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We recently plugged a space heater into an outlet in our son’s bedroom and only ran it at night. At some point, all of the lights and outlets in the room except one outlet on the opposite wall stopped working. No breakers were tripped. I shut down every breaker and even the main before restoring them one by one, and it resolved nothing.

I located the circuit for the outlet that the heater was plugged into. One plug in tester said I had a reversed hot neutral, the other said open neutral. A multimeter showed no voltage at the outlet, but the touch tester revealed there was power in the wire behind it. I shut off the breaker and replaced the outlet the heater had been attached to (using wire screws and not the stab backs). It was the last thing on the circuit with only one set of wires in the wall. When I turned the breaker back on, three lights in the hall and the light in an adjacent closet stopped working. There are no GFCI’s on the circuit. I methodically opened every outlet and switch in the room (6 outlets and two separate light/switch combos). I pulled the stab back connections, pushed them in firmly, checked and tightened every pigtail wire nut, and didn’t find anything obviously wrong. I flipped the breaker back on and all of the lights started working again. The outlets are now working also, but still show an open neutral.

The only weird thing I saw was one outlet with wires in all 4 stab connections and an additional set tied into the side screws (so three pairs of wire on this one outlet. I’m assuming it’s switched, but it is behind furniture so not used. I did not pull the fixtures because I’m short and weak and they are heavy.

So in summary, everything is working, but I’ve still got an open neutral somewhere. Any ideas? It appear that this one 15 amp breaker controls 5 lights, 5 switches, and 6 outlets. I did not pull wiring for the three lights that went out after I changed the outlet. They all work now too.

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  • Those 3-light testers are for builders testing brand new work. For diagnosing old work, their answers are whimsical at best... I call them "Magic 8-ball" testers. The 3 neon lights are great, it's like having three 2-wire testers. But tear the sticker off and throw it in the trash. – Harper - Reinstate Monica Jan 9 at 17:33
  • I fully agree with magic 8 ball and would apply that more strongly to the electronic style. – Ed Beal Jan 9 at 20:56
  • I have 2 magic 8 balls, a non-contact tester and a multimeter 😂 The magic 8’s read perfect in every other room but open neutral in that room. I was hoping to avoid replacing every outlet because I have to cut the stab connections to even get good contact for my multimeter and that’s a lot of trips up an down the stairs😬. I was expecting to see something melted from the space heater overdrawing, just seems weird that a neutral would suddenly be open AND everything working. Is it reasonable that the heater took out everything on the circuit except one outlet? No breaker trip? – MegGyver Jan 10 at 1:20
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You found a classic case of why backstabs are considered bad news by many electricians. When you pulled the receptacles out the connection was temporarily reconnected and the lighting is working again. As we don’t know if everything was proper to start with but is functioning now I can tell you this will normally happen again and eventually burn the wire off at the weak point. I would suggest checking each receptacle working back towards the supply or service and if one shows properly connected and the next one away shows wrong the problem is one of those 2 points and a device can be connecting ground and neutral down stream making them work or many other reasons.

If you plan to continue using a space heater I would suggest moving to the screw connectors or pigtails as this usually happens again with a heavy load.

The point of failure is at the last working or first non working receptacle or splice. If this bedroom has a common wall with another don’t forget there could be a receptacle on the other side of the wall in that circuit.

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  • This is super helpful. The room is the only thing over an attached garage, with the main panel directly below. I’ve established that it feeds lights in the hall and a bedroom closet that backs up to the hall, but other than that, there’s nothing else. To clarify, is it reasonable to start with the outlet that DIDN’T lose power initially and the one next to it that did? Should I be concerned about 3 sets of wire (each with the black/white/neutral) connected to a single outlet instead of a pass through pigtail? I’ve just never seen that before. – MegGyver Jan 10 at 1:31
  • white is neutral, what you are calling neutral is the safety ground. Yes do ALL outlets on the branch it does not matter which one you start with. Even the ones that might still be "working" may be overheated at the contact point. It is a very small area that actually makes contact in a stab-back – Ted Mittelstaedt Jan 10 at 17:11
  • @ted mitelstaedt , try reading the NEC there is an equipment ground, I notice Internet only “electricians” call it a safety ground in the us any way. White is NOT always neutral and at a switched receptacle it could be a hot on a switch leg but we don’t have enough info or a photo of the wiring to know for sure but on a 120v system black , white , bare is usually hot , neutral , ground. – Ed Beal Jan 11 at 1:09
  • I called it a "safety ground" because the OP clearly doesn't know the difference between a ground and a neutral and continued calling it a neutral even after I was nice and said "possibly you mean you have an open GROUND" To be honest now I wish I had not answered this one because I am having reservations at this point with a DIYer working on a branch circuit who not only doesn't know the difference between neutral and ground but is deliberately ignoring there IS a difference. (generally I don't use either words safety or equipment when talking about grounds) Ground = dirt in my world! – Ted Mittelstaedt Jan 11 at 18:06
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I pulled the stab back connections, pushed them in firmly,

Can't do that. Backstab connections are ONE TIME use. Whatever you did to pull the wires out, that has "sprung the spring" and it no longer has the original gripping strength. It is not capable of holding the wire again.

If they ever were, LOL.

But this is the crux of the problem with backstabs. You need to inspect the wire connections to see if they are intact. But you can't inspect a backstab because it's buried in plastic. The best you can do is (destructively) wrest the wires out as you did, and look for arcing damage on the wires.

"But wait. If I pull the wire out, how do I signal to myself (and the next person) they should never use that hole again?" For most of us it's simple: never use any backstab hole in any case, ever. They're not worth the trouble they create. However the second way is simply replace the whole receptacle - we are dealing with a commodity "builder grade" receptacle that costs 60 cents. Third is to shove a bare stub of #14 wire in the hole and clip it off flush. Don't use "spare" length from the wire coming from the walls; that length is precious - it must be >=6" from the end of sheath or it's a code violation and must be re-pulled.

The "spec-grade" receptacles ($3) do not use backstabs, but use a feature we call "screw-and-clamp" where you back-wire, but tighten the screws to clamp them! These accept 2 wires under each screw.

Where you see 3 wires landing on a side, it may simply be a 3-way wire connection - supply and two onward cables. That can be pigtailed. But you should also check the breakaway "tabs" to see if the receptacle has been split. Here's more on watching out for that.

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Let me show you something I filmed a while ago to demonstrate this kind of thing:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=89Zl0Hrgd1Y

The outlet in the video has zero outward indications anything was wrong with it. How did I discover it? By accident - touching a lamp cord. It only flickered one time - and I could not make it repeat until I spent 10 minutes wiggling the tester in it. I filmed it precisely for demonstration on these online forums to people that outlets do indeed wear out, and fail internally.

After that I went to Lowes and bought 30 of them, turned off all power, then started replacing them one at a time. This was a new-to-us home with no furniture in it. I got to where I could replace an outlet in less than 10 minutes. Once I used up the 30 I bought more. Not only does it make the place safer I could use the new outlets that prevent children from inserting objects into the outlet in the bedrooms.

Stab-backs into outlets are known to be troublemakers. They are used for speed of building assembly. This outlet in the video WAS NOT a stab-back. Without actually being at your house and doing the troubleshooting myself I cannot be sure but it seems fairly obvious your outlets are being used as junctions and you have one that is mechanically broken. They can fail internally, just as my video shows. I would replace every one on the circuit and buy the better quality ones and assuming you have enough wire length, take the time to insert a pin to release the stab back, pull it out, bend the wire into a hook and screw it on to the new outlet. You are not building a house on the clock here and can do the job right. You can also take the time to align the outlet with the floor so it's nice and square. I always think it is such a hack job when I see a crooked outlet or switch.

Also, you say you have an open neutral yet the outlets are working? That does not make sense. The neutral must be present in a 120v outlet for it to work. Possibly you mean you have an open GROUND? Use your multimeter on the AC section and check to make absolutely sure there is potential both between the black and white wire, and the black wire and green wire. If you do not see 120v between black and green you have a dangerous situation. If you have potential between white and green, and not black and green, you also have an incorrect and in my view, dangerous situation as you have a pair reversal somewhere.

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    Maybe getting to the point or answering the question would be helpful. – Ed Beal Jan 9 at 20:35
  • Yeah, I know the stab backs are lazy and they are probably original to the house (built in 1999). I bought a 10 pack to replace them and a new breaker too as we were hunkering down for snow and I wasn’t sure what I would run into. The release slots on the existing stab backs just don’t release (there isn’t a screwdriver in the world thin enough to fit in there and there’s paint spray all over them anyway, so on the one I replaced, I just cut them out and stripped fresh wire for the screw connection. – MegGyver Jan 10 at 1:08
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    An eyeglass screwdriver set will usually have one small enough. – Platinum Goose Jan 10 at 5:02
  • Ed, what about "I would replace every one on the circuit and buy the better quality ones and assuming you have enough wire length, take the time to insert a pin to release the stab back, pull it out, bend the wire into a hook and screw it on to the new outlet." is so difficult to understand? Please, get your morning coffee and a sticky bun, your blood sugar is low! – Ted Mittelstaedt Jan 10 at 17:06
  • MegGyver, you have to push like a sonafabith to get them to release. Big Orange sells a set of tiny screwdrivers that are hardened steel that have a small driver that fits perfect and won't bend up. Alternatively you can just get a big set of channel locks, and crack the outlet into pieces. – Ted Mittelstaedt Jan 10 at 17:09

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