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Basically my upstairs room surged while I was in it and the entire upstairs power went out, 1 outlet in my room was literally sizzling or arcing but never burst into flames. Unplugging everything from the wall eventually made it stop. Now the power is back on upstairs, the outlet smells. And the maintenance guy is replacing that particular outlet and saying it should fix it.

I'm afraid to sleep in there or use any power. How can that 1 outlet make the whole upstairs turn off. Should it be okay?

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  • Please indicate your country and state or province, as this helps us anticipate your standard voltage, best practices, local ordinances, etc. – A. I. Breveleri Jul 6 '19 at 6:01
  • Please be careful with the term "surged". Do you think the voltage in the room was at any time higher than the standard? If so, what makes you think that? – A. I. Breveleri Jul 6 '19 at 6:03
  • Well it made my PC start smelling like burning plastic, all the lamps turned off with the power but were sending off electricity or I don't know what to call it they were zapping and snapping. And the outlet itself was like I described in post. In VA, US and the outlet has been replaced. Was worried that that wasn't enough – Alexander Smith Jul 6 '19 at 17:56
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Most likely explanation:

  • The outlet had a bad connection, and the wire finally popped out enough to cause trouble. This is very bad for the outlet, as electricity will arc across short distances; this caused the sound and smell. (This is an infamous failure mode of back-stab outlet connections.)
  • The other outlets went out because they're daisy-chained together, and there was a bad connection at that one outlet. (I don't think you're supposed to do that, but I wouldn't be surprised. Not that big of a deal, it's just not up to code.)

Alternately:

  • The outlet that was arcing may have had a short in it. Electricity was able to go directly from the live to the neutral. This is very bad for the outlet, and caused the sounds (electrical arcing) and the smell (burning plastic).
  • If the breaker/fuse tripped it was because the circuit was using way too much power. This caused all the other outlets to go out because they are on the same circuit. If the breaker didn't trip, the other outlets went out because there was a dead short in the circuit.

In either case, once the outlet is replaced, everything should be fine. Items plugged into other outlets shouldn't be damaged, and other outlets shouldn't have been damaged.

However, your question sounds like the bad outlet hasn't been replaced, and the power is back on. If so, this isn't good. The power should be turned off at the breaker/fuse box until the bad outlet is replaced.

In general, this would be a good time to make sure your smoke alarms work, and know where your breaker box is located. While I wouldn't expect a repeat, that's just a good idea in general, and you're a motivated learner right now.

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  • Thanks so much. Outlet is replaced now. – Alexander Smith Jul 6 '19 at 17:55
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BZZZT

This was an arcing failure also called an arc fault.

This is where electricity leaps across a tiny gap, making the crackling noise.

In this case, it was a series arc fault, meaning electricity had to leap across an arc on its way to a normal load like an air conditioner or whatever you had plugged in. So the current flow couldn't be more than the appliances normally drew... so the circuit breaker saw normal currents, and had no reason to trip.

It is totally normal for power to be wired from supply to an outlet, then onward to another outlet, then to another, etc. As it happens, several other outlet's power came through this one. So those other outlet's usage was adding to the arc here.

Detecting this

Recently (last 10 years), a new type of circuit breaker was invented that listens for the electrical sounds of arcing, and shuts off the breaker. This is called an arc fault circuit interruptor or AFCI. Most on the market today are Combination AFCI, meaning they detect both shorting arcs and also our friend the series arc fault.

This is not to be confused with the dual-mode GFCI/AFCI, which is a CAFCI that also detects ground faults. Ground faults are a completely unrelated kind of failure that endangers humans by causing shocks.

AFCI breakers cost about $40US, and dual-modes about $50. Code has required AFCIs in bedrooms since 2008?? And requires them on most circuits since 2014.

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  • So basically I live in a place that's not up to code? And they replaced the specific outlet am I to assume I'm in danger still? They replaced it but the outlet smells still, residual I hope – Alexander Smith Jul 7 '19 at 6:04

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