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Why Aren’t My Electrical Outlets Working?

on January 8, 2016

A guide to common electrical receptacle problemsWhen we think of home electricity, we tend to think of light switches, lamps, and climate controls.  While it’s a bit archaic now, your electrical utilities even used to be called a “light bill” (though with some power hungry devices it’s anything but a light bill).

Yet your home revolves around electrical outlets more than it does wall switches and ceiling fixtures.  The layout of your living room, bedroom, and office are all dependent on wall outlets. We have so many electrical devices that their locations set up how we place things in a room.  When an outlet stops working completely, you’re left with rearranging the entire room or fixing the outlet.

Usually it’s better to fix the outlet.  It’s not all that difficult to troubleshoot an electrical outlet if you know what to look for in the first place.  Even if you’re not comfortable fixing the problem, knowing where it is can help speed up the repair by pointing a licensed technician in the right direction.  And some problems will require a licensed technician for safety purposes.

Breaker Trips/Overloads

Never overload your electrical circuitsOne of the simplest things to check is if the circuit itself is dead. Do other outlets in the room still function?  Is it just one plug, or are both plugs not delivering power?  More than one outlet seems to be offline, you may have simply tripped a breaker.

Locate your circuit breaker (typically in a closet) and open the door.  A tripped breaker will have a flipped tab (pointing opposite of everything else in its column).  Simple push the break back into position to power the circuit once again.  If the breaker continues to trip repeatedly, you may be overloading the circuit or the breaker could be bad.  Try removing some devices from the circuit, or call an electrician to inspect your home’s wiring and the breaker panel.

Bad Connections/Wiring

The simplest explanation is a lack of connection.  There are plenty of AC voltage testers which can tell you if an outlet is receiving power.  A simple voltage multimeter can tell you that without even removing the faceplate.  The first thing you should do is check for a ground fault circuit interrupter on the device.  If there is a GFCI, simply press the reset button and check if power is restored.  Otherwise, test the outlet with a multimeter or voltage pen to verify that no power is flowing to the outlet.

The next step is to remove the faceplate (turning off power to the circuit at the breaker first) and removing the outlet itself to check for cable problems.  Sometimes a cable can work itself loose or break due to aging, vibration, or thermal expansion.  If the wire has simply come loose from the outlet, simply reconnect it.

There are three types of outlet connections:

  • Stab Terminal: On the back of the outlet, if you see cables pushed into small holes, you’re looking at what’s known as a stab terminal. If a cable is loose, do not simply reinsert the cable.  Use a pair of wire cutters to trim the cable back, strip the insulation a quarter of an inch off, and then reinsert the cable into the stab terminal.
  • Screw Terminal: If you find a small screw where the wires connect to the back of the outlet, that’s a screw terminal. The procedure is the same for screw terminals as it is for stab terminals.  Trim and remove the insulation before wrapping the wire around the screw and tightening it again.
  • Cable Splices: Sometimes the disconnect is in the form of a splice rather than the actual connection to the outlet. If you see that the cable has come loose from a splice, simply reconnect the wires.  If possible, try and remove the splice entirely by removing the spliced wire and connecting directly to the existing cable.

NOTE:  You should never reactivate power until you’ve restored the outlet and faceplate cover.  If you remove the faceplate and don’t see anything you’re familiar with, DO NOT try to fix the problem yourself, call a licensed electrician.

Aging

Even the ceramics, metals, and plastics of your home’s electrical system grow less usable with age.  Electrical outlets are no different.  Of course, the most likely failure for an outlet is its ability to hold a plug within the socket.  As outlets age, the metal contact blades inside expand due to repeated use and thermal expansion.  These blades can eventually reach a point where friction no longer holds a plug in place.

It’s best to replace an outlet that has aged to this point.  Plugs which slide out of the socket are prone to power failures and intermittent connections.  The constant resurging of power can be damaging to your device and the reconnections cause tiny electrical arcs which will lead to a buildup of carbon inside the socket.  This carbon buildup can become a fuel source for fires.  Electrical outlets are fairly inexpensive, and are definitely less expensive than the deductible on home-owner’s insurance.


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