I just bought a recently renovated house and the house inspector said that all the plugs in the basement worked.

Well... I plugged in several devices into the plugs and they don't power on. If I use my voltage tester I can see that the plugs are indeed 'hot', however they do not actually provide any juice.

All of the affected plugs are on the same breaker as well as the lights for the basement. The lights have no issues turning on.

What are some steps I can take to figure out what the problem is?

I opened up one of the plugs to see if there was anything visibly wrong. All of the contacts appeared to be wired correctly. I swapped out the receptacle for a new one I had purchased and I wired it into place. I attempted to plug a small test lamp into the new receptacle without fully screwing it into place and a bolt on the hot side that wasn't fully tightened brushed the side of the metal box thingy and caused a spark! eep! I'm guessing that means the power and the ground are working. I turned off the breaker and screwed the receptacle in properly and tried the lamp again and still nothing.

Update 2:
I purchased a receptacle tester and the receptacles all show blank, yellow, yellow which seems to indicate that they are wired correctly. Next step I will hook up a volt meter.
Receptacle Tester

Update 3:
Ok I plugged in the multimeter and it only goes to 30... to make sure my multimeter wasn't out of whack I plugged it into my working outlets and the needle went to 120V. Soo, for some reason I only have a quarter of the voltage I should have, weird.

Update 4: Resolution, so I caved and hired an electrician. It turns out the wiring for the plugs ran through a light fixure. Inside the light fixture all of the neutrals for the plugs were wired to each other, however, they were not wired to the main neutral! The electrician screwed a wire nut on the 2 bundles and low and behold, working plugs everywhere. Thanks for the help everyone!

  • Do the receptacles work when the lights are on? The outlets could be wired in after the switch, so the switch has to be on to supply power. If that is not the case, pick up a Receptacle Tester and check that the receptacles are wired correctly.
    – Tester101
    Commented Mar 12, 2012 at 19:15
  • 2
    What type of voltage tester are you using? Where are you measuring?
    – Tester101
    Commented Mar 12, 2012 at 19:16
  • 2
    How can a plug be "hot" without "providing juice"?
    – Jay Bazuzi
    Commented Mar 12, 2012 at 20:18
  • 4
    A plug can have poor continuity with the house wiring, so it's energized as far as an NCVT or plug tester can tell, but won't support a real load. The plug contacts can also be broken or the neutral disconnected, so it looks energized to an NCVT but doesn't make contact with the plug's blades (a plug tester would correctly diagnose a problem like this).
    – KeithS
    Commented Mar 12, 2012 at 23:19

4 Answers 4


As I said in the comments to the OP and to Aaron's answer, there are several wiring failures that could cause an NCVT (non-contact voltage tester; usually a pen-looking thing that beeps when you point it at a live electrical wire) to light up, and some that even a plug tester can miss, but that would prevent a "real" load from being plugged in. The first thing to do is get a 3-lamp outlet tester (preferably with GFCI testing) to supplement your NCVT. The tester will correctly diagnose most of these things:

  • Open Hot: the black wire is present in the box but disconnected from the plug (or otherwise not making good contact). An NCVT can still light up if the wire is close to the faceplate. However, a plug tester will diagnose the issue. The fix is to flip this outlet's breaker, open up the plate and make sure all wires are firmly connected to the proper terminals on the outlet.
  • Open Neutral: the white wire is present but not properly connected to the outlet. Again, a NCVT will light up if the hot is properly connected (maybe even if it isn't), but a plug tester will properly diagnose the issue. The fix is the same as for an open hot.
  • Broken/Worn/Bent Outlet Contacts: The wires are hooked up correctly, but the outlet's contacts have poor or no continuity with the plug's blades. You may hear arcing (a rough crackle) as you plug in the tester or an electrical device. A tester MAY show correct wiring at a glance, but if you jiggle the tester the lights will blink off. Replacing the outlet is the solution here.
  • Neutral-Ground Swap and High-Resistance Ground: This would tend to affect an entire house's wiring, but it can be localized as well. What is happening is that the white and bare wires have been switched, and in addition, the ground (which normally ties back to the bus strip in the service panel and has full continuity with the neutral) has lost some continuity back to the service panel. There are several situations in which this can happen, most of them involving attaching grounds to house plumbing and then changing that plumbing along the way. An outlet tester may not diagnose this; the expected read is an "open ground" or "open neutral" (remember this would mainly be a problem if the neutral and ground are switched), but if there is some continuity then the tester may not show a problem.
  • Poor Continuity Of Hot Or Neutral With Outlet: One or more wires is making very poor contact with the outlet terminal. A plug tester may miss this; there is enough continuity for the tester (which only draws a few milliamps for its LEDs) but even a clock radio would have issues with the load induced by the poor continuity. The solution is to rewire the outlet securely, and if the wiring is sound on the plug then to check other wires in the box (with the breaker off of course). The next most likely culprit is the "bundle" of neutral leads that's normally in an "upstream" J-box; make sure all wires are wound tight and properly secured with a wire nut and electrical tape.
  • I don't think think there is anything better than a Wiggy or Knopp! The old solenoid testers.
    – lqlarry
    Commented Mar 13, 2012 at 0:22
  • Wiggy & Knopp
    – Tester101
    Commented Mar 13, 2012 at 12:10
  • Any interest in submitting this answer for the blog? Commented Mar 13, 2012 at 12:18
  • Awesome, I'll try this out and let you know my results. Commented Mar 13, 2012 at 14:49

A short answer if your voltage tester (non-contact beeper?) indicates "hotness" could be that the neutral return is open - it does not go back to the panel.

Turn off the breaker, open up a receptacle, unwire the hot and neutral sides from it, leave them bare, turn on the breaker, and take a multimeter and check the volts between the hot and neutral. If it is not 120 (assuming you are in a 120 location), but the non-contact tester indicates hotness, then most likely the neutral return is open.

  • Why would you unwire to test this? I would start with a multimeter just checking between hot/neutral, hot/ground, and neutral/ground without even taking the face plate off. If that works, whatever you're plugging in is probably broken. If not, check for obvious broken or bad connection, and THEN disconnect the receptacle to test.
    – gregmac
    Commented Mar 12, 2012 at 21:50
  • True enough - I guess I just prefer to get the clutter out of the way and start with the simplest thing possible to find out what works. But you can certainly do some of the above testing without unwiring it, just if the wiring in the receptacle is all over the place, you might be chasing a dead end for a bit.
    – Aaron
    Commented Mar 12, 2012 at 21:56
  • Ensure mutilmeter is set for AC and more than 120V then stick the probes in the outlet. (I always forget to set for AC and get zero volts.)
    – dbracey
    Commented Mar 12, 2012 at 22:53
  • 2
    The probable cause is good, so +1, but I would first grab a $5 outlet tester, plug it in and see if you get two amber lights. A plug tester will diagnose open hot, open neutral, etc that could be causing the problem. If the plug tester doesn't indicate a problem, then you can open up the receptacle and do further testing with a multimeter.
    – KeithS
    Commented Mar 12, 2012 at 23:22

I just paid $120 for an electrician to replace two receptacle outlets in my house. The house circuit to two rooms kept intermittently losing power. The circuit breaker was not tripped but resetting would sometimes work, but not always. The power would be off in the evening and when I decided to call an electrician the next morning the power was mysteriously back on! Once I pushed a prong from a power tester into a receptacle and I could hear the TV switch off, and I lost power to the whole circuit. I replaced the receptacle and I still lost power intermittently on the same circuit over about a one year period. Replacing the receptacle was not easy. The receptacle wire was stuck into holes in the back of the receptacle versus screwed on the side, and the average homeowner does not know what speed wire connections are about; I didn’t. Just finding a sharp small prong to release the good speed wire connections on the same receptacle was a pain.

When the electrician came, he immediately checked the six receptacles on the circuit (including the new one I had replaced) with a 3 light tester of some type. Lights would be displayed on the tester, and he declared it is one or possibly two receptacles that had a bad connection. He explained the speed wire connections in the back of the receptacles can become loose with only a partial connection, and may cause outage issues—the type like mine which seemed to have no rational cause. Indeed on one of suspect receptacles, the wire could easily be pulled out of the speed wire connections on the back of receptacle which the electrician explained is not the way it is supposed to work. I thought I had power when testing with some power devices, but given vibration and temperature effects, the connections apparently were off and on! He did not replace the receptacles but rewired them with tighter connections of the screws on the side of each receptacle versus the speed wire connections on the back. The electrician only took 20 minutes to complete the repair. That’s it, no more mysterious power issues! The electrician then explained how homes built in my age group were installed with the quicker speed wire construction. Over time the connections can go bad. He advised all receptacles and lighting switches should be rewired with the better "screw connections," not the speed wiring, and that I will have more mysterious power outages in the following years. The electrician advised I could do it myself, or he could come out a different time and do the whole house. Even for $120, I appreciated the electrician's advice. He could have not said anything and attempted to pursue more repairs in the future. I will definitely go back to the same company if I need more repairs or upgrades.

I attempted to research on the Internet and found no "how-to" videos or other discussion on speed wiring issues. I am now researching to find the three-light indicating tester that the electrician used.


Sounds to me like your plugs could be connected to one of the light switches meaning that when you turn on a switch it will operate the plugged in appliances as well; some people do this when you do not have a decent light source in a certain area they can plug in a lamp and use the switch to turn it on/off or a radio or something of that nature. Test the light switch with something plugged in this may answer some of your issues.

  • 1
    If you read update 4 by the OP, you'll see that the problem was a bad neutral connection.
    – BMitch
    Commented Mar 19, 2014 at 16:47

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