Background: 100+ year old house with lots of really janky, messed up stuff. Some novice before me has been monkeying around, so don't assume that the current wiring is sane, safe, legal, modern etc.

I am experiencing a phenomenon where outlets and lights are failing. There does not seem to be any rhyme or reason- the outlets downstairs, the lights upstairs and several rooms in the basement all failed together and another went out last night, all for no apparent reason. We had an electrician look at it but he could not find fault in any accessible light switch, socket, outlet and exposed box and he pretty much just gave up. Of course, we checked the breakers. Unfortunately, the breakers are not mapped, so there's a mystery there as well.

The best answer that we can come up with is that either from old age or shoddy craftsmanship (or both) some wiring has broken somewhere within the walls or attic of the house. Short of tearing into the walls to get the wiring, is there any way to locate this break?

  • 2
    Don't forget rodents (as a cause other than old age and shoddy work). And make sure your smoke detectors are present and working.
    – Ecnerwal
    Mar 26, 2014 at 23:20
  • Is that because there is a chance of an electrical fire? Mar 26, 2014 at 23:21
  • 2
    Yes, quite a serious one. You have crappy wiring and some of it's not working - arcs and sparks in wall cavities can and do set houses on fire. That's why the US Electrical code is published by the National Fire Prevention Association, not, say, the association of federated electricians. I'd be seriously considering not only ripping the walls open, but replacing the whole system if it's as bad as you describe.
    – Ecnerwal
    Mar 26, 2014 at 23:25
  • Ok, I think it's time to force the landlords hand. Mar 26, 2014 at 23:35
  • 1
    Landlord! - oh heck yeah. And be sure you have renter's insurance in place, too - it's remarkably affordable.
    – Ecnerwal
    Mar 26, 2014 at 23:50

1 Answer 1


One possible investigatory tool is a "toner" set - Fox & Hound or some other brand - While they are are more often used on telecommunications cables, some do claim to work on power wires. User reports vary, possibly due to different toner sets working more successfully than others with power wires. They work by one part applying a small electrical signal to the wires, which the other part of the set can pick up without having to actually touch the wires. If you can get a tone on a circuit (Disconnect it at the breaker before hooking up the toner - assuming you understand the risks of and precautions to take when working in the breaker panel [scratch that - it's the landlord's problem - leave it alone]) and then you find a place in the wall where tone stops, rather than going off in any of the possible directions at that point in the wall, it might mean you've found the break. Check both sides of the wall, etc. to increase the odds of success. Try connecting the toner at one of the dead outlets and tracing backwards, as well. If they both stop in the same place coming from different directions, that's a good place to knock a hole in the wall.

Before any more fail, map whatever circuits still work, and perhaps turn off any you can't find out what's connected to (paying attention to things that might not be instantly obvious like furnace or boiler, well pump if any, sump pumps, etc...)

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.