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How to short-circuit your common electrical problems

Common electrical problems - loose wires

If you buy a home in the Washington, D.C. metro area, you’re probably buying a previously owned home. We’re not just making stuff up - according to Zillow, the local housing stock is among the oldest in the country, with the majority of homes repping the Roaring ‘20s. And while old homes come with character and charm, but it's also normal to find some common electrical problems.

Common electrical problems

Old homes may come with character and charm, but it's also normal to find some common electrical problems.

Ever discover that you have light switches and outlets that don’t work?

Do you find that you keep tripping circuit breakers?

Ever run the toaster and your hair dryer at the same time and fried every circuit in the house? 

These minor electrical problems can be a major inconvenience — and they can be the symptoms of bigger, more dangerous issues. Let's figure out when you can take common electrical problems into your own hands, and when you should call in the professionals. 

Your guide to common electrical problems

The Switch to Nothing

Common electrical problems

Let's talk about the mystery light switch.

  • If you have a light switch that doesn't seem to control anything at all, there’s a good chance it's been disabled by an improperly replaced receptacle (what most of us call a plug or outlet).
  • Modern building codes dictate that most rooms must have a light controlled by a wall switch. To make the placement of that light more flexible, switch-controlled receptacles for portable lamps are installed in most living rooms, family rooms, and bedrooms.
  • But - if both halves of the receptacle haven’t been activated after placement and the lamp is plugged into the non-activated half - it won't respond to the light switch.
  • The connections in the receptacle may also be loose, or the wires may not have been attached correctly. If you want to take a look at your outlets to see if they are wired correctly, watch the video below.

IMPORTANT NOTE: Don’t forget to turn off the power before checking! Also, please remember that if you feel uncomfortable about addressing any common electrical problems yourself, there's no shame in scheduling service with a trained professional.

Could It Be the Outlet? Blame it on GFCI.

Another reason that outlet might not work could be that it's part of a circuit with GFCI (ground fault circuit interrupter) outlets, the kind that have Test and Reset buttons.

GFCI outlets immediately trip and shut off power if there’s a leak in the electrical current. A leak and subsequent trip in one of these outlets will cause all connected outlets to go dead — and electricians often save money by connecting additional standard outlets to one GFCI outlet. If your dead outlet is near an area with GFCI outlets, test them.

If the Reset button doesn’t pop out when you press the Test button, there may be no power to the GFCI or you may just have a bad GFCI.

If the Reset button trips again every time you press it, there may be a current leak somewhere on the circuit. Time to call in the pros!

Tripping Circuits

Common electrical problems

You’re drying your hair and reheating your coffee in the microwave. Suddenly, the lights go out.

High-wattage items like microwaves and hair dryers can often overload a circuit. The job of the breaker system is to shut itself off and stop the flow of electricity so the circuit and its wiring don't overheat and cause damage — or worse, start a fire.

If this is an occasional problem, you simply reset the circuit breaker and carry on with your life. But if it trips again immediately after you flip the switch, or if trips happen consistently, you'll want to find out what’s making it happen.

It’s likely one of these three common electrical problems:

1. Overloaded Circuit: Circuit breakers usually trip because there’s more electrical load or current running through the circuit than the circuit can handle.

The easiest solution is to redistribute the power being used from one circuit to others — move the more power-consuming devices like heaters and hair dryers to a circuit that’s not using as much juice, or turn off some of the devices on the circuit to reduce the load.

2. Short Circuit: This is a little more serious. A short circuit occurs when a hot wire touches another hot wire or a neutral wire, or if there is a break in a wire in the circuit.

Sometimes you may smell something burning or see brown or black discoloration at the outlet. Turn the power off at the outlet that seems to be causing the problem and inspect your power cords for damage or a melted appearance.

You can also check the insulation on the wires to make sure it’s not cracked, and see if a black (hot) wire is touching a white (neutral) wire. Do this for all outlets in the circuit.

IMPORTANT NOTE: If you hear a pop or see a flash at the same time the circuit breaker trips, leave it off! If the circuit breaker keeps tripping even with all of the devices disconnected, leave it off! Call an electrician.

3. Ground Fault: If you don’t have an overloaded circuit or a short, your next step is to check for a ground fault.

Ground faults occur when the hot (black) wire touches the ground wire (which is made from bare copper) or the side of a metal outlet box (which is connected to the ground wire).

If you see a ground fault, you can correct it by making sure the hot wire isn’t touching the metal outlet box or the metal wire.

Know when to call in the professionals.

 Electricity is no joke. Over 400 people die each year in the United States from electrocution. Another 4,000 are injured and $1.6 billion in property is damaged by the friend that lives in our home, powers our devices and makes our lives easier.

If you have an electrical issue in Washington D.C., please consider calling a professional immediately if you have any questions at all. And if you do feel like you can suss out the problem yourself, make sure to turn your power off, first.

Stay safe, D.C.!