lost power to half of house - where to start wiring diagrams?

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Topic by Becky posted 03-03-2013 08:18 PM 57768 views 0 times favorited 15 replies Add to Favorites Watch
View Becky's profile


81 posts in 3294 days

03-03-2013 08:18 PM

Topic tags/keywords: electric circuit

ok, so I’m a complete noob when it comes to anything electrical. I’ve lived in my 1954 built ranch for going on 7.5 years now and have only had the issue I’m about to discuss twice. I have lost power to half my house. All of the outlets and lights are of course on one circuit, but the circuit breaker did not trip. We had the local power co. come out and verify it is not something from the pole (like it the one other time this has happened). I’m not comfortable DIY’ing this as the electric in this house has been DIY’d before and not well. I’d rather not end up in a ‘shocking’ situation, so I will be trying to locate a good electrician tomorrow :) My question is, where is the best place to start when trying to create a wiring diagram? Is it the main panel and work my way up/out? I was figuring this may be a good start on limiting the amount of time the electrician needs to track down the issue or help me to get a bit more comfortable with how this is all run throughout the house.

-- aspiring jill of all trades

View GaryL's profile


206 posts in 3181 days

03-04-2013 12:01 AM

Do you have any GFCI’s? Check those to be sure they did not trip.
Do you think it is just one circuit or more? If it’s more than you may have lost one leg of your 220 either in the panel or your meter box. This of course should be checked by your electrician. He’ll probably start by tightening the lugs in both boxes to check. If this does restore power be sure to press him to disassemble the trouble maker and find out why it no longer had a connection and then reassemble with an antioxidant paste. If he just tightens it and leaves it, it may still not have a good connection and can go out again or worse overheat.

-- The difference between a pro and an amateur, an amateur points out his mistakes

View Becky's profile


81 posts in 3294 days

03-04-2013 12:39 AM

Thanks Gary! I did check the three GCFI’s in the main bathroom – they were not tripped. I did use the test function and the test light comes on all three of them. I need to go downstairs and check the one on the sump pump since it’s the only other GCFI outlet in the loop. Honestly, all of that side of the house is wired to one circuit breaker. So let me think – that makes – seven outlets and four lights, and one exhaust fan upstairs, and one light and two outlets downstairs. It went out between 1am and 7am yesterday so the only thing that I would think could have tripped it would be the sump pump GCFI. Guess I better go look.

-- aspiring jill of all trades

View GaryL's profile


206 posts in 3181 days

03-04-2013 01:46 AM

Any luck with the sump pump GFCI ?

-- The difference between a pro and an amateur, an amateur points out his mistakes

View J's profile


70 posts in 2591 days

03-04-2013 02:20 AM

Sometimes breakers do not trip, they fail.

I would agree with Gary, sometimes wires just need to be re-tightened to their respective connections. If you have a wire, either the white or the black that has come loose at the beginning of the run (in the panel or the first outlet) then the rest of the run will not work. An outlet tester ($5) will show many of the common faults and give you an idea where to start.

Keep in mind when you open things up and start poking around for 120v
The black wire is connected to the breaker, and the gold colored screw on outlets, it is the “hot” wire
the white wire is connected to the silver bar in the panel and the silver screw on the outlet, it is the “neutral” wire
you will also find (in modern wiring) that the ground wires are also connected to the silver bar in the main panel, if you have a sub-panel the ground wires are on their own bar as part of a code requirement involving something called bonding.

So if you plug an outlet tester into an outlet and the lights show “open neutral” then the fix is simple – you have a loose white wire somewhere – check the silver bar called the “neutral bus bar” then move on to the outlets and junction boxes. Tug the wires see if they slip easily out of their connections.

If the outlet tester does not light up at all then you have no power for your hot leg – that means you need to start at the breaker panel. If you have a multi-meter check for power on the two hot legs that feed your panel – if you find one side of your panel does not have power (refer to GaryL, retighten connections and use Noalox antioxidant grease) move on to check the breaker for power. No power, change the breaker.

If the breaker is good move on to your boxes. Try and find the outlet/box that is closest to the panel – you are looking for the first outlet in the run, look for loose connections again. If your connections are good and you have no power (I assume you either have checked all of the boxes at this point or you are sure that this is the first box in the run) then the next step is to check for continuity.

Checking for continuity requires a multimeter, and I use one that beeps. Continuity is a very easy concept – touch the two leads on the multimeter and the meter tells you that you have a connection, again my meter beeps when this happens.

So, now you want to see if the wires that enter the boxes have continuity. You can use an extension cord plugged into an outlet (BE SURE THE POWER IS OFF WHEN YOU ARE DOING THIS) and then put one lead into the female part of the extension cord and touch the other lead to the corresponding wire on the circuit you are testing for continuity. The white wire is connected to the big prong, the black wire is connected to the small prong – so dont connect your meter lead to the ground of the extension cord and expect to find continuity by touching the other lead to the black wire that connects to the breaker. I don’t want to sound rude, I am only trying to be clear.

Your problem does not sound that difficult to fix, the worst case scenario would be that you or the electrician would have to pull a new wire from the panel to a box located somewhere on the circuit if mice or something like that have chewed through the wires feeding the circuit.

One other consideration, if you do not have “pigtailed” outlets and it turns out the first outlet in the run has loose connections or the outlet itself has failed, then now would be the time to have the outlets pigtailed – it will prevent you from losing power to all down stream (called the load) junction boxes and make it much easier to find problems should they arise in the future – instead of multiple outlets going out at once it usually is just one, unless the breaker fails.

I hope what I have written isn’t confusing or overwhelming, with a multimeter, outlet tester and an extension cord(used ONLY as a means to extend the leads of your multimeter) you should be able to test your whole circuit in less than one hour.

-- I found the board stretcher... finally!

View Becky's profile


81 posts in 3294 days

03-04-2013 12:46 PM

wow, thanks J! I’ll look into all of that when I get home this afternoon.

@GaryL – it wasn’t a GCFI like I thought – just a regular outlet :|

-- aspiring jill of all trades

View GaryL's profile


206 posts in 3181 days

03-04-2013 02:21 PM

Everything J has said is right on the money. If you feel comfortable tackling that type of troubleshooting you can save some good money over an electrician doing it for XX amount an hour.
The plug in tester that J mentions is fairly simple to use and they have the diagnostics printed right on them. What lighting configuration for that situation i.e. no ground, no neutral, reverse connections, etc.
That a great place to start. The rest that J refers to depends on how familiar and comfortable you are with residential wiring. He has given spot-on advice ( Thumbs up J ).

This is a tester from Home Depot…$6

-- The difference between a pro and an amateur, an amateur points out his mistakes

View Becky's profile


81 posts in 3294 days

03-04-2013 05:02 PM

Well, I would have if the electrician hadn’t beaten me to it! The company that is doing our basment remodel was contacted since this impacted our basement outlets as well and they sent an electrician over. He was able to find that it was the outlet that is first on the load – one of the ones in the spare bedroom. Apparently when I reset the GCFI oulets last night in the bathroom that made them work, but not the lights themselves. He’s in the process of fixing this outlet. Funny since an electrician was the last person to touch that outlet when the bathroom was redone.

-- aspiring jill of all trades

View GaryL's profile


206 posts in 3181 days

03-04-2013 06:31 PM

Glad that you have found the problem.
Electricians are like any other trade…there are good ones and there are bad ones.
I’ve been in the building trades for over thirty years and trust me, most inspectors don’t catch very many of the common mistakes. They enforce the codes but can’t enforce quality. It’s nearly impossible for an inspector to physically check every detail in an install. You need to rely on competent tradesmen/contractors to do a safe quality job.

-- The difference between a pro and an amateur, an amateur points out his mistakes

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