Strange electrical behavior

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  #1  
Old 05-17-13, 03:37 PM
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Question Strange electrical behavior

So, this is a strange problem that I'm not exactly sure what to look for.
I've been fixing an old house up for a few months now (more like 6), and I've come across some strange behavior with the electricity now. Let me get some things out of the way first, though:

- seems that most of the wiring is newer-ish - I think most was added and updated in the 90s.
- I have done some wire running here and there (added an outlet, ran wire to the attic for lights, added gfi receptacles in bathroom, etc.)
- The breakers are 20 amps

Here's what's happening though. For some reason the electricity will start acting strange as in, lights in rooms will be dimmer, if I'm playing the stereo then the lights will fluctuate with how much power the stereo is needing for specific notes (think bass or deeper voices), and this isn't isolated to one room or one circuit. However, another room may actually be surging when it acts like this. When I use the multimeter to check the outlets they tend to read between the 80s and 90s when it behaves like this and will go down quite a lot if you turn another light on or whatever. When it's normal they are at their normal 120-ish. However, in a room that is surging, it'll read around 140-ish for that room/outlet (when it's acting berzerk). I've noticed that if I run a saw or something needing a good bit of power in that 140ish outlet, it tends to reset everything back to normal for the time being. Oh, the 140 also goes back to normal at the usual 120 when everything is normal.

This doesn't happen all the time, in fact it seemed to only start acting like this a week ago when i was adding 3-way switches to the stairway light. The wire that was there was pretty short to do work with, but I managed it, and the switches behave as they should (and I was quite proud of this!) I had to do some pulling to get the wire out of the ceiling more so I could work with it, but all seemed to work. But I noticed after this is when it started acting up. It has been fine for a week though, until the other day when I was working in the stairway area again and was hammering a board (the board was already there, it was just sticking out some and I wanted to get it flush, there are no wires behind it or anything). One swing with the hammer kicked the stairway light off, actually it kicked the breaker halfway... only halfway? And then the issues started again.

It's fine at the moment, but I figured I'd try to get some ideas here and see what could be causing it. I'd rather not finish everything up only to have a continuous problem down the road and have to tear walls and ceilings apart.

Sorry for the long explanation. But before i go further is there any ideas on what could be causing this? Could it be a bad wire, grounding problems, loose wires, bad breakers? Hoping it's not something insane. All the outlets in the house read at the 120ish mark when things are running normal. I almost wonder if it had something to do with that stairway light connection? Strange that whatever it is, causes the whole house to go berzerk.

Thank you for taking the time to read this, and I hope I can get this solved. So close to finally getting this house finished
 
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  #2  
Old 05-17-13, 04:35 PM
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Turn off your main breaker and call your power companies' emergency number NOW! You have an open neutral which can start a fire and will damage anything in its path.
 
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Old 05-17-13, 05:36 PM
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Thanks for the quick reply!

I went to the house and shut the main power off. Is this a problem on the power companies side? or can this open neutral be anywhere in the house including the power box itself? Wouldn't the problem just be consistent? I'm just trying to understand what's happening. I really appreciate it!
 
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Old 05-17-13, 05:41 PM
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Welcome to the fourms!

actually it kicked the breaker halfway
This is an indication of a breaker tripping due to a short. I would guess a screw on the three way switch touched the ground for a second and tripped the breaker. I bet if you take it out you will find some burn marks.

You other issue (dimming, low/high voltage) sounds like you have a loose neutral of a multi-wire circuit. The loose neutral could be in the panel, or anywhere where the two circuits run that share the neutral. You will need to start opening boxes and making sure the wire connections are good and tight. This is a dangerous situation as poor connections create heat, and heat creates fires! Also the high/low voltage on the circuits can destroy electric equipment (IE: the stereo, tv's, etc)

Turn off the breakers of the circuits that are acting funny and start going through those boxes. You will be looking for a 3 wire cable with a black/red/white and ground. That is likely your home run and your source of your issue.

I am a little leery that it is on the power companies side as it is not effecting the entire house. If it is, then yes, call the power company ASAP. It is a free for them to come out and check.
 
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Old 05-17-13, 08:12 PM
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I too would be leery of calling the POCO on your open neutral since an open at the service entrance is usually catastrophic, resulting in fried electronics and motors and blown lightbulbs. However, it never hurts to BE SURE.

I would be going back and checking ALL of the work that you did.
 
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Old 05-17-13, 08:18 PM
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in a room that is surging, it'll read around 140-ish for that room/outlet
This is the indication of the open neutral. As Tolyn said, shut off the affected circuits and start troubleshooting there.

One swing with the hammer kicked the stairway light off, actually it kicked the breaker halfway.
You shorted that circuit and tripped its breaker. That's what "tripped" looks like.

I had to do some pulling to get the wire out of the ceiling more so I could work with it, but all seemed to work.
Attempting to pull a wire further into a box is a good way to damage the conductor, the insulation, or both. Wires that do not extend at least 3" beyond the face of the box need to be extended with a splice or replaced.
 
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Old 05-17-13, 08:45 PM
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I too would be leery of calling the POCO on your open neutral since an open at the service entrance is usually catastrophic, resulting in fried electronics and motors and blown lightbulbs
That's what you would think but it actually depends on the condition of the grounding system in the house and at the service. If you loose the neutral.... the ground will actually take it's place to a certain extent.
 
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Old 05-18-13, 06:49 AM
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Is this a problem on the power companies side? or can this open neutral be anywhere in the house including the power box itself? Wouldn't the problem just be consistent?
Yes. As Tolyn said,
Originally Posted by Tolyn Ironhand
I am a little leery that it is on the power companies side as it is not effecting the entire house. If it is, then yes, call the power company ASAP.
Having them check their service is free, as he also said, but that doesn't sound like the cause of the problem you've described.
 
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Old 05-18-13, 10:57 AM
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I wanted to thank everyone for chiming on this issue so far. It has definitely helped give me a direction to look towards because I was somewhere out in space trying to understand this.

Nashkat1 - Yeah I figured it tripped it, I just wasn't sure why the breaker only kicked halfway.. I mean it still turned it off but I just assumed that it would flip it the entire way. Good to know that is all that happened there.

Tolyn - Thank you for the welcome! This makes a lot of sense. I hope this isn't a dreadful experience of searching through junction boxes and everywhere to look for an open neutral. But it's definitely worth the time to search for the obvious reasons you have all stated. I will say that as far as I can tell, when it does start acting up, it seems to be the whole house and not just a single room. IE - the living room will be low, the bathroom will be low, but the laundry will have high voltage (separate breakers). The only 3-wire setup (red-white-black-ground) in there is what I added to the stairway so I could have the 3-way switches work with one at the bottom and one at the top of the stairs. From what I can see at least, everything else is your typical 2-wire 12 gauge.

A friend was over today and we took a look at the meter box outside the house (the power company box I guess? Where the main power line comes in before going into the circuit panel in the house) and looks a bit old and rusty, obviously I won't try to break it open, but just stating what I've noticed.

I'm going to head down there today and start looking through to find an open neutral. Will this neutral be completely detached from a cap, or could it just be loose? While down there earlier, I spotted what could be a wiring issue that I'm going to have a look at first. I hope I'm right because that would take care of this problem ASAP and is easy to get to. I think my concern is that because this problem is not consistent, how do I know if it's for sure fixed? I'm not even sure how to re-create it. I guess it's just a check and wait and see process? I shall hope for the best
 
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Old 05-18-13, 11:44 AM
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I will say that as far as I can tell, when it does start acting up, it seems to be the whole house and not just a single room.
This new info gives me the feeling that it may be the power companies lines. Since your going down there, call the power companies 24hr service line than tell them what you are experiencing. They will likely send a truck out to check the lines going to the house. This service will be free and they will come out 24/7.

If they don't find anything, you will be looking for a loose wire or poor connection some place. The wire might look ok, but you should pull them out of the box and tug on them to make sure.
 
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Old 05-18-13, 01:13 PM
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This is starting to sound like an open system neutral, as Tolyn said, given your new information. Have the POCO crew check out everything on their end. Now. Today. It is potentially every bit as dangerous as Justin described it to be.

we took a look at the meter box outside the house (the power company box I guess? Where the main power line comes in before going into the circuit panel in the house) and looks a bit old and rusty,
That's typical.

I'm going to head down there today and start looking through to find an open neutral. Will this neutral be completely detached from a cap, or could it just be loose?
It could look and even feel just fine. Take each neutral connection and splice apart. Verify that you have the proper amount of each conductor exposed and that none of the conductors is nicked or weakened. Inspect the inside of each wire nut for damage, and replace it if it doesn't look like new.

I spotted what could be a wiring issue that I'm going to have a look at first. I hope I'm right because that would take care of this problem ASAP and is easy to get to.
The first place I would look would be in the box where you pulled the wire to get enough to work with. If nothing else, now is the time to lengthen that wire.

Have fun. Slow and steady wins the race.
 
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Old 05-19-13, 08:02 AM
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This is a lot of good information to have - thanks guys!

It's just bizarre to me that it's seemingly so random. Yesterday everything was fine - readings were normal, stereo and lights were fine while running a reciprocal saw in the other room (may not be the best idea, but I don't know a sure way of testing it because it's inconsistent). The power company is coming out today at around 4pm to check their side of things I will report back after they do their checks.
 
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Old 05-19-13, 03:29 PM
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Alrighty,

The guy stopped and took a look at things. Even checking out neighboring lines to make sure things were fine. He really didn't find any issues. He also had me go in the house and run some lights and a saw to push a lot of power through, but things were reading good. The only thing he mentioned that the line coming from the pole/into the house is old and has some wear on it, but it the readings were good. He asked me if I could recreate the problem, but I couldn't because I have no idea why it randomly does it. So, that takes care of that side of things.

Any new ideas on why it affects the whole house? I'm going to hunt through for neutrals. Plenty of white wire to search for! As for the wire I mentioned that I think might have been an issue (I did not wire this, it was already there). A wire on the same line as the stairway light, runs througha junction, and eventually to a junction outside. From the outside junction, it runs to a motion light. All fine, right? Ehhh... this wiring was taped together.. tightly sure, but was taped and not capped in the junction. Even stranger was that the wire from the junction to the motion light had another wire spliced into it for a normal porch light.... and when I say spliced into it I mean that the wire was shave down of the insulation, and the other wiring was just wrapped around it and taped. Odd, hey? Considering I tore down that porch area and did a lot of work around that area, maybe that caused things to go crazy?

It's a shot in the dark I suppose, and I'll never know if I have fully fixed this issue unless it just does it since it's random, but that seemed like a good place to start. I just ended up cutting the wire and removing it/capping at the junction to close it off basically for now. I'll run new wire to a new motion light some other time.

So, that's where I'm at.
 
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Old 05-19-13, 04:07 PM
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I would start at the main panel, or main disconnect, and tighten the neutral connections there. Did the power company guy tighten the lugs in the meter?

Yeah, tape is not a good connection. They should have used wirenuts.
 
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Old 05-19-13, 07:35 PM
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tape is not a good connection. They should have used wirenuts.
and they should have twisted the wires together, clockwise, to make the splice, before twisting on the wire nuts to protect the splices.
 
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