How to locate a short circuited wall outlet?

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  #1  
Old 09-17-07, 09:44 PM
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How to locate a short circuited wall outlet?

All the wall outlets in our master bedroom and the adjacent bedroom are out of commission since the circuit breaker for those rooms has tripped and cannot be reset. This causes me to think that there must be a short circuit somewhere along one of the wall outlets.

The house is fairly new (less than 5 yrs old) and this problem has never occurred before. No new electrical devices have been plugged in recently (other than a small fridge in the master bathroom that is still running fine) so this is a bit of a mystery to me.

I'm thinking of tracing the outlets one by one to see if I can find the one that's causing the problem.

Q: Am I on the right track? And is there any tool to make this task easier?

Thanks!
 
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Old 09-17-07, 09:53 PM
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You should already know what receptacles and other loads are on the circuit in trouble. You should know what is on every circuit in your house.

You will have to disconnect portions of the circuit in a divide and conquer pattern. If disconnect a receptacle makes the problem go away, the problem is downstream from where you made the disconnection. If the problem remains after the disconnection, then the problem is upstream from where you made the disconnection. Try again in the proper direction.
 
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Old 09-18-07, 01:25 AM
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Racraft's right, that's the best way to go. Unless one of the outlets smells burnt up.... If you don't find the short in any of the boxes, it could be in the wall. Being a new house, your wiring is most likely romex. This can easily be pierced by screws/nails... Hell I even put a screw through an electrical conduit and shorted out a circuit once when I was a young apprentice. There was no device above or below to give me any inclination that the pipe was there. I was using self-tapping screws to surface mount wiremold by screwing into metal studs. What I thought was a stud actually turned out to be conduit. That screw shot right through it! I bring this up because you said you didn't change anything or plug in anything new. Have you put any screws/nails in the wall lately? Another possibility is that an appliance went bad and shorted out (although I think that might leave a burn mark on the outlet). You could try unplugging all the appliances and then resetting the breaker. Otherwise I have one last idea. This would actually be your first step. I've had people call me because they're breaker wouldn't reset, only to find that they didn't turn it off first. Some breakers will trip, but won't go all the way to "off". You have to switch them off and then they can be reset. If none of this solves your problem, let us know.
 
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Old 09-18-07, 11:42 AM
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I did disconnect all appliances from the two rooms' wall outlets as a first test. This didn't reveal anything. I also checked the breaker to make sure it was OFF before trying to flip it ON.

Myself I haven't added anything to either room. But come to think of it, my wife did hang some pictures in the 2nd bedroom around the same time the problem first surfaced. So it's quite possible that she drove a nail into a wire. If that's the case, would removing those nails help locate/isolate/eliminate the problem?

I just don't want to go through and disconnect all the wall outlets only to find out that the problem is actually in the wall somewhere...
 
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Old 09-18-07, 12:16 PM
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No, removing the nails will not help to find the problem, and it could make things worse.

Yes, you DO want to remove the receptacles to find the problem. It will tell you that it is between two of the receptacles. Then you can simply replace that section of cable and be done with it.
 
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Old 09-18-07, 12:59 PM
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Unless the screw or nail was a big honking one (the kind that macho guys use), it is unlikely to have cause a problem. The kind of nails that wives use don't usually go deep enough.

Almost all the time the problem is in a box. It is possible the problem is in the wall, but much less likely.

Divide and conquer, as mentioned earlier, is the best approach. It's pretty simple, but you have to be methodical and you have to get started.
 
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Old 09-18-07, 01:08 PM
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Thanks for all the input.

I disconnected one receptacle the other night and had a very hard time pulling the stripped wires out of the four pinholes on the back, so I ended up cutting them off. I first tried pushing a small flathead screwdriver into the small rectangular slot next to the hole but that didn't seem to help. What's the correct method for pulling those wires out? Or will I have to replace all the receptacles with new ones?
 
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Old 09-18-07, 01:15 PM
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To remove those wires you push a small screw driver into the rectangular hole, as you did. These connections are called back stabs. Those connections could be the reason you have a problem. Back stab connections are inferior to screw terminal connections. They are usually indicative of a low bid electrician wiring the house.

When you go to put the receptacle back together, do NOT use those back stab connections. Instead, use the screw terminals. If the receptacles do not have screw terminals, then replace the receptacles. You probably should replace any receptacle that it is difficult to remove the wires from, especially if you cut the wires and left a portion of the conductor installed.
 
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Old 09-18-07, 01:19 PM
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No, no, don't cut them off. That small rectangular hole is indeed the release lever. You have to insert the screwdriver (or paper clip) just right to release the lever. Play with it some more until you master the technique. Once you do, the wire will come out easily.

Then when you put the receptacle or switch back, don't use those push-in connectors (called backstabs). Instead, wrap the wire around the screw adjacent to the hole it came out of. If there was already one wire around the screw and a second wire in the adjacent hole, you'll need to use a wire nut and a short segment of wire (called a pigtail) to allow you to reattach both wires to the same screw (don't put more than one wire under a screw head).

And for heavens sake, don't disconnect anything until you are absolutely positively 100% sure that you can put it back 100% exactly the same way the wires came off. Label the wires and the screws if you have to. Don't just write down "black wire to left screw" if there are more than one black wire in the box or if you might turn the receptacle over thus reversing left and right.
 
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Old 09-18-07, 01:42 PM
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John, I said that it could be in the wall IF he doesn't find a short in any of the boxes. I didn't suggest that he go rip the wall open.... As unlikely as it may seem that a screw or a nail would pierce a cable and it does occassionally happen. Although people prefer to use small nails to hang pictures, sometimes they (including wives) use whatever they've got laying around. Trust me, I own rental property, you should see the size screws people have left in the wall when they moved. Sometimes when people hang something heavier, like a shelf, they use bigger screws and try to screw into the studs. The point is that it does happen. I gave him other things to try first and that was a possibility if all else failed.
 
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Old 09-18-07, 01:52 PM
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Understand.

The receptacle I played with had two brass screws (but only one has a black wire attached) and two silver screws (only one with a white wire attached). I suppose that black/white pair is the 'incoming' pair, correct?

There also are two black wires going into the two holes in the back near the brass screws, and two white wires going into the two holes near the silver screws. Do those pairs go to other receptacles nearby in some kind of a daisy-chain fashion?
 
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Old 09-18-07, 02:24 PM
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Yes. that's what racraft was talking about pigtailing. You splice the whites together adding a 6" piece of white to the splice. The 6" wire goes to the outlet's silver screw. Same thing for the hots, but they go to the brass screw. Gorund's are the same as well, but they go to the green screw. If you have a metal box, there should be a pigtail coming off a green ground screw in the back of the box. None of the outlets are switch controlled are they?
 
  #13  
Old 09-18-07, 02:32 PM
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These are unswitched receptacles. They look pretty standard to me. I'll see if I can post a picture this evening.
 
 

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