Trouble at the Electrician's House

All right, we know I am this crack electrician, right? Well, even the best of us have our problems. And I don't get to blame my electrical trouble on a previous owner, since I wired my own house when I was an apprentice (1978). (Can I blame it on my apprenticehood?) Here are most of the true electrical adventures I've had with my own place, beginning with the most impressive.

The Explosion. Actually this was so impressive that I have a bit of amnesia about it. I'll try to reconstruct it the way I do for customers when I come after the fact. One winter an outage hit our area. To help ease the load on the power company whenever they could get service back, I turned off some of my breakers. When power was restored, I was flipping them back on. When I turned on the dryer's breaker, it made a big loud KA-BAM and left a smell in the air. I took the panel cover off and saw burn marks and the remains of a lightning arrestor I had installed a few years before. I had been selling customers these arrestors, so I had decided to put one in my own panel. They take the hit for the whole house when extreme voltage arrives. Mine mounted right in the panel, was allowed to use an existing 240-volt breaker (the one for the dryer), and had a wire connection to the neutral bar, which dissipates the excess energy to ground. Apparently what had happened is that as the power went out or came back on, there must have been a high voltage involved. The dryer's breaker must have been one of those I had not turned off. Whether it was then tripped or not, my turning it on let the arrestor finish giving up its life to save my home from damage. If I had been turning that breaker on with the panel cover removed, I think I would have been injured.

The Blinking. Does that sound like the title of an occult horror movie?... Most of us are familiar with the bit of blinking lights do when a heavy appliance comes on. But even an electrician can't always tell when this is normal and when it indicates some kind of wiring deficiency. Compared to the places we'd been renting, our new house was great. So the blinking of lights that I noticed when the clothes washer cycled on didn't seem like a problem. I learned differently when turning much of the garage into a bedroom (expecting our fourth child). The garage's panel would have ended up in a closet. That's a no-no. So I had to relocate the panel. In the process, I pulled power company's meter out (with permission) to make the panel safe to redo. I happened to look closely at the connections in the meter can. The only thing that caught my attention was how the power company's wires were the minimum size. That got me looking at the meter can's inside label, where it says what wire sizes its connectors were designed to clamp down on. This particular meter can (G.E.) said that the neutral wire should be size "1/0" or larger. I could see that the power company's neutral was a size or two smaller. After I added more wire there as a shim and finished my project, the washer no longer had much effect on lights! Over time, if that kind of thing were just put up with, it could develop into the kind of thing a lightning arrestor will explode for. See Main open neutral.

The Voltage-Drop Tester. I had a new toy. You plug it into any receptacle, and one of the things it tells you is how much a 15 or 20 amp load from there will affect the voltage at that outlet. So I was going around in our house trying it out. I saw how, along a circuit, as you get closer to the panel, an outlet drops less and less of the voltage that comes from the panel. And I knew where I was along a circuit because I had wired the house (and written everything down). Except, look here! This first outlet on this circuit still has a lot of voltage drop, and it's not that far from the panel! Well, guess what. At that circuit's breaker, the wire was loose under its screw. Did I say, "Those darn screws are always loosening up"? I knew better. This was after I had moved this panel's location (see story above). So it was me. I suppose I might have been in a rush. I tend to be less conscientious if I do something "just for me" than for someone else.

Who Knows Why?. Speaking of breakers, I get called to lots of homes where a breaker has tripped. Usually we can guess why it tripped. Maybe a spaceheater or hairdryer. (Or it's still tripping and I have to find and fix the short circuit.) At my house, the one case of tripping I remember happened out of the blue -- nothing special running. No, it wasn't that circuit with the loose wire. Was it a bad breaker? If so, why has it never tripped since? It did nag at my troubleshooter's heart, but some things are unknown. So I let it be and didn't worry.

Outdoors. Since I'm not afraid of electricity (just properly respectful), I am happier than some people to buy and use an electric hedgetrimmer and an electric mower. I'm also glad to be plugging them into GFI-protected outlets. While trimming our plum tree one time, the floppy extension cord somehow found the blades of the trimmer and there were a few sparks, and then nothing. The trimmer no longer worked. Right -- because its cord had just been severed! I wasn't sure if the breaker or GFI had also tripped though. As I thought about it, I knew that the GFI probably had NOT tripped, because the cord I was using was two-conductor cord. A GFI does not care if current crosses from the black (hot) to white (neutral) via trimmer blades, only if some current crosses from black to somewhere else. I believe I did find the breaker tripped... As for the mower, in the past I had had an electric mower that would smell bad whenever it was called on to cut thick, tall, wet grass -- like the Seattle area always has in the spring. I wanted to treat my second electric mower better. After reading the owner's manual carefully, I hunted for outlets that would keep their voltage up best. I used my handy voltage-drop tester! For the front yard, a good one was right by that panel I had relocated into what remained of the garage. For the back yard, the one by the back porch was not good, but the one farther out back in the shed was, because the line feeding out there was more direct from the panel, and was heavier gauge. I also used that tester to see which of my 100-foot 14-gauge extension cords dragged voltage down the least. I love the smell of not-burning motors in the spring.

This and That. The motion-sensing floodlight on the front porch can be made to just stay on, by turning the wall switch off and then back on in a second or less. That's good for helping expected guests see the house number. But it's not so good when a neighborhood gets a one-second power blip during the night. That fixture has small, hot halogen bulbs and glass lenses; when it runs for more than a half hour, the heat sometimes propels a lens down to the wood decking... I noticed a three-bulb light fixture blinking at times and couldn't tell if all three were blinking or just one. Removing two bulbs at a time let me watch how the remaining one behaved there. I even moved the lone bulb to the other sockets of the fixture, in case a socket was the source of the blink. I think the result was that two of my three bulbs had a blinkiness about them -- a filament problem, I suppose... The ballast in our kitchen fluorescent light had to be replaced once, and now it's starting to act up again. I'll wait till it gives out... A compact fluorescent bulb didn't last even 25% as long as they said... There are bound to be more problems at my place. Are those electrons trying to drive me away (or crazy) for all the times I have put an end to their antics at other people's homes?

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