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My wife turned on a space heater and a heated blanket in my living room plugged into separate outlets but in a series of 3 visible outlets. At once, all items in the series stopped receiving power. No breakers were tripped. EVERYTHING else throughout the house still has power even in the same room and presumably on the same circuit.

I pulled all three outlets out and there are no signs of damage to them or the wires. I used my non-contact voltage detector on all the wires and none have power.

I am pretty confused. My best guess is something happened to the wires, but nothing else lacks power. These outlets are on the bottom floor in an old house. I can see in the box of the first outlet in the series that it is fed from above and I can see the wires on the outlets on the second floor directly above are older. I cannot/do not know how to otherwise trace the source of the wire feeding that first box.

What should I do? Thank you.

EDIT: There are no GFCIs in question.

EDIT: Further info on the sequence of events. Apparently, the blanket was on, then the heater was turned on. The heater ran for a few seconds and then everything went off, then back on for a second and finally off for good.

EDIT: More details - 20 AMP circuit. There are no backstab connections in the outlets I pulled out (including those on the above floor). I did also switch all breakers fully off and back on.

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    Sounds like some connection that was just barely carrying the previous load behaved like a fuse and burned out when the additional kid was added. Either that, or a breaker or fuse somewhere did blow and you just haven't found it yet. Only way to resolve which is to examine every connection between the failing outlet and the breaker, or use a wire tracer to find the break, or both
    – keshlam
    Commented Mar 6 at 4:35
  • You might pull the faceplate of the panel for a visual inspection of the wires coming out of the breakers. Be careful with all that live current. Commented Mar 6 at 12:04

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After you've exhausted all the excellent suggestions by @manassehkatz-Moving 2 Codidact, my next step would be to follow each wire from each dead outlet using a wireless circuit tracer like this (which is the one I use / not an endorsement).
Be exceedingly careful, as you will need to attach the signal sender to house wiring (only the receiver is wireless).

  • Shut down all the power to the house by opening the main breaker AND every individual circuit breaker. There are two reasons: safety, and to isolate each circuit to identify wiring connected only to your dead outlets.
  • Use a noncontact voltage tester like this (which is the one I use / not an endorsement) to confirm that there is no power at each point you connect the sender to.
  • Attach the sender's clip leads to ground and the hot wire on dead outlet 1. This is easier if you cut off the plug from an old lamp and connect the sender's clips to the wires. If no ground pin, try the second clip on the other wire or let it dangle - one or the other may work.
  • Follow the instructions to use the receiver to trace the wire along ceiling, floor, walls, following the strength of the tone. (I attach it to a piece of PVC pipe to reach the ceiling.) Draw a simple sketch to show where each line goes in the house and any other devices you run into. If you come to a switch, turn it on to continue tracing. If you come to a junction (fork), follow each branch. Include every outlet, switch, junction box, etc., you come to.
  • At some point, the signal will drop dramatically or cease entirely. You have found one of its endpoints; it could simply be the last device on its branch, or it could be the point of failure. Every good circuit will have a path among its branches that goes back to a breaker. Your bad circuit will not; it will be a sort of island in the sea. It will have two endpoints (or more if it branches); one will be the break you are looking for, and it will almost always be in the box behind the outlet or switch where the tone stops.
  • Open each endpoint box and inspect and repair faults (as described by others). Given the age of your wiring, I would replace all the devices at the endpoint, and re-do all the twisted splices. (If you find aluminum wire instead of copper, use only devices marked Al/Cu.)
  • After the repair, you should be able to trace the signal back to an single breaker. If not, repeat the tracing process from the new endpoint, until you get to a breaker.
  • Finally, disconnect the sender before restoring power via the main and individual circuit breakers.
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presumably on the same circuit

Not necessarily. Especially with some wires newer than others, it could be that these receptacles were added with a new circuit at some point.

No breakers were tripped.

Again, not necessarily. First of all, breakers are designed to "trip free". Meaning that even if they are held in position (due to a lockout mechanism of some sort or someone standing there holding the breaker handle or just accumulated dirt), the internal mechanism will still trip. So to be sure the breaker truly didn't trip, you need to flip it OFF and then back ON. If after that the receptacles still don't have power then something else is going wrong.

Also note that AFCI and GFCI devices (which are often breakers but can also be combined with receptacles or be all by themselves) don't "trip" in the same way that regular breakers do. If the breaker has a TEST button then it is an AFCI or GFCI breaker and again OFF followed by ON should reset it.

A space heater (nearly always 1500W) and a heated blanket (typically 100W to 200W) is going to be very close to the limit for a 15A circuit. But probably not enough by itself to trip a regular (overcurrent) breaker, at least not very quickly. Which indicates that one of two things is happening:

  • Other Devices

There really are other receptacles and devices on the same circuit. Another few hundred watts could be enough to trip a 15A circuit, or a bit more (another heater?) could trip a 20A circuit. This should be obvious because it wouldn't be just another receptacle not working (which you might not spot) but something else that was actually ON before the problem.

  • Bad Connection

This is commonly "back stab" connections in receptacles, but can also be a poorly done wire nut or even a loose screw connection. Any bad connection between the breaker and the heaters will be affected by all the current (13A or more) flowing through the circuit. A bad connection will heat up, and that can be enough to cause a bad connection to disconnect. Which is actually not such a bad thing - it is better than starting a fire!

So check the breaker (upload a picture if you are not sure what you have) and if you really rule out the breaker then start checking every connection in the circuit. Do the main work with the breaker off - turn it only when you are ready to test. Any back stab connection should be redone with a screw connection. Any loose wire nut or wire nut showing any sign of melting or burning should be replaced. Any screw connection that is not good (only bare wire under the screw, no bare wire outside the screw, hook so that tightening the screw is in the same direction as the hook so it doesn't push the wire out) should be redone. You may even want to replace the receptacles - they are around $3 each for really good ones which let you stick the wires straight-in under a little clip under the screw instead of having to make a hook.

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    Added a few more details to my post. I did cycle all the breakers with no effect. Unfortunately, the wiring is wonky and I don't know which breaker is which. All the outlets have snug connections with full hooks. There were other devices I know for certain on the circuit but they were off (and now also do not get power of course) but everything else in the house still works. The reason I made a point about the wires is because the outlets I checked to see if they forked to these downstairs ones has fabric insulation both in and out so unless there is a splice in the wall or something
    – CircArgs
    Commented Mar 6 at 4:47
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    A splice in the wall is unlikely, generally against code (there are some ways to do it properly, but not generally done) and far, far more likely is the last device that works or the first device that doesn't work. You're going to have to figure out which breaker is the right one, and likely (but not guaranteed) the problem is in a junction box (i.e., accessible, not buried in a wall) before the problem receptacles. Sometimes a junction box where wires are spliced but don't actually power anything in that particular box. Commented Mar 6 at 4:57

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