Don't let me throw you into doubt, but we all miss things or make unwarranted assumptions at times. Below I list a number of questions to ask yourself as you ponder why you have a particular electrical problem at home or why your approach to it is not being fruitful. (Another reality check would be simply to review the electrical background or troubleshooting material I provide.) Are you being dense, missing something simple? Don't worry about it. Just go through the checklist, get back on track, and don't be hard on yourself. You don't feel like the brightest bulb at the moment, but you'll be brighter later.

  Do I really have a problem? Did I observe reliably? Was the matter really electrical in nature? Is this "problem" actually abnormal? Is the problem now gone? Am I just wondering why a one-time thing happened? Am I assuming there is a problem just because a tester tells me something I don't expect?

  Am I identifying the real problem? Or is this just a symptom of something else? Is the problem more extensive than I am aware? Is it less extensive than I thought? Have I assumed something is wrong with my system when it may just be the appliance, fixture, or cord (or vice versa)? Do I already assume I know what is wrong? Can I let go of my first theory about this problem?

  Am I really as familiar with my home's electrical system as I have thought? Should I believe how the circuits are labeled at the panel? Are there perhaps fuses, breakers, switches, or GFCIs somewhere that might automatically control a number of things? Is there a way someone might have turned something off? Do I recall that part of some outlets can be turned off from a wall switch? Am I aware whether this light fixture has a switching feature as part of it (a unit switch, photocell, or motion sensor)?

  Do I have to solve this immediately? Have I given my mind a rest from the matter? Is there a known danger in waiting and stepping back to consider ideas and alternatives? Can I supply important items temporarily with good extension cords?

  Am I sure the light bulbs are good in the lights with the problem? How do I know an old bulb was bad, or a new one I put in is good? Am I aware that some digital timers won't display and some illuminated switches won't glow unless good bulbs are in the lights? Or that some digital thermostats won't display if their heaters aren't connected or if they rely on batteries (that are now dead)?

  How do I know that something has or has not tripped off? Have I checked both circuit breakers and GFI outlets? Do I know how to tell if one of these IS tripped? Do I know how to attempt resetting? Did I check any generator switches?

  Is a tester helping matters or adding confusion? Do I know how to use one? Do I know what the result of a given test would mean? Do I need to test voltage or continuity or nothing at all? Am I testing the right wires?

  Have I done a little research about this kind of problem? Have I checked with a knowledgeable friend or neighbor for their thoughts? Did I save The Circuit Detective's website as a Favorite? Have I looked through Larry's FAQs? Am I willing eventually to use a good local electrician as my reality check?

  Should I be buying supplies if I don't know what I need? What are the chances that replacing things will solve this problem permanently? What are the chances that replacing things might create more problems?

  Am I willing to follow instructions? Have I tried the diagnostic tree?