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My dad lives in a home built in 1956 here in Maryland. The only upgrades to his electric has been having the fuse box converted to breakers back in the 90s.

He hit the light switch today and it tripped the breaker. He went to turn it back on and he said he could hear some crackling at the breaker box and then it tripped again after about 10 seconds. So my assumption was the switch could be bad, a receptacle in the series is bad, or some connection either a wire nut or on a terminal is loose and causing arcing or something.

He doesn’t have the cash for an electrician until it’s a must so I figured I’d give him a hand and upgrade a few long overdue things and hopefully catch the issue. I figure I would go through and find the first receptacle in the series and see if unhooking still allows the breaker to trip. If it doesn’t then I’d upgrade that receptacle to a newer one. I figured I’d go down the line until I have replaced them all and hopefully find the bad connection (he said one of the outlets hasn’t worked for a few months and possibly another). Then do the same process for the switches. At the same time I will replace all wire nuts too in case the internal springs have lost their spring constant over the past 70 years. Probably 8 outlets and two switches.

Then if this doesn’t fix the issue I would check the two light boxes just in case since the one light has a ceiling fan that definitely isn’t balanced/rocks and could create potential vibrations over the years to effect a connection.

Does this seem like the best course of action before calling an electrician?

In addition, I figured since there isn’t a ground in his wiring and I don’t think the metal boxes are grounded either (I'll test that when I get there), I figured I would add a GFCI/AFCI outlet to the first in the series to provide some additional protection and then I could use three prong outlets for the receptacle replacements.

For a circuit with no grounding does only the first outlet need GFCI outlet and downstream does not or in this scenario does every outlet need to be GFCI for this protection to take place? I’ve seen mixed info from electricians and DIYers for this old home style upgrade.

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  • Can you post photos of the insides of the boxes in the circuit in question please? Commented Feb 21, 2023 at 4:08
  • Just a comment, not an answer, but my brothers have a rental that was tripping a breaker. Asked me to figure it out. So I went there and flipped on the breaker, then the switch to a switched outlet ....LOL It blew out some sparks, So as Jeff Foxworthy would say: "There's your clue!" Turned out that at some time someone must has have moved the outlet a bit and the ground was touching the hot. Easy find, easy fix. Commented Feb 21, 2023 at 4:52
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    make sure you bone up on common issues replacing outlets and switches. diy.stackexchange.com/questions/168564/… Commented Feb 21, 2023 at 6:12
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    You should pull out the "In addition" part and ask that as a separate question. It makes this too broad...
    – FreeMan
    Commented Feb 21, 2023 at 17:25

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I have a similar age house in Maryland. Your general plan is reasonable, including GFCI (if no ground available) at the first receptacle, and then 3-prong receptacles following as long as they are labeled "GFCI protected, no ground".

However, you may be in luck as far as grounding. In my house I have so far (haven't replaced every ungrounded receptacle yet) found that every ungrounded receptacle actually had a ground wire available - often already attached to the metal box, though not always in the proper (at least by modern standards) way. So I was prepared to replace 2-prong receptacles with GFCI but have not had to do so yet.

That being said, I do suggest you make sure that the house has GFCI protection in the kitchen and bathrooms, as there it is important for safety beyond just as an alternative to proper grounding.

The specific trigger here may have be the light fixture and not a switch or receptacle, but you should be able to figure that out when you are examining the circuit.

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    The gfci not ground label is something I add correct? If there is no ground connected to the receptacle isn’t it a dead give away?
    – Qiuzman
    Commented Feb 21, 2023 at 2:46
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    Both. In some cases I found the ground wire wrapped around the clamp on the outside (i.e., inside the wall cavity) of the box. Of course, your Dad's house may be different. And I have found many other problems too - e.g., hot/neutral reverse in a few places, boxes too small to even hold a modern quality receptacle (let alone a GFCI). Commented Feb 21, 2023 at 2:54
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    You need to add the label because while you know there is no ground, a future user may not know. And it doesn't matter much from a safety standpoint, for most situations it won't make any difference. But it is a code requirement. As is, more generally, the 99% ignored "mark any GFCI protected receptacle to indicate it is protected" - I remember 23 years ago when my electrician finished my kitchen and I called him up to tell him a receptacle in the kitchen wasn't working, that he had just installed, and he almost came back before realizing and telling me to "check the GFCI elsewhere in the Commented Feb 21, 2023 at 2:58
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    The only way, @IrishRedneck, to know that there no ground connected to the receptacle is to open the box up and take a look. Either that or read the "GFCI protected, no ground" sticker that you put on there while doing your work.
    – FreeMan
    Commented Feb 21, 2023 at 17:28
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    So I checked the metal box does seem grounded as I get 120v when touching it and the hot wire. So it must be similar to your house in that sense. So I will forego the gfci/afci outlet I was going to put in. It doesn’t fit anyway. The metal box is too tiny lol. So far replacing the outlets has stopped the breaker from tripping so far but will update as I finish.
    – Qiuzman
    Commented Feb 22, 2023 at 17:19

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