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Help me figure out why every receptacle in the circuit is dead

Help me figure out why every receptacle in the circuit is dead


Old 12-31-14, 10:08 PM
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Question Help me figure out why every receptacle in the circuit is dead

First of all, even though I'm not an electrician, I run a home automation, home A/V, etc integration company and did all the electrical for about 150 new fixtures and the entire automation system in my own house, so I'm definitely not a newbie. And my house is for all intents and purposes brand new (it was built in 2010 and sold to us in Sept 2011, and the room I'm having an issue with has been essentially unused since the purchase). Therefore I'd figure there wouldn't be any major wiring problems, and any problems that did exist I'd be able to solve pretty quickly...which is why I'm tearing my hair out over this. Hopefully you guys can offer me a new perspective because I'm out of ideas. So anyway this is the problem:

There are five receptacles in the formal living room of the house, and none of them are receiving power. In addition, the outdoor GFCI on the covered porch which shares a wall with the living room also is not receiving power (and so obviously it won't reset).

Further info/troubleshooting I've already performed:

- The receptacles in the interior three rooms that share a wall with the living room all work fine, and the other outdoor GFCIs work fine as well.

-The lights are receiving power in the living room, which isn't surprising since the entire house seems to keep the lights for any given zone on a separate circuit from the receptacles in the same zone (but I just finished installing additional lighting and replacing the rest of the fixtures in the room, and as I was doing that I discovered that the line from the wall switch to the chandelier had been illegally spliced inside the wall about a foot up from the junction box (the splice wasn't in a junction box), and broke loose as I was running new lines, so I wouldn't be surprised if something similar is happening with the outlets).

- I have thoroughly searched every room, closet, hallway, bathroom, etc of the house and haven't found any tripped GFCIs, and I manually tripped and reset every GFCI I came across.

- I have searched the house and can't find any other receptacles or lighting fixtures without power, so odds are the living room receptacles are their own circuit, and the entire circuit is malfunctioning (although no breakers are tripped).

- I went down to the basement, and based on the locations of the living room receptacles identified the five locations in the basement ceiling that the line from the breaker to the initial outlet in the living room circuit could be going to. I identified what looked like the line going to the first receptacle in the circuit (and common sense would suggest this was the first receptacle if only the living room receptacles were on this circuit, since it's the closest outlet to the breaker in the living and on the same exterior wall as the breaker). I pulled the line away from the wall a bit to check it with a voltage tester, and it is live. Then I went back upstairs and, for the first time since I moved in, the living room outlets are now live. I screw all the receptacles back into their boxes, plug in a lamp to test one, and it works. I then go to get an extension cord for the other lamp and by the time I'm back (maybe five minutes later, without doing anything to these or any other outlets in the house), all the outlets are dead again. Still no breakers tripped in the basement. I go down to the basement and wiggle around the line I previously identified a little, go back upstairs, and they're live again. I rush to dismantle the receptacles so I can diagram the wires before the circuit goes dead again, and just as I finish, of course the entire circuit loses power again. Still no breakers or GFCIs tripped and the line in the basement I ID'ed is still live. Does anybody have any idea what's going on here? We're throwing a holiday party on Saturday, so before I start tearing open the walls to run a new wire or look for a break in the current one, I'm curious to know if anyone else has any ideas as to what might be going on here and if there are any other troubleshooting steps you'd suggest trying. Could it be a bad breaker (outside of that it seems like it must be an issue with the wiring from the breaker to the first receptacle)? There are also a couple wires in the middle of the circuit that I couldn't determine the purpose of (the second receptacle in the circuit has a line and two loads, one of which goes somewhere I can't determine, and the last receptacle has a load that goes somewhere I haven't been able to determine yet either; the rest are standard - line in from the breaker or an earlier receptacle and load out to the next receptacle). Outside of those I can upload a diagram of which wires go where on all the outlets in the circuit if that helps.

Thanks for taking the time to read this and any help you think you can give! I've lurked around DIY for a while and you guys give some great advice, so this was obviously my first stop for help when I ran out of ideas for troubleshooting this myself.
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Old 12-31-14, 10:30 PM
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If your receptacles utilize the stab back feature, you should remove the wires to the corresponding screws. If you are using a non contact tester, they only test the presence of electricity. You most likely have a neutral with a poor connection.
Old 12-31-14, 10:40 PM
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Thanks for the reply. Forgot to mention that in my troubleshooting steps, but all the receptacles are side-wired, not back-stabbed. And given that at the first receptacle in the circuit the non contact tester isn't detecting any electricity, I don't believe a neutral with a poor connection would be the issue, right? Essentially, somewhere between the basement ceiling and the junction box for the first receptacle in the circuit, the wire must be breaking apart: there are no other junction boxes in that 1-2 foot distance, so it should be a single line without any splices to come loose, and the non contact tester shows electricity in the wire right before it goes into the basement ceiling, but doesn't show power by the time that (presumably) the same wire reaches the receptacle. Do you still think a loose neutral would be this issue based on this?
Old 12-31-14, 11:17 PM
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You test the wire in the basement with a non contact tester and it shows hot present. You go upstairs and there is no hot present..... correct ?

You either have a break in the cable between the basement and that receptacle which I find unlikely or that wire doesn't go to where you think it does.

If I were to check the circuit I would break it at the receptacle where I though power was coming in. I would check for voltage between the white and ground wire. If you don't know which wire should be the feed.... check them both. If none was present, I'd turn off the breaker and I'd use an ohmmeter to check between the white and neutral. You should see a dead short on the feed line.
Old 01-01-15, 01:19 AM
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I agree that is sounds like there is a problem in the cable feeding the receptacles, especially since moving the cable changes the power condition.
Old 01-01-15, 05:52 AM
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This is just an idea, but I think it's something I would try.
If you feel comfortable working in the main panel:

Get a length of 14/2 cable (or whatever gauge you could use later).
Remove circuit feed from first receptacle.
Remove circuit hot from breaker.
Wire the 14/2 into the panel and use this as a jumper between first receptacle and panel.
If the rest of the receptacles downstream work fine, you know you need to replace cable coming from panel.
Old 01-01-15, 07:33 AM
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You could also try and trace the length of the cable with the non-contact detector and see if it seems like a break in the cable.
Old 01-01-15, 10:18 AM
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You could also try and trace the length of the cable with the non-contact detector and see if it seems like a break in the cable.
Although a break in the cable is always a possibility, it would be very rare to have such a problem. I would go back to where you moved the cable and then had power at the receptacles and see what boxes may be near that point, but that could also have been just a coincidence. I believe I'd also go back to the main panel and test the breaker with a meter and not the non-contact tester.

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