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I live in an apartment building, within the past year 4 of my sockets sparked and then caught on fire for a few seconds. The apartment manager claims there’s nothing wrong with the sockets because the maintenance man said the reader reads fine. What could be the reason my sockets keep sparking, catching fire and then blowing out my electronics. As long as the socket reader reads green as in good the apartment says theres no problem.

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    Do you own a voltmeter? Also are these plain sockets or special ones you retrofitted? Do motorized appliances like your fridge or fans ever change tone (speed)? – Harper - Reinstate Monica Sep 19 at 21:21
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    he could be right, what are you plugging into them? – dandavis Sep 19 at 21:43
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    Look for a faulty plug that overheats the socket on a high-current device, e.g. a toaster or heater. If different devices were plugged in to the sockets, contact your town/city safety officials, since this seems pretty dangerous. – DrMoishe Pippik Sep 19 at 22:29
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    Where are you on this planet? – ThreePhaseEel Sep 19 at 22:39
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    Do they spark while something is plugged in? or just when you remove a plug? – Carl Witthoft Sep 20 at 16:03
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I'm not an electrical master, but I know this: outlets catching fire is NOT normal, ever. Furthermore, the apartment manager sounds like a real weasel. Outlets only cost a few dollars - in the face of a known fire risk, why waste time claiming nothing is wrong? Just replace the suspect part. You don't need an electrician, you need a new landlord.

That said, I understand sometimes people have reasons they can't move. At the very least, you should keep a fire extinguisher handy!

First of all, you do have a problem, so don't let anyone tell you everything is fine. Get an electrician of your own in there if you have to. This is a safety issue; life has no price tag.

Now, here are some questions I can think of that will help a professional figure out your problem:

  1. Is it the same outlet that caught fire 4 times, or different ones?
  2. Has the outlet that caught fire been replaced, only to have the new one in the same location also catch fire?
  3. What is plugged into the outlets that catch fire? Is it always the same appliances causing problems?
  4. How many appliances are plugged in to the problem outlets?
  5. Do any of the outlets seem loose?

If new outlets keep catching fire after you replace them, it could be a wiring issue, not an outlet issue.

If the outlets are seeing heavy current draw, from many appliances or a few big ones, it could be that the breaker on that circuit is too big for the associated wiring. An oversized breaker would allow more current through than the wires could handle. This could cause overheating.

If the outlets seem loose (and even if they don't) it could be that the wiring inside the box, behind the outlet, is shorting out and causing sparks. I had GFI outlet that tripped all the time - I eventually discovered one of the terminals was arcing against the inside of the box.

  • Old receptacles do regularly burn but because of being required to be contained in boxes (splices and devices) the NEC says this is safe. Backstabs are the leading cause of these electrical fires, but again they are “safe” according to the national electric code latest released version 2017. When it comes to overloaded outlets with possibly loose blades many do spark and melt, but again listed as safe by the code. In critical care facilities some states require yearly tension testing, or withdrawal force testing. Even a cheep 99c outlet may be better than a 40 year old outlet of any grade. – Ed Beal Sep 21 at 22:03
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A meter reading the green sounds fishy to me. In an older building the blades inside the receptacle become loose. As they get loose they start heating up and get looser causing arcing and sometimes fires. The problem can be made worse with large loads like electric heaters, portable cooking equipment, curling irons and hair dryers all require maximum current and can make the problem worse. Not many electricians have a simple tool to check the withdraw force of a receptacle but that is the proper way to test. The proper name of the device is tension tester I got mine at a professional electrical supply store like platt electric . They are expensive for what they are but they can provide the actual force on each blade and the ground pin. Currently the woodhead 1760 tension tester is 78$ at platt and $111 on Amazon. I have this same model but like I said not many electricians do unless they are verifying critical care patient receptacles and logging them.

Added because this was my intent:

Old receptacles do regularly burn but because of being required to be contained in boxes (splices and devices) the NEC says this is safe. Backstabs are the leading cause of these electrical fires, but again they are “safe” according to the national electric code latest released version 2017. When it comes to overloaded outlets with possibly loose blades many do spark and melt, but again listed as safe by the code. In critical care facilities some states require yearly tension testing, or withdrawal force testing. Even a cheep 99c outlet may be better than a 40 year old outlet of any grade. No bolte meter reading of any kind or brand can tell if a receptacle is safe, a load test is one and possibly the best was, but a tension tester is realistic for older outlets that are not backstabs, my opinion backstabs should be illegal, but in older commercial or industrial buildings the outlets should be required to be tested, based on how the code still allows knob and tube in a residence I don’t see how this could be required there but it should be recommended, this would cause the price of this simple device to drop to under 20$ similar to current outlet testers on the market today.

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    Probably cheaper just to replace the receptacles with nice new ones – Carl Witthoft Sep 20 at 16:04
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    @carl Witthoft, my point exactly, but I did not specify this+ a meter reading in the green is a totally bogus reading. With no load a failed outlet will provide a proper voltage, add a load and the voltage goes to zero, there are many posts that myself, threephase, and Harper have commented or answered to this affect. – Ed Beal Sep 21 at 21:43

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