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02/12/2009 12:48:22 AM · #1
OK, I'm turning once again to the collective genius of DPC. I moved last week into a 10-year old house and I've been having some trouble with a circuit of lights. Here's what we know:

1) The circuit that is tripping was labelled by the electrician as "lights/plugs". It has 5 lights on it (kitchen, eating nook, dining room, and two outdoor lights) although I went around with a LED tester and every plug I tested worked while the circuit was off. I think I got 98% of the plugs in the house so I can't seem to locate the ones that are on the circuit.
2) The circuit seems to trip when the lights are off. The first time appeared to happen overnight when we were sleeping. Jenn came down and the lights didn't work. The second time happened later the same day when she had the lights off and was in another room. When she returned and turned the lights on, they didn't work and the circuit was tripped.
3) Two of the lights have compact fluorescents. The rest are regular.

So far the best idea I've come up with is to leave the lights on and try to notice exactly when the circuit is tripped and see what's going on. Unless I can find the mystery plugs that are on the circuit, I don't understand why a circuit of lights would decide to trip sporadically. I'd think either they'd never work (there's a short in one of the cans) or they'd always work.

I'm open to ideas of what's going wrong or how to diagnose it. :)
02/12/2009 01:00:38 AM · #2
A question, is it a GFI circuit, with a test button on the circuit breaker? If so, there may be something on that line that gets damp enough to trip the circuit breaker.
It could be just a tired circuit breaker, or corrosion on the lug where the breaker locks into the bus bar in the panel too, or perhaps a loose wire on the breaker.
Remember, "If you can't fix it with a hammer, it's an electrical problem" : )
One other thing that comes to mind would be a cross wired 3 or 4 way switch somewhere in that circuit.

Message edited by author 2009-02-12 01:01:24.
02/12/2009 01:32:05 AM · #3
IF you're safe / comfortable working inside the electrical panel, try swapping the suspected bad breaker into a different position (another of the same rating). If the problem follows to the new location, then its a faulty breaker. Take it to the hardware store & replace with same brand / rating.

Let us know what happens Jason.


02/12/2009 01:40:57 AM · #4
I don't think there is a GFI on the circuit. There certainly isn't one in the box in the garage and like I said, I haven't found any plugs that seem to be on the circuit.

I hadn't really thought about the breaker itself being bad. I'll be opening the box this weekend because I have to install a dedicated 20-amp circuit for my treadmill. I'll take a look and see what it looks like. Maybe I'll pick up an extra 15-amp breaker while I'm at home depot. They are cheap enough it may just be easiest to try to replace it.

02/12/2009 02:12:15 AM · #5
If the new breaker does not fix it, then I would suspect one of both of the two outside light fixtures could be the problem.
I have seen times when a weak breaker would trip because the one next to it or just beneath it became warm. Check the adjacent lugs when you look at the one giving you problems.
You seem to know some about circuits, so if you have an amp meter, you could check to see if there is a load on that circuit when the lights are turned off. Another way to check, for load without a meter is to take the wire off the breaker, and touch it to the wire lug on the breaker to see if it sparks. I have cut off an extension cord and connected the female end in series with the load on a breaker before to see if it had a load coming on line that I didn't know about. With a drop light or lamp plugged into the cord, the lamp will light if a load comes on the circuit. You can put the lamp where you will see it.
There may be a shorted attic fan or pipe heater, or something out of the way with a thermostat or timer connected to that circuit.
02/12/2009 02:42:47 AM · #6
Originally posted by DrAchoo:

collective genius of DPC.


Snort. I suspect with your karma that it is water damage somewhere on the circuit that the breaker controls. You need a small ac light you can carry about and identify EVERY AC outlet that is on that circuit. Plug in the light, have the assistant turn off the breaker and see if that outlet is on that circuit. It could be a bad appliance on that circuit. Once you've identified all the outlets, remove the breaker. Unplug all devices using that circuit. Unscrew every light on that circuit. Measure an outlet and make sure no voltage is on the outlet.

With an ohmmeter that can measure at least into the 100,000 ohm range measure across the blades and across each blade to ground. Old houses may not have a ground terminal. If you measure *ANY* resistance across the blades or to ground at 100,000 ohm range you may have water damaged cable. I had exactly this problem on a circuit with my fridge. It turned out that a wiring staple had been driven thru the cable when installed. Later a leak developed in that wall and saturated the wood around that staple providing a ground and occasionally tripping the breaker. Usually only when I was on a trip so all the food would spoil in the fridge.

I would suggest that you have a licensed electrician troubleshoot this problem for you. A good experienced one will have seen almost every type of failure. These types of failures can cause fires. Make sure your battery powered smoke detectors have fresh batteries.
Good luck.

Message edited by author 2009-02-12 02:46:24.
02/12/2009 11:07:36 AM · #7
My house is much older than yours and over the past 10 years has had it's share of bizarre electrical problems.

I have plenty of stories about some of the "improvements" that have been made by various owners over the past 8 decades.

If you know an electrician or have a rental place nearby, you might want to look into borrowing/renting a circuit tracer. It will allow you to follow the wire from the breaker panel through wall, floors etc and find exactly what this breaker does. You could buy one, but they're kinda pricey.

I had a "mystery breaker" in the panel when I moved in and it tripped all the time, but, none of the lights went off and it didn't seem to control any of the outlets in the house. I followed the wire and discovered in went outside, under the front yard where it ended. Evidently, there had been an outdoor light next to the stairs at one time and when it got taken out, they just gobbed tape on the end and buried it. I just left it off until I figured out what it was. Imagine if the power had been switched on and someone cut that with a shovel while digging in the yard. Ouch!
02/12/2009 11:34:27 AM · #8
I know you live here in PNW so stupid question, but is it raining when it trips?

My guess is the outdoor outlets get wet and trip the breaker. I'm also guessing it's been happening for awhile and the breaker is wearing out so it trips pretty easy now.

However, there should be GFCI on the outdoor outlets? I think that's required per code (it was in Arizona)?

Also, seems strange to me that the outdoor outlets are on the same circuit as indoor lights? But I'm far from pro...
02/12/2009 11:36:13 AM · #9
I just know that you should never use your tongue as a voltage tester. It hurts like hell...
02/12/2009 12:44:51 PM · #10
I had wondered about a drip or water. The outdoor lights are both under recessed areas so they are unlikely to be getting drenched. It's been fairly dry lately, but I'll keep an eye out for that. The outdoor plugs are not on the circuit. I did worry because the master shower is above one of the rooms on the circuit. I don't, however, see any water stains anywhere and I don't hear a drip when the shower is on.

I have an AC light and I used it on every plug I could find. I could not identify any as being on the circuit because when the breaker was off they all lit. It is possible that something hidden is on the circuit as mentioned like an attic fan or the like.

I'm going to try a new breaker first because it's easy. If that doesn't solve it, then I may have to call in the pros. My father was a general contractor for 20 years and I put myself through undergrad framing houses, so I have a good base of information about how a house is put together, but the electrical system is probably my least knowledgable area. If the breaker doesn't work, I'll see if I can test for a load, although I don't have the equipment for that now.
02/12/2009 01:02:56 PM · #11
Originally posted by DrAchoo:

... I moved last week into a 10-year old house ...

Have you talked to the prior owner? 1) To figure it out possibly. Happening before, etc...and 2) If a home purchase, was there a warranty?
02/12/2009 01:07:44 PM · #12
Originally posted by glad2badad:

Originally posted by DrAchoo:

... I moved last week into a 10-year old house ...

Have you talked to the prior owner? 1) To figure it out possibly. Happening before, etc...and 2) If a home purchase, was there a warranty?


There is no warranty and the previous owners were investors only so they did not live in it. Interestingly the kitchen light was disconnected when I moved in. Two white wires were not connected with a nut. It's possible the problem had been occuring and this was someone's solution, although the other lights worked while the kitchen light was disconnected.
02/12/2009 01:12:18 PM · #13
Dr Achoo, Try wiggling the switches one at a time. If they are loop wired and one is bad, it could arc when you turn it off.
02/12/2009 01:12:48 PM · #14
you could also check the outdoor light boxes - while the ciruit is off. it's possible there is some corrosion or even moth or spider web gunk in there that is enough to cause a sporadic short.

you also might want to see if the garage door opener ( if you have one ) - might be on that circuit. and maybe that is the outlet you've overlooked ? it is usually on the ceiling/upper framing of the garage.

our garage door opener didn't cause a breaker trip - but did start just radnomly opening and getting stuck on ( click, click, clicking ). i thought it might have been the neighbors being the same frequency ( a good 1000' away ) but when i went over to try our remote - theirs didn't open.

Message edited by author 2009-02-12 13:16:13.
02/12/2009 01:16:32 PM · #15
The most likely candidate is moisture, most likely with the outdoor plugs. At ten years old, there has to be a GFCI on the circuit with outdoor wiring. Otherwise, I do not believe it would be up to code. If you haven't found one, chances are there is another run off that circuit you are missing.

You say that you find that it is tripped when you try to turn on lights rather than "it trips when we turn on lights". That would further support it being water outside (sprinklers, heavy dew?), as you aren't turning on anything to trip it.

Good luck. I'm thinking an electrician is in order here.
02/12/2009 01:19:19 PM · #16
is there a garbage disposal - that doesn't work ?



Message edited by author 2009-02-12 13:20:16.
02/12/2009 01:29:21 PM · #17
Originally posted by soup:

is there a garbage disposal - that doesn't work ?


That worked. The problem with the electrician, as I see it, is the problem is sporadic. If I can't duplicate it, I'm not sure what they can do.

Message edited by author 2009-02-12 13:30:06.
02/12/2009 01:45:58 PM · #18
Originally posted by DrAchoo:

I had wondered about a drip or water. The outdoor lights are both under recessed areas so they are unlikely to be getting drenched. It's been fairly dry lately, but I'll keep an eye out for that. The outdoor plugs are not on the circuit. I did worry because the master shower is above one of the rooms on the circuit. I don't, however, see any water stains anywhere and I don't hear a drip when the shower is on.

I have an AC light and I used it on every plug I could find. I could not identify any as being on the circuit because when the breaker was off they all lit. It is possible that something hidden is on the circuit as mentioned like an attic fan or the like.

I'm going to try a new breaker first because it's easy. If that doesn't solve it, then I may have to call in the pros. My father was a general contractor for 20 years and I put myself through undergrad framing houses, so I have a good base of information about how a house is put together, but the electrical system is probably my least knowledgable area. If the breaker doesn't work, I'll see if I can test for a load, although I don't have the equipment for that now.


It could still be a leak from the bathroom, one that's too small to soak through the ceiling below, but enough to cause a short. My parents had a leak for years that was caused by a trim nail being in contact with a copper supply line for the bathroom. Galvanic corrosion ate through the pipe and it dripped for a long time until the hole grew big enough that the water soaked the kitchen ceiling below.

It might also be critters chewing the insulation.

Hopefully, it's just the breaker.
02/12/2009 01:48:14 PM · #19
Originally posted by Spazmo99:

It could still be a leak from the bathroom, one that's too small to soak through the ceiling below, but enough to cause a short. My parents had a leak for years that was caused by a trim nail being in contact with a copper supply line for the bathroom. Galvanic corrosion ate through the pipe and it dripped for a long time until the hole grew big enough that the water soaked the kitchen ceiling below.

It might also be critters chewing the insulation.

Hopefully, it's just the breaker.


I hope so too. The big problem with the leak theory is really there's no way to know without cutting holes somewhere and I want to avoid that if possible. The wallboard has a texture on it that would be difficult to simulate.
02/12/2009 01:52:45 PM · #20
Originally posted by DrAchoo:

Originally posted by Spazmo99:

It could still be a leak from the bathroom, one that's too small to soak through the ceiling below, but enough to cause a short. My parents had a leak for years that was caused by a trim nail being in contact with a copper supply line for the bathroom. Galvanic corrosion ate through the pipe and it dripped for a long time until the hole grew big enough that the water soaked the kitchen ceiling below.

It might also be critters chewing the insulation.

Hopefully, it's just the breaker.


I hope so too. The big problem with the leak theory is really there's no way to know without cutting holes somewhere and I want to avoid that if possible. The wallboard has a texture on it that would be difficult to simulate.


I hope it doesn't come down to it, but a plumber can pressure-test the pipes to check for a leak.
02/12/2009 01:59:19 PM · #21
The joys of home ownership! :)

The never used dishwasher had a bad valve and apparently the valve under the sink is also defective. I'm really happy I can do some of this stuff or it could be getting expensive. (I guess I would have probably pushed for a warranty if that was the case, but we got the house for a very good price and I didn't want to ruffle feathers and get the sellers to decide it wasn't worth it to them to take a loss.)
02/12/2009 02:00:17 PM · #22
This is why electricians make more money than photographers. I's the knowledge. You call the photog. for wedding pictures and not the electrician because the photog knows how to take pictures, you call an electrician to fix electrical problems because s/he knows about electricity. My suggestion on how to fix the situation is to keep-it-simple-stupid: CALL AN ELECTRICIAN BEFORE THE HOUSE BURNS DOWN and leave the photogs, here, out of the loop as it's obvious from the above discussions, they know nothing.
02/12/2009 02:00:18 PM · #23
This is why electricians make more money than photographers. I's the knowledge. You call the photog. for wedding pictures and not the electrician because the photog knows how to take pictures, you call an electrician to fix electrical problems because s/he knows about electricity. My suggestion on how to fix the situation is to keep-it-simple-stupid: CALL AN ELECTRICIAN BEFORE THE HOUSE BURNS DOWN and leave the photogs, here, out of the loop as it's obvious from the above discussions, they know nothing.
02/12/2009 02:03:03 PM · #24
Come on. Where's your sense of adventure? ;) Don't worry, I'll call. But I can do the easy stuff myself and that's often enough.
02/12/2009 02:06:32 PM · #25
your response is in a thread where a doctor who also takes pictures posted a question. i'm not sure about everyone elses careers - but i'm pretty sure there is a response in this thread from an electrical engineer...

other responses may have come from working electrcians or those that have worked as an electrician in the past - for all you know.

so maybe you should buzz off and short out ... ?

Originally posted by d56ranger:

This is why electricians make more money than photographers. I's the knowledge. You call the photog. for wedding pictures and not the electrician because the photog knows how to take pictures, you call an electrician to fix electrical problems because s/he knows about electricity. My suggestion on how to fix the situation is to keep-it-simple-stupid: CALL AN ELECTRICIAN BEFORE THE HOUSE BURNS DOWN and leave the photogs, here, out of the loop as it's obvious from the above discussions, they know nothing.

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