Ask Anything: 10 questions with electrician Richard Moore
Electrician and Wake Technical Community College instructor Richard Moore answers your questions about keeping your home's power running.Posted — Updated
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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".
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!
See answer to Question 1.
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.
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.
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