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I changed 3 light switches in my bathroom, after I finished and turned the breaker back on for the bathroom, power cut off everywhere and it won't reset, so my unit is currently without power. I believe the breaker tripped, although I can't remember for certain.

I took the face plate off of the breaker box to check with a voltage tester, and there was no power coming from the main lines.

I'm assuming I installed the light switches incorrectly, or installed the incorrect light switches:

I had standard toggles and changed them to Lutron motion sensor for the fan, and Lutron motion sensor with dimmer for Vanity lights, and a basic flip switch for another set of lights. I'm not sure what went wrong, my guess is that it was the motion sensor flip switch for the fan, as the others were just two hot wires and ground wire, but the switch for the fan had a neutral that was capped in wire nut and a bare silver wire in wire nut with ground wires per the instructions. But on the whole, I'm pretty confident all the wires were going to their correct places, although this isn't something I have much experience with either...

I also put the old light switches back on before I first attempted to reset the breaker.

I talked to an electrician briefly over the phone and explained the situation to him, and he told me basically "just call the utility company and tell them to turn the main power back on".

My questions are:

  • Is all this consistent with a lightswitch being installed incorrectly? The electrician who I talked to seemed somewhat skeptical that a bad lightswitch would have caused a complete power outage in my unit.
  • Should I just call the electric company, or should I have an electrician actually come out to inspect it?
  • Is there anything else that I can do to troubleshoot things?
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  • Have you tried turning the main breaker off and back on again to reset it? May 16, 2023 at 1:14
  • So there is no main breaker switch in the breaker box for my unit. There's maybe 50 units in the building. But the outage is only in my unit. In order to reset main breaker, would I likely need to have someone from the utility company do it? Or could someone like the property manager suffice? May 16, 2023 at 1:21
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    Have you turned all the breakers for your unit off and on? Likely the "main breaker for your unit" is at the feed end of the power cable/wires coming to your breaker box from a central power distribution location in or near the building, if there's not one in the box. Whether that is under power company or building maintenance control is likely to vary.
    – Ecnerwal
    May 16, 2023 at 1:40
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    The the main breaker should be next or under your meter
    – Traveler
    May 16, 2023 at 4:27
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    @user8340913 there should be a main breaker under your electric meter then. if you cannot access the meter room yourself, your property management should be able to deal with it May 16, 2023 at 11:33

1 Answer 1

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This is one of the reasons why, in most places, only an electrician is allowed to work on wiring in multifamily or commercial buildings.

The problem was likely either:

  • A switch wired incorrectly that resulted in a dead short when turned "on". There are a number of ways that can happen, such as a white wire in a switch loop being confused with neutral. Neutral is always white (or rarely gray). White is not always neutral.

or

  • A bit of bare hot wire that touched neutral, ground or a grounded metal box. That can happen to anyone, but especially to someone new to wiring.

The secondary problem is that there is no guarantee of breakers tripping in the desired sequence. While it is almost always true that if a 15A or 20A branch circuit shorts on a 100A or larger feed that the branch breaker will trip and not the main breaker, there is no real guarantee of that, for a bunch of reasons.

In addition, an older apartment might have a much smaller feed - e.g., 50A - which will have a higher chance of tripping the feed breaker instead of (or in addition to) the specific circuit's breaker.

The problem gets complicated though because within a building there is generally no requirement for each subpanel (in this case, each apartment) to have a "main" breaker of its own and can instead rely on feed breakers as the disconnects. (When buildings are physically separate, they each need to have a local disconnect.) Somewhere in the building is a main panel with a feed breaker for each apartment, plus individual circuit breakers for shared lighting, etc.

You really have no choice but to go to management and ask them to reset your feed breaker. Not the electric company - they would only get involved if you managed to turn out the lights for all the apartments, or if you damaged the meter. But normally there is either a separate meter, and disconnect/main breaker for each apartment (and you get a bill from the electric company) or a big panel connected to one mete with a feed breaker for each apartment (and you don't get a bill from the electric company and electricity is included in your rent, or you pay a flat rate for electricity, or you pay a rate based on the size of your apartment and the total electricity bill for the building).

The problem you have is that at this point it is quite possible that it will trip again immediately. So you can tell them what is going on and pay for a professional electrician (of their choice) to fix up your switches. Or you can try to put everything back the way it was, play dumb, and tell them you don't know what happened - maybe say the switch seemed loose and when you turned it on the breakers tripped. But I wouldn't count on that ending well.

You may want to look at your lease first, to see if there is a rule about "no electrical work" and to see what the consequences are for breaking the rules. The big problem is that even if you hired your own electrician now, you would still need management to flip the feed breaker for your apartment.

Good luck!

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  • I'm guessing some of the hot wire touched something it wasn't supposed to then, the wires were cut rather long and it took a bit of force to get the cover plate screwed on. If they reset the main breaker, could I leave the breaker for the problematic switches off, just to get power back and have an electrician come to check it out later? May 16, 2023 at 14:19
  • If you turn off the branch circuit breaker and then turn on the main breaker, you should be OK. The catch is that you already know that if there is a similar problem again then you may get in trouble with management. So branch off, main on, licensed electrician to fix up the switches is probably the best bet - less likely to repeat the problem and a licensed electrician is allowed to do this work so no real concern if main trips again. Having a short circuit/breaker trip when working on a switch is a totally normal thing (at least for non-professionals who only do this occasionally) - May 16, 2023 at 14:26
  • happened to me last time I worked on something (my electrician was working on the panel, I was replacing one light fixture while he was working) - the problem is that it triggered a main breaker trip (that has not happened to me). May 16, 2023 at 14:27

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