Electrical troubleshooting is some of the most difficult work electricians do. Kuhlman Electrical Services (KES) trains its employees on all aspects of troubleshooting. So when we come to your house, we’re ready to get to work and solve your issue. A number of troubleshooting specialties we offer are detailed below…
Troubleshooting the Tripping Arc-Fault Circuit Breakers
Let’s start here. We troubleshoot this issue on a regular basis. First off, what is an arc-fault circuit breaker? Arc-faults were first used in our National Electrical Code (NEC) book in 1999. At that time, they were only required in bedroom receptacles.
Our current code (2020) requires arc-faults in all areas of the home, including bathrooms, unfinished basements, unfinished attics, garages, and outside wiring. An arc-fault circuit breaker can detect “arcs.”
The best way to explain this concept is to imagine two wires loosely spliced together. The electricity is now “arcing” between the wires. This arcing creates heat, which can start a fire. The arc-fault circuit breaker detects that arc and trips the circuit breaker before a problem occurs.
Arc-faults also measure the amperage flowing out of it and returning to it (similar to a GFCI outlet). If the amperage isn’t the same when it returns, it trips. (For most brands, the amperage is within 7 milliamps.)
In addition to these two conditions causing arc-fault breakers to trip, they also trip due to an overload, just like a standard circuit breaker. For example, your circuit breaker is rated at 15 amps, and the circuit is trying to draw more.
Finally, arc-fault breakers trip when they have a short circuit. (This problem occurs when a hot wire touches the neutral or ground wire.)
You may be wondering, “How in the world is the circuit breaker able to detect an arc? An arc is neither an overload nor a short circuit. So how does that work?” Great question! Electricity creates a sine wave, and the arc-fault circuit breaker is looking for disruptions in this wave. An arc causes a disruption, which the arc-fault circuit breaker can see. Pretty cool, right? Well, it’s not all roses. Unfortunately, arc-fault circuit breakers can be TRICKED into thinking there’s an arc when there isn’t one.
Under certain circumstances, every electric motor can create an arc, which fools the circuit breaker. Think of window A/C units, older microwaves, and vacuums. These machines are the most common causes of nuisance tripping. I would rank vacuums as being the #1 culprit.
We’ve received this call many times after completing work at a house: “My cleaners were here. They used the new outlets you installed, and the breaker tripped!” Since I’ve been running KES, we have received this call/email at least 50 times. The best way to quickly diagnose that the issue is with the cleaners’ vacuum is to take your own vacuum and plug it into the same outlet. If the breaker DOES NOT trip when you use your vacuum but trips when the cleaners use their vacuum, you know for sure the cause is the cleaners’ vacuum.
Here are other things we’ve found that “fool” arc-fault circuit breakers into tripping:
- Faulty transformers (which are typically under cabinet lighting)
- Connection issues upstream at main electrical service connections (YES, arc-faults can see sine-wave disruption UPSTREAM from them, which is both amazing and frustrating!)
- Bad neutral connections at the main service
- Voltage fluctuations
- And as stated above, motors… especially vacuums!
Some of the hardest troubleshooting to resolve involves pinpointing which arc-fault breakers are tripping. If your arc-fault breaker is tripping consistently, it usually isn’t very hard to fix. But if it’s tripping randomly, it gets a lot trickier. On many of our service calls, the customer states their arc-fault breaker is occasionally tripping. Then when we arrive at the residence, the breaker has NOT tripped or isn’t tripping. There used to be very little we could do in this kind of situation.
Fortunately, Siemens came out with an arc-fault troubleshooting device that aids in these situations. This device connects in series with the circuit in question. With a handheld, the electrician can walk around the house and use items on the circuit by watching the handheld readings.
The handheld will tell the electrician the likelihood of an arc-fault by using a color-coded rating that extends from green to red. This rating system is VERY useful, as it can help pinpoint where the issue is without tripping the breaker.
One of my favorite stories from troubleshooting arc-faults occurred a couple of years ago. A customer had recently purchased a new condo in Boston. Since Day 1, one of his arc-fault circuit breakers was randomly tripping. He had a couple electricians come out, and neither of them could figure out what was causing the breaker to trip. It was one of those times when the breaker would NOT trip while an electrician was there trying to fix it. So it was a really tough problem to solve!
We responded to the customer’s call with our arc-fault diagnostic tool in-hand. After we connected it to the circuit breaker in question, we went around the house using the circuit like the owner would—turning lights on and off and plugging in lamps. When we turned on one particular under-cabinet light, our diagnostic tool meter spiked to the red.
We repeated this process a few times. At that point, we were fairly certain that this under-cabinet light (a Halogen unit with a transformer in it) was the issue. While there were a total of five under-cabinet lights, only this one was causing the spike.
We then disconnected that ONE light and asked the owner to live with it like that for a week or so. We wanted to see if the breaker tripped again. Sure enough, the customer reached out to us two weeks later, and the breaker had NOT tripped. Problem solved!
In this type of situation, solving the issue without a diagnostic device would have been nearly impossible.
Other Electrical Troubleshooting
We specialize in many other kinds of electrical troubleshooting. Here’s a list of other situations we’re accustomed to dealing with:
- Standard circuit-breaker tripping (consistently or randomly)
- Flickering lights (one light or entire home)
- False alarms in line-voltage smoke detectors
- Outlets, lights, and switches not working
- LED lighting issues
- Outside lighting issues
- Doorbells not working
- And many others!
So How Much Does it Cost?
Great question! As you can probably imagine, troubleshooting can sometimes be quite simple. But other times, it can be very complex. There’s no way to know ahead of time whether your particular situation can be quickly solved. We do ALL of our electrical troubleshooting on an hourly basis. It’s impossible to give you an upfront price when we don’t know how long it will take.
That said, we can resolve most issues in 1-2 hours. If they can’t be solved in that amount time, a larger issue usually needs to be fixed. If so, we can give an estimate for that repair at that point.
Here’s a good example of troubleshooting an issue to find a larger issue that needed to be repaired. A customer named Lynn called us. The lights throughout her entire home would flicker when certain heavier electrical loads were used (such as the toaster, microwave, and washing machine).
When we arrived, we assumed there was a bad connection somewhere in the main electrical service. But the electrical panel checked out. Everything was tight and in good shape.
Then we pulled the cover off the meter socket and discovered the neutral connection had never been tightened down! Since the service had been installed over 20 years earlier, it took all that time to finally break down to the point that it caused the lights to flicker. So the meter socket now needed to be replaced because the connections were destroyed.
In this case, we gave the customer an estimate to replace the meter socket.