Mysteriously Burnt Outlet

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  #1  
Old 10-10-12, 08:55 PM
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Mysteriously Burnt Outlet

I encountered a burned out electrical outlet today that has me scratchng my head. It's a standard 3 prong single-gang outlet. It was totally burnt. Black smoke marks ran up the drywall about 10". This outlet is a single wire outlet, only one 14/2 conductor w/ground was attached. It's about 18" from the floor. According to the renter, nothing was plugged into the outlet. The renter said they went out for a while, and when they came back, they discovered the damage. The breaker was tripped. The was no evidence of bugs, critters, centipedes, etc. in the outlet box. No chaffed wires. They DO have a dog.

I gotta ask the pros here; is it possible; have you ever seen a case where a dog raises his leg and pees on an outlet and causes it to burn out?

What else could cause this? Thanks.
 
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  #2  
Old 10-10-12, 09:03 PM
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This outlet is a single wire outlet, only one 14/2 conductor w/ground was attached.
Actually that would be single cable not wire. My guess would be they plugged a portable electric heater into it. The dog would be low on my list. Were the wires back stabbed? Is the breaker box a Zinsco or Federal Pacific (FPE)?
 
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Old 10-10-12, 09:03 PM
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If he did he won't be raising it anymore

By burnt out.....do you mean melted?
 
  #4  
Old 10-10-12, 11:32 PM
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By burnt, I mean totally fried.

The 14/2 w/ground cable was indeed, "back-stabbed" to the outlet. Only one cable ran to it. The Renter swears nothing was plugged into it. If the dog tinkled on it, and had dry paws on carpet, he would be above ground, so he might not get shocked, but his stream could cause a short???

Is there anything else that could cause this? Again, no bugs, spiders, insects of any kind in the junction box. Single cable termination. Never seen anything like this. ????
Note: Only the black (hot) wire showed evidence of over-heating, ie: the insulation was crispy. The white (neutural) and ground were OK. (normal) Haunted house? What gives?
 
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Old 10-10-12, 11:41 PM
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I'm still betting on electric heater. I haven't seen it that bad but I have seen burnt wires and white receptacles turned brown that crumble when you touch them. Back stab would accentuate the problem. What make of breaker box? FPE amd Zinsco have been known to not trip under overload.
 
  #6  
Old 10-10-12, 11:55 PM
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OMG... that receptacle is crying .

I'd go with ray.....a heavy draw device like a heater. It looks like someone took a blowtorch to it....some kind of actual flame....weird.
 
  #7  
Old 10-11-12, 12:08 AM
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An electric heater was my original thought, too. Again, the renter swears nothing was plugged in. They have central heat and air. No need for a heater in the living room, it's not even cold here yet. Not sure of the type breaker box, but the breaker HAD tripped. Can dog pee short out an outlet and make it burn? If not,what? Never saw anything like this.
 
  #8  
Old 10-11-12, 12:29 AM
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But the breaker may have tripped long after it should have. I would replace the breaker as a precaution. It is a 15 amp breaker isn't it?
 
  #9  
Old 10-11-12, 12:44 AM
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With kindest regards, I beg to ask what can cause an outlet to burn to a crisp when there's nothing plugged into it? It is a 20 amp double breaker. It DID trip. It did it's job. I'm not messing with that. I was only hoping to find the CAUSE of the trip and the fried outlet. I know, it sounds wierd to me too.
Thanks to all.
 
  #10  
Old 10-11-12, 01:52 AM
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I doubt anyone could tell you other then the dog. I use to do electrical fire restoration for Allstate Insurance.....that was the only time I'd seen outlets that bad. Possible reasons: dog pee (the wall would probably have been wet), lightning strike, carbon tracking (the carbon in the plastic became conductive)
 
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Old 10-11-12, 04:05 AM
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First of all the 20 amp breaker is too large for the 14-2 cable, thus the late tripping. Being a double breaker lends us to believe it could be a Multi Wire Branch Circuit as well. In NC, I doubt you have MWBC's, so it is probably miswired to a circuit it shouldn't be wired to.
If you believe your renters as to their mysterious arrival and this burning having taken place with nothing plugged in so be it. There aren't many bridges left to sell out there. It wouldn't matter if the dog was standing in rubber boots, if he peed on the receptacle it could have caused a short between the current carrying conductor and the neutral. He would have felt it.
 
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Old 10-11-12, 07:24 AM
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It is a 20 amp double breaker.
I would strongly suggest you get an electrician out now to change the breaker. If it is truly a 20 amp because it certainly shouldn't be. I suspect what you are calling a double breaker is really a tandem breaker and that isn't bad but if the wire is truly #14 you are very lucky you didn't have worse damage. Not raised yet is the possibility the cable in the wall may have been damaged.

There is a way for a receptacle to overheat but only if there are two cables and something down stream was plugged in. If your sure only one cable in the box then that is not the reason but you do need to check all receptacles on that circuit for damage. Finally you need to move all wires on all receptacles to the screws if back stabbed.
 
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Old 10-11-12, 08:39 AM
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Not saying that this happened to your outlet, but once when everything in the house was quiet, I heard a slight noise. Once I finally tracked it down, it turned out to be an outlet that was making an intermittent buzz- very faint. Turned out that there was a loose wire and it was arcing as it made contact with the terminal. It was VERY hot. I could imagine that something like that would be hot enough to burn eventually, or under the right circumstances.
 
  #14  
Old 10-11-12, 11:05 AM
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if it wasnt a heater it could have been a window air conditoner if it was in the living room (maybe they wanted to heat/cool one room rather than the whole house)

those Infrared heaters sold last few years that "save you hundreds on heating" are just as dangerous as any other glorfied heater and dont save anything because simply a Watt is a Watt is a Watt


or even a vaccum cleaner if the backstab connection was poor enough to cause arching.
 
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Old 10-11-12, 01:32 PM
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Looking at the picture, I would have to bet that something was in fact plugged into the bottom receptacle. That's where the majority of the heat damage is. If it were toward the back, then it could have been a loose connection... maybe. But you can't create heat or an arc without some type of connection between hot and neutral/ground.

Not that I would try it, but I seriously doubt any water (dog or otherwise) would cause an issue like that. Without submerging it, I would find it difficult to believe that a stream could cause a short. But... of course, stranger things have happened.

With that much damage, I would splurge and have an electrician come out and check the circuit. Something had to cause it, and you definitely don't want it happening again...
 
  #16  
Old 10-11-12, 03:41 PM
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I gotta ask the pros here; is it possible; have you ever seen a case where a dog raises his leg and pees on an outlet and causes it to burn out?
No. First of all, that didn't happen. You haven't said anything about a smelly yellow stain all over the wall and the carpet, nor about a dead or traumatized dog.

Second, in the unlikely event that a dog did pee directly onto a receptacle, i's unlikely that that would cause a short circuit that would create enough heat to start a fire. And you did have a fire.

Case in point: Several years ago on one of our jobs, we had connected the main gear for a new structure to utility power. The main gear room was off the first full level of parking below the multi-tenant building. The feed was 277Y/408V at a couple thousand amps - enough power to supply a small neighborhood. Not long after that, while we were still finishing out the building, we had a several-day rainstorm over a weekend.

When we walked in Monday morning, we had to back our bobcat up against the doors to the gear room to hold them against the pressure of the water inside long enough to open them and release the water. The gear was still energized, and undamaged. We don't know how deep the water was when we released it, but we could tell from the high-water marks on the walls and equipment that it had risen to four feet inside the room. Water, or dog pee, didn't start the fire in your rental property.

What else could cause this?
  • 14 gauge wire "protected" by a 20 amp breaker.
  • Overheating over the years as the breaker failed to open when the wire was overloaded.
  • A multiwire branch circuit, as suggested by the "20 amp double breaker," with very unbalanced loads.
  • A space heater.
  • A window air conditioner.
  • Physical damage to the receptacle -
to name a few, most of which have already been suggested.

It is a 20 amp double breaker. It DID trip. It did it's job. I'm not messing with that.
You'd better mess with that, as quickly and thoroughly as possible. If you really had a 20A breaker "protecting" a circuit wired with 14-2/G cable, then that breaker did not do the job it was designed to do. It did a job beyond its design, by protecting a smaller wire, with a lower ampacity, than it was designed for. You were lucky, this time. We'll never know why that happened but donating alms in gratitude seems indicated.

I was only hoping to find the CAUSE of the trip and the fried outlet.
We may never know that, either. As PJ said,
Originally Posted by PJmax
I doubt anyone could tell you other then the dog.
The electrician you hire to replace the breaker(s) may spot something indicative, but s/he may not. Have the cable in the wall inspected and replaced, if needed, as Ray suggested. And, if you care about the safety of your property and your tenants, and about meeting code and insurance requirements, make sure that the new single-pole breaker(s) that are installed provide AFCI - Arc Fault Circuit Interruption - protection to the circuits they supply.
 
  #17  
Old 10-11-12, 07:35 PM
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Many thanks to everyone. I was called by the landlord to look at the situation. It's not my double-wide. All I had to go on was the "story" I was told, and the physical evidence I found. There is usually a good explanation why an outlet burns like that. Methinks I wasn't told the truth.

The reason I questioned the possiblity of the dog, it would back up the renter's story, (i.e. it happened while they were away, and nothing was plugged in) plus, the fact that urine can have a higher saline content might make it a better conductor that plain water.

On the other hand, the dude renting the place seemed really nervous about having anybody come around, had completely removed the door handle on the storm door, and while the landlord and I were inside, the renter locked the front door, AND engaged the deadbolt. For all I really know, the renter may be a druggie and had grow lights plugged in for a room full of pot plants.
THAT would explain everything. But the renter is not going to admit to it, of course, and I don't want to get in the middle of that mess.

You guys have been a great help! Thanks again and gracious alms to all.
 
  #18  
Old 10-12-12, 09:48 AM
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You're welcome, and thank you for the explanation, clarification and alms. I hope you received your alms, or collected your pound of flesh, from the landlord. He's the one who should really be grateful, that he still has a double-wide and a tenant, instead of facing a lawsuit based on his negligence, or a denial of his insurance claim, or both.

Will you be doing the repair, or will you be in contact with whoever does? Or will the outcome of this remain a mystery to us?
 
  #19  
Old 10-12-12, 06:29 PM
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I cut the burnt outlet out, cut the wires back to where the insulation had not burned, used a utility knife to carefully scrape off any discoloration and expose shiny copper all around all 3 wires, hooked the ends and used the screw terminals on a brand new 15a outlet. I voiced my concerns to the landlord about the possibility of the renter plugging something in that he should not have and mentioned the breaker rating/cable gauge mismatch.

The takeaway is the burnt outlet has been replaced safely to the best of my knowledge, the landlord has been informed of the situaton, and let's hope the renter has become wiser about whatever it is he plugged into that outlet, regardless if he admits it or not.

I'm washing my hands of it. I am thankful for you guys and this forum for providing a sounding board and a sanity check.

When I was told that outlet burned without anything plugged into it, my brain started to unwind.
 
  #20  
Old 10-12-12, 07:12 PM
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Has the breaker been changed to a 15 amp breaker?
 
  #21  
Old 10-12-12, 07:46 PM
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I would repower the receptacle on the bench. Just to see what would happen. Certainly POSSIBLE a lightning damaged recept could decide to flare up one day without a plug-in. My B-I-L had a old desktop tube AM radio, turned off, that almost burned up his home one weekend.
 
  #22  
Old 10-12-12, 08:06 PM
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I will call the landlord and re-advise him and underscore the importance of having the tandem breaker replaced, so that the branch circuit that had 14/2 cable and the burnt outlet is rated 15a. I have no idea what's on the other side of the tandem breaker, I did not open the panel, I have no idea what the wire gauge is going to the breaker; the renter had a bunch of boxes and stuff in the utility space, and he seemed paranoid and acted like he didn't want anybody around. I will advise the landlord to call a licenced electrician to correct the matter.

If I could just be alone to investigate and repair the situation, it would be easy. I have the tools, knowledge and skill-set. When people/landlord/renter/ex-wife and pets enters the equation, it can get really hard to do a relatively simple thing. Know what I mean?
 
  #23  
Old 10-12-12, 08:24 PM
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Thanks telecom, but there ain't no repowering this fried puppy... all the good has burnt off, everythng else is charred. I wondered about the possibility of a lightning strike, too. The house is up on a hillside. Nothing else was reported to be damaged. Lighting can do strange things, indeed.
 
  #24  
Old 10-12-12, 10:33 PM
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I did not open the panel, I have no idea what the wire gauge is going to the breaker; the renter had a bunch of boxes and stuff in the utility space, and he seemed paranoid and acted like he didn't want anybody around. I will advise the landlord to call a licenced electrician to correct the matter.
You probably already know this, but you might want to point it out to the landlord: The NEC requires that an area 30" wide and 36" deep be kept clear in front of the panel. The panel does not have to be centered in the 30".

If I could just be alone to investigate and repair the situation, it would be easy. I have the tools, knowledge and skill-set. When people/landlord/renter/ex-wife and pets enters the equation, it can get really hard to do a relatively simple thing. Know what I mean?
Yep.
 
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