Our house is experiencing a strange electrical issue. I'm in the United States (near Cincinnati) and I'm living with roommates in a rental house in a subdivision.

Yesterday morning, I woke up to discover that some circuits in the house have zero power - for example the upstairs bathroom has no lights, no fan, and the outlet is dead. (I checked the GFCI, and it was not tripped.) Other upstairs circuits, such as some (but not all) bedroom outlets, also have no power.

Other circuits in the house seem to be in a "brownout" condition - the voltage is a little low, but drops drastically when a significant load is attached. For example, my Kill-a-Watt reads about 115 volts with little/no load, but when a larger load comes on (such as the refrigerator or a toaster), the voltage drops (as low as ~60 volts). All of the "brownout" circuits seem to drop together - for example, if I turn on the toaster in the kitchen, the LED bulb in the floor lamp in the next room will dim.

Other circuits seem perfectly fine - the Kill-a-Watt reads about 118-119 volts, and the voltage remains steady when a load (such as the refrigerator) comes on.

I checked the breakers, and none of them are tripped. There's one "dual" breaker (two breakers tied together) that is physically loose in the breaker box (you can freely move it between OFF and ON with zero resistance, and the label is crossed out, so I guess it's unused?), and another breaker that has always been off as long as I've lived here, but otherwise everything is in the ON position.

I also felt the breaker box itself, and the entire box is cool to the touch.

Some 240v appliances are functional, but others are not. For example, the electric stove and the heat pump are all working. But the electric water heater is not - there's no hot water. (I attempted to reset it by turning its breaker off, then back on, but that didn't do anything, and there are no controls or indicators that I can find on the heater itself.)

We called the power company, and they came out and verified that everything up to the meter box is working correctly(*). So whatever the issue is, it's within our house.

We currently have the refrigerator on a "good" outlet (with a heavy-duty extension cord), and the remaining items on the "brownout" circuit are relatively lightweight (mostly just LED lights). I've opened a work order with our rental company, and am waiting to hear back on that. So I'm not necessarily looking to fix this myself, but I would like to better understand what could be going on here, and if I should attempt to escalate the work order before Monday.

I don't think this question is a duplicate of any of the various "half my house is without power" questions, because the power company found no issues, and our house seems to be divided into three areas: "out", "brownout", and "normal".


* The man from the power company did mention that he found some sort of "temporary" connectors at the weatherhead that are not up to code. They said they'd be sending a 30-day notice that it needs to be fixed and re-inspected, or they'd have to terminate service. He said it would be the landlord's responsibility, fortunately, but that we should be aware of it. I don't think that's related, especially since their load test came back okay, but it seems worth mentioning.

Updates in response to comments

@crip659, yeah we're trying to get in contact with the rental company. So far they have been frustratingly nonresponsive, despite creating a new "emergency"-level ticket. So... we'll have some thinking to do when the lease is up, but that's another thread. We're not doing any work ourselves, but we'd like to do what we can to avoid burning the house down :)

@A. I. Breveleri- to clarify, the breaker itself is not loose. The switch swings freely with zero resistance, but the full breaker itself is solidly in the panel. I don't know if wires are connected or not, and I'm not sure I want to open the breaker box to look.

@Harper - Reinstate Monica - I just tried this, and everything went dead - both the "weak" circuits and the good ones. The previously-dead ones remained dead. Not a single outlet or light in the whole house had power that I could tell.

As requested, here is a photo of the breaker panel. The 5/7 breaker is the "loose" one I described above. Photo of breaker panel

Update 2

I discovered last night a sequence which got the water heater running. Flip off 9/11 ("main lites"), 23/25 ("water heater"), and 26 ("washer"). Then turn on 23/25, then 9/11. At that point, the water heater started making sounds, and we soon had warm water at the faucet. The water heater breaker was never in the off position for an extended period, and I had tried flipping on just 23/25 previously, but those did not cause the water heater to actually run. So no idea what's going on there.

A company repairman (not an electrician) came out and took a look this morning. We discovered that the "weak" circuits are now behaving perfectly normally (the toaster no longer causes the light in the next room to dim, and the voltage doesn't drop), but the "dead" circuits are still dead. With the "water heater" breaker off, he tried turning on breaker 17 (the one on the bottom-left that's off in my photo), and that caused breaker 9/11 to trip.

I got a photo before he put the cover back on the breaker box, it looks like @NoSparksPlease was right about the split bus panel. 9/11 feeds wires that lead down to the bottom half of the panel. There used to be something connected to the 5/7 240v breaker, but as you can see, the wires were taped off, and when we traced them out of the box, they dead-ended at a junction box near the furnace and water heater.

At this point, now we're just waiting around for the rental company to send an actual electrician to look at the issue. The "weak" outlets issue resolved itself somehow, but the dead circuits upstairs are still dead.

breaker panel with front cover off

  • 3
    As this is a rental, about the only thing you do on your own is changing light bulbs. Everything else must be done by a licensed electrician hired by the landlord. The power company only checked their stuff to the meter, pass the meter is the owners problem.
    – crip659
    Oct 24 '21 at 12:42
  • 1
    There's one "dual" breaker...that is physically loose in the breaker box...and the label is crossed out, so I guess it's unused - If it has wires attached to it, it is almost certainly not "unused", and if it is in use, it is probably the cause of the symptoms you describe. Oct 24 '21 at 12:48
  • 2
    Go to the circuit panel and turn OFF all 240V (2-pole) breakers (not the main). Yes, really. Turn them off, even if the appliance is already non-functional. Water heater, range, dryer, A/C, etc. Now tell me the status of the "weak circuits". Are they dead as a stone now? Oct 24 '21 at 17:48
  • Just added some updates in response to your comments, thanks everyone!
    – maples
    Oct 25 '21 at 0:58
  • 1
    @maples -- can you post photos of the breaker panel in question please? Oct 25 '21 at 1:28

Most of the "half my house" answers are incomplete. Most of the time the problems is in the equipment that is in the utilities jurisdiction, but it certainly can be an issue with the load side of the meter, the wire to the panel, the connection to the main breaker, internal of the main breaker, or connection of the main breaker to the bussing.

You need to get your landlord to get somebody out to investigate the customer side of the service before some more damage results.

More explanation is needed about how the connection at the weatherhead is not utility jurisdiction.

Edit: You have a split bus "rule of six" panel that up to 6 "main" breakers were allowed to shut off all power. One of the six 2-pole breaker usually near the middle of the panel feeds all the small breakers in a sub-section of the panel. In your panel it is likely the 9,11 marked "main/lights". As long as that one is off none of the lower breakers will do anything. After turning off all 2-pole breakers turn only the 9,11 on and half your circuits will come on, turn on the lower water heater breaker and weird stuff will start. You're missing a leg and the 120v circuits connected to the dead leg are being fed reduced voltage through the water heater.

I would suspect that when 5,7 failed it also caused damage where it attaches to the bussing, so they added the bottom 2-pole breaker to the "lighting" sub-section and moved wires down to it.

Still, you need an electrician to find the faulty connection. I absolutely recommend only people with electrical training and flash retardant suit risk removing panel cover when a likely failed wire termination lug is possibly hot enough to come apart. Seriously.

  • Thanks for the explanation and the warning! I will be contacting an electrician today, I'm hopeful that my renter's insurance company will be able to help me get the bill to the rental company. Either way, this answer and other online reading has made me aware of the severity of the situation and at this point I'd rather pay for an electrician out of pocket (to at least diagnose the issue and bring the house to a "safe" electrical state) than watch the house burn down.
    – maples
    Oct 25 '21 at 9:56
  • You've taken the wrong approach @maples!! DO NOT call the electrician yourself! Contact the landlord and let him do it! If the landlord authorizes you to handle the electrician and reimburse you, get it in writing, otherwise you open yourself to all sorts of legal shenanigans by the landlord who has (especially if it's a rental company) much deeper pockets for lawyers than you do!
    – FreeMan
    Oct 25 '21 at 13:48
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    Good point @FreeMan, I hadn't considered that the rental company might sue me for trying to handle the problem myself. Fortunately, the rental company finally got back to me and they're sending an electrician out now.
    – maples
    Oct 25 '21 at 14:31
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    As much as you might appreciate the thought, @maples, you probably don't want to loan your car to your buddy and have him take it to the shop for new brakes, then ask you for reimbursement. If he's willing to do it, and asks you first (and takes it to your preferred shop), that's a whole different ballgame. ;)
    – FreeMan
    Oct 25 '21 at 14:35

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