Finding an Open Return??

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  #1  
Old 01-31-07, 08:00 AM
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Finding an Open Return??

Yesterday my recessed lights (on a dimmer switch) started flickering and then went out when the dimmer was on about halfway. I then turned the dimmer all the way on and the lights came back on. Started flickering again so I shut them off.
Turned on the highhats over the Fireplace so my wife had "some" light in the room until I fixed the problem (thought it may be the dimmer switch). Later that afternoon the highhats went off. Now none of the recessed lights or the ceiling fan turn on in the room, and the electical outlets on ONE SIDE of the room don't work. The TV on the opposite wall works, and is on the same breaker since it goes off when I shut the breaker. The breaker never tripped on it's own.
I pulled all the swithces out of the light swithc box (4 of them) and checked voltage. Was reading 123V on all switches when contacting the HOT wire and the GROUND WIRE. (also read 123v when touching the HOT wire and the metal part of the swich) This was with the breaker on, of course.
Shut the breaker and repaced the dimmer with a regular switch, didn't work. Checked ALL connections in the box, all tight. Seems like the builder (6 year old house) "pigtailed "all the connections for that half of the room, so I am not sure what the problem is. My next step was going to pull the electrical outlet that's not working and see if it's connected properly.


Any help would be appreciated!
Thanks, Dave
 
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  #2  
Old 01-31-07, 08:16 AM
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Your diagnosis work so far has been excellent. Probably just what I would have done.

Did you get any voltage reading between hot and neutral?

The best way to confirm the open neutral is to buy one of those $6 outlet testers, the kind that plug into a receptacle and have three lights on them. They are better than your multimeter at this diagnosis (because of phantom voltage).

If you do have an open neutral, there's no magic solution. Just shut off the breaker and open up every box on the circuit (whether working or not) looking for a bad connection. Be especially suspicious of backstabs (wires poked into holes), especially of white wires. Might as well move all the backstab connections to the adjacent screws while you're in there. Start with the boxes closest to the failure and move out from there. When you complete each box, turn the breaker back on to see if the problem got solved.
 
  #3  
Old 01-31-07, 11:02 AM
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No voltage between hot and white (return) wire - forgot to mention that. This is why I (my father in law who is a retired electrical engineer) thought it was an open return.

I gave each of the 'backstabs' a good tug. 1 was loose, and couldn't get it to stay secure, so I replaced the switch with a spare I have and it held tight, but wasn't the culprit.
 
  #4  
Old 01-31-07, 11:14 AM
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Keep at it. Persistence is the answer.
 
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Old 01-31-07, 05:10 PM
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Youron the right path. Are there neutral splices in the switch box?
 
  #6  
Old 01-31-07, 06:58 PM
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Do not use the back stabs. Instead use the screw terminals. It may be more work, but it's a much better connection.

You need to check everywhere on the circuit. You need to check the locations that work and the locations that don;t work. That means every light, every switch, every receptacle.
 
  #7  
Old 02-01-07, 09:34 AM
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There are 5 romex cables coming into the box. 1 is the feed, and the others are for the 4 switches in the box (highhats, recessed lights, ceiling fan, and switched outlet). I am assuming each of the lights and ceiling fan are the end of the circuit. I traced the switched outlet, which is pigtailed and leads to the last outlet on that wall.
There are 3 wire nuts in the box, neutral, black and bare ground. I counted the neutrals in the wirenut - 5. Also used my testlight on the hot wires in the wirenut and also the neutral in the other wirenut, and got nothing.

I am assuming the feed from the circuit breaker splits off in an oulet box just before the box I am having trouble with. I guess I need to find that box, for half of the room is still getting power.

With the receptacle tester still help me at this point?

Thanks.
 
  #8  
Old 02-03-07, 08:17 AM
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After eliminating all boxes except the one in the middle of the room behind the 400 pound TV and entertainment unit, I pulled the unit away from the wall. This must be where the feed is to the dead box with the 4 switches. Power strip is plugged in top outlet (all electronics plugged in here) and nothing is in the bottom outlet. Test light lights, but very dim. Connected my meter and it read 54 volts!!! So, definitely something wrong here. I am about to pull the outlet and look for a loose connection and hopefully solve the problem.
 
  #9  
Old 02-03-07, 02:35 PM
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I pulled the outlet and found the open return. This was the "switched" outlet so there was a black and red in two of the push in connections, and a return in each of the other push in's. The 3rd return was at one time around one of the screw connections, however, it was apparently never tightened. This wire was not connected to anything, and had burn marks on 2 inches of the wire. The bottom part of the plug was melted. I am lucky my house is still standing.

Problem solved.

Thanks.
 
  #10  
Old 02-03-07, 02:50 PM
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I sure hope that when you installed a new receptacle, and when you checked the other receptacles, that you disconnected all the back stabbed connections and switched them to screw terminals. If you didn't, then you will eventually be searching for another open circuit.

By the way, do you know what that 54 volts was indicating? If not, you should learn, so that next time you will know, OR you should test with a two wire tester or analog meter instead of a digital meter.
 
  #11  
Old 02-04-07, 08:45 AM
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Every switch & socket in my house is using backstabs, so I replaced the socket using the backstabs ensuring they were seated tightly. Also, the one wire attached to the screw was not screwed down at all, which caused the initial problem. So I made sure the one screw connection was tight.
I understand the backstabs are inferior to the screw-ons, and I will try and switch them over in time.

What is a two-wire tester you are referring to? I thought the digital meter I was using was considered a two-wire tester. And no, not sure what the 54 volts meant. I figured it had to do with the open return on that socket. Can you elaborate?

Thanks.
 
  #12  
Old 02-04-07, 09:05 AM
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Since you were replacing or verifying connections, you should have changed the back stabs. I am not suggesting that you go back and do so now (although you can if you want to). My house was originally wired with back stabs and they still remain at some of the original receptacles. Every time I have a box open for any reason I move any back stabbed connections to the screw terminals.

You are reading phantom voltage when you read 54 volts. The phantom voltage is an induced voltage caused by the wires running in parallel in the electrical cables. While the voltage is real, there is very little current behind it, so it won't run any electronics. Google the term phantom voltage for more information.

The 54 volts indicates an open connection, as you guessed. Some people mistake a reading in that range as incorrect wiring. They start looking for series wiring or something else. An analog meter would not have registered any voltage, and it would have been obvious that the problem was an open.

A two wire tester is a small hand held tester with two probes on it. The tester itself is a small light bulb. When connected the bulb will glow when 120 or 240 volts is present and the circuit is complete. The bulb will not glow for an open.

It is not recommended that homeowners use digital meters for working with home electricity because of phantom voltage. While they can be used, you just need to know how to interpret the results.
 
  #13  
Old 02-04-07, 12:38 PM
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Thanks for all of your advise. Well taken.

One more note. I have a two wire tester (test light) and the funny thing here is that when I first tested the outlet with the tester I thought it didn't glow at all, however it was glowing but VERY DIM. I tested another outlet to be sure and that other outlet glowed bright. That's when I used my digital meter and read the phantom voltage. So when you say the bulb won't glow for an open, does this also mean an open can cause a very dim glow too?
 
  #14  
Old 02-04-07, 01:01 PM
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Very dim is the same as not glowing at all.
 
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