Mystery... HELP!


  #1  
Old 12-29-03, 10:04 PM
turboBB
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Unhappy Mystery... HELP!

OK, this is a bit long so please bear with me.
I know I will definitely need to hire an electrician but just wanted to educate myself better before doing so. I am by no means an electrician so I apologize if I'm not describing things correctly or using the wrong terminology.



I live in a condo that's built on stilts (literally) in Edgewater, NJ. The unit is approx. 30 years old. Circuity is 220/240?

Problem:
I believe that one of the 120V lines (left side) coming in to the service panel from the main breaker (which is located outside of my condo) is dead. I've checked at the main breaker and there is electricity there so it seems the problem is somewhere along the lines between the main breaker and the service panel. I'm having a really difficult time trying to trace the darn wire as accessiblity beneath my unit is very limited since it is built on a hill and I can not get a ladder on any level ground.

Q1: Is there a tool that will allow you to trace this sort of issue? (I know there are tools that will allow you to track an outlet back to the service panel but the one I imagine that I would need would be capable of finding an open circuit from the main breaker into the service panel. Not sure if this exists or not.)

Q2: Interesting thing I discovered is that even after shutting off the main breaker, my meter is still turning slowly. Is this normal? (I thought that once you shut off the main breaker the meter would be dead as there is no current draw.)

Q3: I've called my local utility company (PSE&G) to investigate this but they said that anything after the main breaker is the owner's responsibility. Is this correct? (I've heard that in most states, the lines from the main breaker up to the service panel are the responsibility of the local utility company.)

Q4: I see many junction boxes(?) below my unit which seems like it extends the main wires. I thought that perhaps the issue lies in one of these boxes with a wire being loose or something as shortly before the left line went completely dead it would sometimes "stutter" on and off and sometimes I'd get reduced voltage on the line. Also I'd imagine that if there was a loose line, that line would be running pretty darn hot. I've touched the insulated part of the main wires at the main breaker and at the service panel but neither were warm to the touch. Thoughts?

Q5: As a temporary fix, I've moved all the single breakers from the dead bar to the good one and aggresively monitored the lines to make sure it wasn't overloaded. Was this a big no no?


Slightly off topic of main issue but may be related:
The weird thing is that I have a 60AMP dual breaker for the water heater and if the breaker is on, it somehow allows elec. from the right side into the left line. So if you can imagine the two main lines running side by side into two separate hot bars. The left line is dead and the right line is live. If I turn that breaker off then I meaure no voltage in the left line but if I turn it on then I read around 120 (drops to 70 if my 240V HVAC comes on). No other breaker in the panel causes this so at first I thought perhaps the breaker was bad and I swapped it with an identical 60AMP dual breaker servicing the stove but got the same results. If I shut the breaker off, then left line is dead, if I turn it on it allows elec. from right line to be read in left line as well. (sorry if I'm not making sense but that's the best I can describe it)

Q1: Is this normal?
Q2: Measuring the voltage across the two mains, I expected to get 240V but read only 122 which further backs up my assumption that the left line is dead. However if I turn that 60AMP breaker for the water heater on, it reads slight over 1V accross the two mains (yes that's correct one volt, it ranges between 1.07 and 1.09). What would cause this?

Lastly, can anyone recommend a really good electrician that services Northern Jersey? He/she might face some tough challenges with this one for as mentioned, accessibility underneath my unit is very bad.

Really sorry for all the questions but I'm just trying to understand all this better so I can prep myself before the electrician arrives.

Many, many thx for any advice you can provide!!
 
  #2  
Old 12-29-03, 10:58 PM
J
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First set:
Q2: No, not normal.
Q3: Yes, it is correct.
Q5: Probably okay, but I guess none of your 240-volt appliances work now.

Second set:
Q1: Yes, a 240-volt breaker can backfeed power to the other bus. You should turn off all 240-volt breakers to avoid damage to your appliances from getting incorrect voltage. By the way, I'm sure that water heater breaker is a 30-amp breaker, not a 60-amp breaker. You're not adding those two 30s together, are you? It doesn't work that way.

Q2: Measuring the voltage difference between two hunks of unconnected metal is meaningless. You can get that much voltage by sticking your probes into a potato.
 
  #3  
Old 12-30-03, 07:09 AM
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I would be willing to bet that your problem isn't as complicated as you believe. Your post has left me a bit confused - you need to simplify the explanation of your electrical system. Start where the utility wiring comes into your house and proceed "downstream" from there. I'm not sure that your "main breaker" reading is coming from a true "main" or from a subpanel. How is your meter wired? Is it located above a "trough" that serves other condos? The only way to determine if your problem is yours or the power companies is to cut off ALL of your breakers, pull the meter and obtain a reading from the line side of the meter. The fact that your meter still runs after your main is cut off is troubling - if indeed your "main" is off. If you have another panel box outside (probably adjacent to your meter) then there may be a breaker out there that turns off your inside box as well as a few more breakers. Cutting off all breakers and obtaining a reading at the main lugs in that panel would give you a better idea of your problem. If you do have such a box, and you cut off all your breakers and get a 240V reading (and 120V to ground on each phase) then you need to cut your breakers back on and retake your reading. If you have a drastic change on any of your readings (more than a few volts), then you have a problem someone between your "main breaker" and the power company transformer. Cutting off the inside "main" but leaving the outside breakers on will isolate your problem further. Sometimes you have to put your system under load to realize the problem. I once found where an underground incoming utility wire had a minor "leak" into the ground and only showed at the meter when I put the house under load.

Being in a condo, some unscrupulous person in a neighboring condo could have tapped into your electrical system (ahead of your "main" breaker - which is why your meter would be running when you have all your circuits off. I have seen this situation before where several apartments shared a common crawl space and someone tapped off a neighbors circuitry (not ahead of the true main breaker in this case).

Once again, trace the circuitry from the transformer to the point of service entry, to your panel inside your condo and let us know what you have. If there is a trough below or above your meter, remove the cover if you can and describe what you see.
 
  #4  
Old 12-30-03, 07:36 AM
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John, thx for the reply!

Second set:
Q1: No, it's a large 240V breaker that is labeled, 60AMP. Is this too high for a water heater? I think my water heater is approx. 60Gal. capacity.

Q2: I'm measuring the voltage across the two live wires that's feeding the service panel and I was expecting 240V (as I get downstairs between the two live wires at the main breaker). Shouldn't that be the case?

Thx for tip about shutting breakers to 240V appliances. I'll do that as soon as I get home.



McJunk, I've reported the meter still moving after shut-off to PSE&G. Someone will contact me within 7 days to set up an appt. so they can investigate this.

To trace wiring from my service panel: I think it goes beneath my unit and into some junction boxes(?) and then finally into the main breaker which sits right below the meter and then above the meter is a box that houses all the wiring and from there I dunno. The electical panel that houses my meter is used for all the units. All meters are adjacent to each other which is why I believe my main breaker is here and that this is not a sub panel.

I'll try to post some pics later for clarification. Many thx for the reply and advice!
 
  #5  
Old 12-30-03, 07:57 AM
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I'm still a bit confused about your description. Does your power come in overhead or underground? It should go to the meter first, and then to your Main breaker. From there, the wires branch into your home.
 
  #6  
Old 12-30-03, 09:07 AM
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McJunk, sorry for the confusion.

OK, to trace power as it comes from the utility company, I believe it comes from underground and then up into an electrical panel. In that panel there is a box about 4.5 ft wide and 1.5 tall. In here are all the main wires that then feeds into each unit's meter (6 of 'em) and right beneath each meter is what I believe to be the main breakers. Below the breakers, the wires consolidate into one sheathed giant cable that is then routed underneath the units. As certain tiles have fallen off or been removed, I can see the main giant wire (from the elec. panel) goes into these junction boxes(?) and then from the junction boxes it goes into this hole which I assume goes up into each condo's service panels.

In the giant cable are what I believe 3 cables; 2 live each carrying 120V and then the return or neutral(?) wire.

Looking at my service panel, the 3 wires come into the panel from the south and the two lives are then routed up to the top and do a loop downwards (think of the M as in Mickey Ds) into the hot bars. The neutral(?) or return(?) wire is grounded I think?

So basically the live wire that is on the left is now dead. I used to only have intermittent issues where the power would go off or be reduced but it looks like it's finally bit the dust.
 
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Old 12-30-03, 09:50 AM
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If I understand correctly, the power company feed comes from the transformer as one single underground feed to the condos, where it is split to each of the six condos. There are six "taps" made off of the main feeder that run into six different meters. Out of each meter, the power runs to six different service disconnect boxes (each one containing a breaker that serves as the main disconnecting means for the condo it powers). From the main disconnects, the six cables travel to six service panels (one in each condo). Those panels are considered SUBpanels and should be fed from the main service disconnect with a four-wire cable - two hots and a SEPARATE neutral and ground (bare). There should be two separate ground bars in your inside panel - one for neutrals and one for grounds. If the condos are fairly old, they may have gotten away with a 3-wire cable which shares the neutral and grounding functions.

Is the main breaker that you were cutting off located in your indoor panel. If so, and your meter was still running, are there any other breakers other than the main located inside the outdoor main service panel (adjacent to meter)?

Did you check the voltage at the main disconnect panel, where the conductors enter?
 
  #8  
Old 12-30-03, 10:59 AM
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McJunk, sorry I goofed, yes you're right, there are 4 wires: 2 hots, 1 neutral and 1 bare ground.

The main breaker is downstairs in the electrical panel right beneath my meter. I've checked the electricity there and it's fine which is why I think the problem lies between that point and my service panel. The other breakers are for the other units' main disconnect.

As for the meter still running after shutting off that main breaker that remains a big mystery as I fail to see how anyone would be able to tap into my line before the main since there's no way to shut power off to it. Unless of course there really is another panel somewhere that I'm not aware of.

Many thx for all the responses! I feel better prepared to discuss this with the electrician that's coming out tomorrow. I'll keep you guys posted.
 
  #9  
Old 12-30-03, 12:27 PM
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If you checked the voltage coming off the main breaker and it read fine, AND you checked the voltage at your subpanel and found the faulty readings, then yes, you are correct - the problem lies somewhere between the main breaker and the subpanel. I will asume that you took your readings at the "load" side of the main breaker. If you took your readings at the "line" side (direct connection to meter), then you haven't ruled out the possibility of a bad main breaker or bus that the breaker is connected to.

If the problem does lie somewhere in the cable between the panels, then you will either have to find the problem (you did say there were some junction boxes under the house) or replace the entire cable, which could get expensive. Feeder cables aren't generally spliced, but if you are lucky, there is just a bad splice that needs to be repaired in the junction box under the house. If you can locate the fault before the electrician arrives and tell him what the problem is (i.e. he needs to bring out whatever is required to splice 200A (?) conductors together you should be able to get out with the minimum one hour service call plus 20 bucks or so in parts.

Good luck and let us know how it turns out.
 
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Old 12-30-03, 07:32 PM
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I've checked both the load and line side and they're fine. I'm keeping my fingers crossed that it's either something in the junction boxes or that a critter has chewed through one of the lines somewhere along the line.

I'll let you know how it goes. THX!
 
  #11  
Old 12-31-03, 11:41 AM
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OK, it turns out the fault was ultimately found in the junction box. There was a loose connection in one of the mains. The electrician said that as aluminum wire was used, these wires will gradually shrink over time and the bug(?) that was used to secure it was no longer effective.

Man that bad connection was pretty fried. He had to chop off at least 6 inches in order to get to good wiring.

I also noticed that when I shut off the main breaker today that my meter was no longer turning. The electrician mentioned that the meter turning after shut off may have been due to the main breaker not completely shutting off both phases and that perhaps one phase was still running. Does this sound right?

The total bill came out to $400 as he brought along an apprentice (who basically did nothing) and charged for him as well. Total time spent was 2 hours with $125 for first hour and $75 for the next.

John/mcjunk, many thanks for all your help.
 
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Old 12-31-03, 12:00 PM
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$400 - jeesh. Where do you live? We had the problem diagnosed for him (bad connection in the junction box). Why did it take him two hours to repair one splice. And according to my math you spent $200 on material. For one #4/0 aluminum split bolt and some rubber splicing and electrical tape? At most he spent $20 on material. Did he give you a bill with cost breakouts?

Have you already paid the bill? I guess you're stuck with the labor charge, but I would certainly question the material charge.
 
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Old 12-31-03, 12:07 PM
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Oh, and about your main breaker. Highly unlikely that your breaker would only shut off one phase. If true, that's not good at all. What if you turn the breaker off to do some work in your indoor panel without realizing that you still have power? Did you take any voltage readings when the breaker was "off" but the meter was still turning? The main breaker is the only breaker in the box next to the meter, isn't it?
 
  #14  
Old 12-31-03, 01:11 PM
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He charged the rate for two people. I've spoken to my condo manager and he mentions that we can dispute the rate since it's OK for an electrician to bill for an helper but not at the same rate.

So basically he only charged for the labor ($125x2 and $75x2) and not the parts (which I think was around $25; insulated bug).

When I have time I'll go flick that breaker a few more times to see if I can get the meter to turn despite it being off and will take measurments then.

Many thx for all your help and have a great new year!
 
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Old 12-31-03, 01:21 PM
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I thought the labor rate was 125 & 75 bucks for both of them. How can you dispute the rate when he charged 125 for himself and 75 for his helper? Wow, you paid a guy 150 bucks to watch someone else work. There must be an electrical union up there.

In North Carolina, the charge would have been 75 bucks an hour, for both the electrician and helper.

Why did the job take two hours? Did he charge you for an hour of driving time? Is there a 2 hour minimum charge for service calls?
 
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Old 12-31-03, 01:56 PM
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Sorry, I'm confusing you. He charged $125 each for himself and the aid for the first hour and then charged $75 each for himself and the aid for the second hour ($125/hr x 2 people + $75/hr x 2 people).

He spent about an hour removing tile, poking around and getting to the junction box then approx. 30 minutes picking up the part and then another half hour to install the part.

As far as a minimum I'm not sure. I've not paid the bill yet since they were referred by the condo. I'm going to forward the bill to my condo mgr. to have a look and get him to talk it down. Apparently, according to my by-laws the elec. wiring underneath my unit, although physically situated outside of my unit, is still considered to be my responsibility. Oh well...

I'm just happy to have heat and hot water again.
 
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Old 01-02-04, 05:48 AM
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He charged $125 each for himself and the aid for the first hour and then charged $75 each for himself and the aid for the second hour ($125/hr x 2 people + $75/hr x 2 people).
Same difference. He charged $250 for the first hour and $150 for the second hour. I would expect that their minimum service charge (for two people) is $250. It sounds like BS to me to be charging you $200 to have a helper stand around and do nothing. There's no reason to have a two-man crew doing service calls. It doesn't seem fair to charge you if they want to train someone to do service work.
 
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Old 01-02-04, 06:49 AM
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Agreed, I will definitely work with the condo mgr. to get the bill reduced. Once again, many thx for all your advice!

Boy, it's great to have everything in working order again.
 
 

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