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Ask Anything: 10 questions with electrician Richard Moore

Posted September 8, 2009
Updated September 17, 2009

1

What is the major cause of the lights in your house getting very bright, then suddenly dimming? – Brian Clayton, Henderson

If your entire house is being affected, the problem could be at your service (or main) panel, meter base or a utility problem. Quite often, the neutral conductor will become loose, causing a condition that can raise and lower the voltage going to your lights, causing them to dim or brighten.

Call the power company first, and have them come out and check their equipment. All the conductors in the main panel should also be checked for tightness. If the problem is in an limited area of your house, then that circuit needs to be checked to ensure proper connection of conductors.

Many houses are wired with conductors connected to receptacles and switches (or devices) through a process known as back stabbing. In that process, the electrician strips the conductor and sticks it in a hole in the back of the device, a labor-saving method. Over time, however, the contact point between the conductor and the device will degrade, causing flickering, and eventually, the device will stop working. The fix is to turn off the power to the circuit, remove the conductor from the device one at a time, re-strip it, bend it in a hook, put it under the terminal screw in a clock-wise direction and tighten the screw.

2

Why does my breaker box make popping sounds (a.k.a. clicking) sometimes? – W.G., Roanoke Rapids

You are probably having one or more breakers going bad. What you are hearing is the arcing that occurs between the contact points in the circuit breakers. Breakers subjected to heavy or continuous loads can go bad. Also, check to see if the breaker is warm or hot to the touch using the back of your hand, as it is more sensitive. If the circuit breaker is overly warm or hot, it needs replacing soon as it can damage your panel busbars, resulting in the panel having to be replaced.

3

I leave my hairdryer plugged in but always press the button that I think of as a "circuit breaker" type feature. In any case, to turn the dryer on, I have to press the other button. I do this to try and safeguard against an electrical fire. Is that hairdryer still "live" and pulling current under the conditions stated, or not? Should all small appliances be unplugged when not in use to guard against fire and to cut down on electrical usage? – Terri T., Willard

Modern appliances in modern houses do not need to be unplugged for safety's sake alone. If a thunderstorm is coming, you might want to unplug electronic equipment (computers, TVs etc.) to protect them from lightning (see the surge protection question below) . Many appliances do draw current while they are off, and unplugging them can save you money on your power bill.

4

I have regular outlets in my garage, one on the wall and one on the ceiling for the garage door. I also have a workshop. Am I safe plugging a power strip into the outlet and running multiple small tools off that, not at the same time? And am I safe using my table saw? The amps are at the max according to the papers. I haven't blown any fuses yet. – Dan, Fuquay-Varina

Basic rule: The more things you have plugged into an outlet, the more likely you are to damage the outlet. Small tools are OK in the strip, but I would not plug a large table saw in the strip. The contact points between the plug and the receptacle on the strip may not be as strong as the one in your house, and your saw's plug may become damaged.

5

My friend and I unwittingly plugged in electric hair appliances in each bathroom at the same time. The circuit blew, i.e. the circuit for the GFI in the bathrooms, and will not reset. Pressing the reset button has worked in the past but not this time. I've checked the breaker box, thrown all of them and reset them, but no results. How do I fix this problem? – Karen Jamieson, Siler City

Be sure all appliances are unplugged before you attempt to re-set the breaker. If the circuit breaker won't reset, then it should be replaced. If you call an electrician, tell him what brand panel you have (ITE, Square D, Siemens, Bryant, GE, etc.), so he can bring the circuit breaker with him, hopefully saving you money on travel time. Breakers run between $35 and $40.

6

My house was built in the mid-1970s, and I've discovered that it was wired with aluminum wiring. From what I've read, aluminum wiring can be a fire hazard. What are my options? Should I rewire my entire house?? – James, Camden

Ironically, the problem is not the aluminum wire per se but how it is connected to your devices (switches and receptacles). Unless you are doing major renovations, re-wiring is too costly. Many devices installed during that era were not listed to be used with devices that had a copper listing. When two dissimilar metals come in contact, a corroding action can occur, causing the contact point to heat up. The connection of an aluminum wire to a copper or brass plate can cause this. At a minimum, if you are having problems or are concerned, you can have someone check to see if your devices are listed for use with aluminum wire. The devices should have "AL" or "CO-ALR" indicated on them or say "suitable for use with aluminum wire".

7

What is a good whole-house surge protection (panel-type circuit breaker or in-line)? – George Fenton, Raleigh

Short answer – both! The whole-house protector in your panel should protect you from lightning coming in through the power lines. However, lightning can come in through phone lines, cable lines and satellite cables as well . To protect against this you, install local protection at your computer and other electronic devices, and plug your phone and cable lines into the protector so it can protect them as well. When it comes to lightning, the more protection the better. A surge protector costs a lot less than your computer or new digital TV!

8

My lights keep flickering in my house. Also I have the same problem with some of the wall sockets. I have replaced the breakers, but the problem hasn't gone away. – Lawrence Williams, Warrenton

See answer to Question 1.

9

What is the danger of having a plug with reversed polarity? If I have one in my house, is it a hazard that needs to be fixed? If so, how difficult is it to do? – Jon Weiner, Raleigh

Reverse polarity is bad and should be corrected. It means the power is coming into the appliance on the wrong conductor. Reverse polarity is most likely caused when someone mis-wires a receptacle. The black or hot wire should be connected to the brass or copper colored screw, and the white conductor should be connected to the silver or white colored screw. Also, most receptacles indicate the polarity on the back by saying white, black or hot.

10

A breaker switch in my fuse box goes off 1 to 3 times each day, cutting off the electricity to part of my house. How dangerous is this? How long can I wait to have it fixed before it would become a potential risk? How much would I expect to charged to repair this? Is this a complex problem or an easy to repair problem? Thanks for advising me on this! – Donna Gallagher, Pittsboro 

The first thing you must determine is what is causing it to trip. If it is the breaker supplying the kitchen receptacles and you have several appliances plugged into circuit and you overload the circuit, the breaker is supposed to trip. That's its job.

Try moving your appliances to another circuit (or receptacle), and see if the problem stops. Most modern houses are required by Code to have two circuits for the kitchen receptacles. If the breaker supplies a heavy load, it may be going bad and should be replaced.

As to how long should you wait, the problem is not going to fix itself. There is a chance the breaker could fail, damage the panel and, in a rare case, result in a fire. A typical 15 or 20 amp circuit breaker costs under $10.00, and it should take no more than 15 minutes to install it. However, most contractors have a one-hour minimum charge of between $65.00 and $100.00. You can save some money by telling him what brand panel you have and the amp rating of the circuit breaker. He should bring the breaker with him saving you travel time.

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  • jackaroo2 Sep 18, 2009

    good Q&A. A couple of other things...motor loads have a much higher starting current than running current...that is why you may see a brief flicker or dimming when a motor (AC, tools) etc cycle on.

    Be sure your insurance covers surges, whether natural (lightning)or the power companies fault. I worked for an electric company for 25 years, we ALWAYS denied responsiblity and had the lawyers to back it up.
    Spend big bucks ($50+)to get proper surge protection on you valued electronics. Don't trust a $10 strip with your $2000 tv.
    All appliances have an amp rating on the back or bottom. You should not exceed 80% of what your breaker is rated at. Most in the kitchen and bath are rated at 20 amps, the rest 15
    Unplugging stuff during a real storm may help an help, but it can also hurt. That 50 cent outlet was not designed to be pluged, unplugged hundreds of times. It will lose tension...causing arching.
    If you lose power un-plug important stuff, so when the power is restored, near is no surge