There is a bit of confusion with customers when it comes to troubleshooting an electrical issue. Many will ask for upfront price when they call our office to resolve a particular issue. The problem here is it’s nearly impossible for us to know what the exact fix will be without investigating it – meaning using our tools to remove wall plates / lights / panel covers etc. and beginning to diagnose the issue.
Let’s look at one of the most common troubleshooting calls we get- “My circuit breaker keeps tripping, please help!”
The first thing that comes to mind when an electrician hears this is what kind of circuit breaker? Is it a standard style, an arc-fault, a dual-function or a GFCI circuit breaker? YES different circuit breakers tripping could require different solutions to fix. After what kind of circuit breaker, we are wondering if it’s an overload or short circuit? Does it happen all the time, or just on occasion? Did someone alter any wiring recently? There are literally 10+ thoughts running through our heads when we get this call.
Let’s take a look at a number of issues that could be causing that circuit breaker to trip –
- An overloaded circuit
- A short circuit
- An arc-fault (arc-fault and dual-function breakers only)
- A ground fault (dual-function, GFCI and some arc-fault breakers)
- A faulty circuit breaker
All of these possibilities now have a bunch of potential causes under them. For example let’s look at the short circuit. What could be causing the short circuit?
- Did someone damage a wire? (Screw / nail through a wire while hanging a picture, installing a new baseboard trim etc.?)
- Did someone try to replace a receptacle and do it wrong?
- Did someone try to replace a light or switch and do it wrong?
- Did an appliance develop an issue that is now causing the short circuit?
And I could go on. I will say as professional electricians we know the right questions to ask to hopefully hone in on the possible issue and solution. But we are not always given the correct information, especially over the phone. We had a great example of this last year. A customer called us to repair some electricity that was off in his finished basement space. I arrived on site to take a look. Sure enough there was no power to most of the lighting and receptacles in the basement. I asked the customer a series of questions, the most important one being, has anything new been done / installed at the house around the time the issue developed? The owner said nope nothing new, only that the issue started 2 months prior and they just had not got around to calling someone to fix it.
I started by looking at the panel, maybe a circuit breaker is tripped? All the circuit breakers were on and flowing electricity. As is often the case, the electrical panel wasn’t labeled so I couldn’t even identify which circuit breaker was the one powering the basement.
Long story short, I tried tracing the circuit that was off in the basement using a toner and could not get a reading back at the panel. It was as if a wire was literally cut between the panel and basement somewhere. About 2 hours into pulling receptacles out and lights off to see if a wire had come off, the customer says “hey I just remembered, I had a new track put on this garage door about the same time as the problem happened!” No kidding I said, that a good lead! What it ended up being was a bolt that held the track to the ceiling was screwed into a wire which broke the connection completely. The ceiling in the garage was a finished plastered ceiling so you would never had been able to see it.
In all that one job took 4 hours to find the issue and repair the wiring. Now if you can, put yourself into our shoes and imagine that same customer calling us, saying they lost power in their basement, how much to fix?? It would be hard to do right? Near impossible to give an exact cost? Exactly!
This is exactly why we do all of our troubleshooting at our hourly rates. Having said all of that, most troubleshooting repairs are not quite so exotic and time consuming. Our office is well trained on asking the correct questions with the answers being relayed to our electricians. At that point we will tell the customer what we think the time window will be to make the repair. I’d say 85% of the time we nail it on the time window, but we do get some serious head scratcher’s from time to time that take a bit longer than anticipated.
If you are an electrician reading this, or just someone who is interested in electrical troubleshooting in homes, take a look at the e-book written by the owner Jesse found here on amazon – Troubleshooting EBOOK