26

My fan has been working fine for ten years now and suddenly if I’m barefoot and touch the metal pull chain it lightly shocks me, but does not if I have shoes on.

Does this mean I need a new fan or is it some electrical issue in my ceiling?

  • 45
    Stop touching it, immediately, until you are completely sure the problem is solved. Turn it off, too, if you have a wall switch or something, but still don't touch it. Maybe it's not mains voltage you're feeling; but maybe it is and you've just been lucky so far. If you get unlucky, a future touch could kill you. – Glenn Willen Sep 15 at 7:20
  • 47
    It is telling you to stop touching it and call an electrician in the only language it knows... – Stian Yttervik Sep 15 at 16:31
  • 4
    Is this a static electricity type shock with a quick pop and it's over, or is it a constant stream of electricity whenever touched? – rtaft Sep 15 at 17:44
  • 8
    Am I the only person who read this too quickly and parsed it as, "Why has my 10 year old suddenly started shocking me ..."? – Ben Crowell Sep 16 at 16:13
  • 1
    Thank you all for the comments, I’m going to replace the fan and check the ground fault at the same time. – J Aguilar Sep 16 at 17:25
55

DANGER!!!

This sounds like a ground fault. They are particularly dangerous if you get wet, which is why Ground Fault Circuit Interrupters have been required for many years in kitchens and bathrooms, among other places.

If you have shoes on, you are insulated from the floor. Without shoes, a little bit of electricity makes its way from the fan through you to the floor. A little bit of electricity can be fatal if it passes through your heart, so this is a serious problem.

Why would a fan suddenly have this problem? Hard to say for sure, but anything with moving parts can have a small problem - e.g., a moving part of the motor rubbing on insulation - eventually become a big problem.

As much as we all like to have things last "forever", the reality is that many appliances, small and large, typically last in the range of 10 - 15 years. Sometimes, as with televisions and other electronics, they become obsolete. But with many other devices they simply wear out.

While the problem may be repairable, unless this is a high-end fan I don't think it is worth the effort and the risk of not quite fixing it correctly. This is particularly the case since fans are normally hardwired but not on GFCI, so there is no easy "early warning system" as there would be if you simply plugged it into a GFCI receptacle.

| improve this answer | |
  • 3
    Sadly, ceiling fans are most definitely among the items that "don't last forever". I've replaced some in as little as 5 years, though I just pulled one down that I installed nearly 28 years ago. It was working perfectly, it had just gotten a bit old and ugly looking. – FreeMan Sep 15 at 11:19
  • 12
    Also, I will note for the OP's benefit, that if he's reasonably handy, replacing a ceiling fan, like-for-like, is a pretty straight forward, fairly simple task. It only takes a ladder and a Phillips-head screwdriver. You may need two ladders and a helper to hold the fan motor up while you wire it (or remove the old one) - that can be a bit tricky the first couple of times. Just be sure to take pictures of all wiring before disassembling anything wiring related (and kill the power at the circuit breaker)!! – FreeMan Sep 15 at 11:24
  • 9
    Under unlucky conditions (an inadvertent path to ground or neutral which has just the right resistance) a faulty insulation may also start a fire before the fuse in the fuse box triggers, so the fan should be detached ASAP. – Peter - Reinstate Monica Sep 15 at 14:29
  • 8
    @LorenPechtel in general, I'm inclined to agree with you, but trust me, I knew nothing about being an electrician when I wired a switch, outlet & light socket in college. I simply applied some "common sense" and managed not to burn the place down. That was long enough ago that Tim hadn't even invented HTTP yet! This is a DIY forum - we do encourage people to learn and try to give them appropriate cautions so they don't kill themselves. – FreeMan Sep 15 at 17:04
  • 6
    @FreeMan And it is also possible that even if OP is clueless, they might be able to call in a friend to help without going the full electrician route, so letting them know that fan replacement isn't a huge deal may be helpful. – manassehkatz-Moving 2 Codidact Sep 15 at 17:06
17

Your pull chain switch is probably starting to fail. The switch and chain wouldn't be grounded because it in a plastic housing so if the switch contacts are leaking over to the chain, that's where your shock is probably coming from.

| improve this answer | |
  • 3
    I had to pull the switch out of my fan yesterday. The cheaply-built housing split and the spring pushed one of the wires completely out of the housing so that the bare end of the wire was touching the metal fan body. Thankfully it was the ground wire. Those switches are built dangerously cheaply. At least they're easy to replace. – bta Sep 15 at 16:53
  • 4
    @JACK don't sweat the odd downvote. It shows that your answer is being read. – Criggie Sep 15 at 19:02
  • 3
    @Criggie Ya, it is kinda humorous... and I guess we need all the humor we can get.. stay safe out there. – JACK Sep 15 at 20:37
5

Anytime the body (chain in this case) in any appliance gives the user any sense of electrical current, mild or otherwise is absolute proof of 2 truths:

1] The body of the appliance is not grounded. It may have been or never was.. but it IS NOT at this time. (remember that green wire you didn't think you needed?)

2] There IS an electrical fault of some kind in the appliance. (in this case the switch)

The electrical fault IS present. If the appliance body were properly grounded, the circuit breaker whether a ground fault type or not would have tripped protecting the user from injury and alerting the appliance needs repair. Resetting the breaker in this case would not have been possible if the appliance were properly grounded.

Repair or replace the fan (10years old??? replace). Be sure the body is properly grounded.

| improve this answer | |
New contributor
mCarsn is a new contributor to this site. Take care in asking for clarification, commenting, and answering. Check out our Code of Conduct.
3

You have suggested you will replace your fan. I understand that you can buy a new fan for under $50, but some cost over $300. While its a bit more work, I'm a fan of finding the problem before throwing money/parts at a solution. The problem could lie in the pull-chain switch, or in the wiring in the gang box above the ceiling fan. A full replacement may solve your problem, maybe not. I replaced a light fixture and the wiring was chafed where it entered the gang box in the ceiling. A new light didn't fix my problem. A little electrical tape goes a long way.

I think you will have to take the fan down to fully troubleshoot the problem. A good multimeter will help. Turn off the breaker for the circuit the fan is on. Hopefully the house is wired correctly, but that is not always the case, so still exercise caution (not touching black and white wires, assuming USA, at the same time until you've tested for AC current with your meter). Look for cracked, dry rotted, brittle or missing insulation on the wiring. Ceiling fans move, shake etc, and this can cause chafe in the wiring where the fan is mounted to the ceiling. If the wiring is damaged, but not too badly, wrap with 3-4 layers of electrical tape and reinstall the fan.

TESTING THE FAN:

EDIT: Disconnect the fan wiring first! - See comments for additional tips This is not a comprehensive guide, so if the troubleshooting steps don't yield results, don't assume there is no problem. There can always be more than one problem. Using a multimeter, check for continuity between your ground wire (green or bare copper) and the other wires (black, white, maybe red brown or blue, depends on the fan, and if it has lights or not). If there is continuity between ground and any of the wires, there is a short in the fan. This probably isn't the case, because unless the fan was not grounded properly to the house wiring, a persistent short would trip your breaker. There may be an intermittent grounding to the fan body caused by the fan's vibration which you can't simulate during a bench test.

If you do find a short, trace the shorted wire along its path toward the motor or light bulb, testing for a short at each possible connection (where you can put the meter probe on bare metal). You may find a damaged wire or connection that can be repaired. If the shorted wire is shorted at the motor, its best to just replace the fan. If it is shorted at a light or the pull chain switch, those can be replaced.

Lastly, and maybe this should be done sooner, try removing all light bulbs. Older light sockets are sometimes trouble spots, as are old bulbs. Sometimes, they are broken and you can't tell until you take them out.

| improve this answer | |
  • 1
    I need to point out, if the OP wants to test the fan, the wires need to be disconnected first, or at least the neutral, or they will be ohming back through the neutral to the main panel. You and I know that, but readers might not realize this. It also leads me to my next suggestion: To test your grounds. Hard to do without a real ground nearby. My easy way, (it assumes the neutral has proper connection), is to ohm the grounds you want to test for continuity to the neutral wire in the box. Presumably they are bonded at the main panel and gives you a reference point to test your grounds. – troubleshooter Sep 18 at 3:26
  • Great points. I did mention taking down the fan, but was not very clear. I will amend the answer. – Jason Sep 18 at 13:41
1

Something's wrong.

The fan should be grounded, if the problem is located elsewhere. However, if grounding it trips a breaker replace the fan.

| improve this answer | |
-1

In that situation you should turn off the power going to your room at the breaker before even touching the thing, you will need an electrician to fix the problem.

| improve this answer | |
New contributor
Giles is a new contributor to this site. Take care in asking for clarification, commenting, and answering. Check out our Code of Conduct.
  • 4
    "Hire a pro" could be used to answer any question on this site, and thus can't stand on its own as an answer. You'll need to explain why diagnosing/fixing the problem is out of scope for a DIYer in order to justify "hire a pro" as an answer – ThreePhaseEel Sep 16 at 23:49
  • @ThreePhaseEel In Australia, working on this sort of thing without being a licensed electrician is illegal. – nick012000 Sep 17 at 4:41
  • 1
    @nick012000 -- we don't have any indicia the OP's down under tho – ThreePhaseEel Sep 17 at 11:41
  • 1
    "Replace the fan" also comes with the implicit (and often explicit) instructions of "in a way that's legal and meets the local electrical code". If the OP is in Australia, then the only legal way for him to do so it hire out the work. If he's in the US, then he could do it himself or hire it. If he's in the US, telling him to "hire a pro" doesn't fit with the ethos of a "Do It Yourself" forum. – FreeMan Sep 17 at 18:02

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.