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My wife called me home from work because the lights in several rooms stopped working.

I came home expecting a tripped circuit breaker or GFCI, but I found no such thing. Instead, after pulling out my non-contact voltage detector, I discovered that there was indeed voltage on the lines, both in the hot and neutral portions of my wall receptacles. I checked the lights and they were hot, even with the switch off, which led me to believe again that the neutral and hot were shorted.

I poked around and the only thing plugged in was a surge protector for my TV and various entertainment system devices. I unplugged all of the devices, leaving the surge protector plugged in, and nothing changed.

I unplugged the surge protector to check that receptacle, and everything seemed fine, so I plugged it back in. The TV standby light came on, and after checking all of my plugs and lights were working again and the short seemed to be gone.

So, should I be worried? Was the surge protector just doing its job, or is it bad? Should I be concerned that the breaker did not trip?

  • 1
    Wouldn't a hot to neutral short lead to noise/light/smoke from a breaker somewhere? – DJohnM Jun 16 '15 at 20:01
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    As @User58220 indicated, a hot-to-neutral short circuit would have tripped the breaker or, if not, burned your house down! More likely, the outlet you found is acting as a bridge to the rest of the outlets and the connections to it are loose. As you unplugged and replugged the surge protector, you probably nudged the wires back in contact. You need to check and probably replace this outlet ASAP before a poor connection heats up and causes a fire! Call an electrician if necessary. I'd highly recommend turning off the breaker to that room until this is taken care of! – DoxyLover Jun 16 '15 at 20:13
  • @DoxyLover, yes that seems to make sense. I am working on replacing the outlet now. I am still concerned that I sensed voltage in the neutrals and the breaker didn't trip. – Jeff B Jun 16 '15 at 20:31
  • So, now that I think about it, if this is the first outlet on the circuit, and the neutral is loose back to the breaker, then the neutral to the rest of the circuit will be pulled to the potential of the hot, correct? – Jeff B Jun 16 '15 at 20:36
  • Yes, if you had anything on the circuit plugged in and turned on, such as a lamp, it would act as a path from hot to the disconnected neutral. This is very likely what you saw. – DoxyLover Jun 16 '15 at 21:12
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Definitely sounds like an open neutral. By the sounds of it, the bad/loose connection is in the box where the power strip was plugged in.

  • It's the only thing that makes sense now from what I saw, especially considering the breaker didn't trip. I pulled out the receptacle and one wire came loose just from pulling it out (although it was a black wire, not white). One of the whites was not super secure either, so my guess is that one was the culprit. There were 3 pairs coming into the box, all attached to the outlet. I'm not sure if that was code when the house was built (1992), but it was that way when we moved in. I replaced the receptacle and pig-tailed the 3 pairs to make a single connection to the outlet. – Jeff B Jun 17 '15 at 0:17
  • @JeffB - Can you confirm that the original wiring to that receptacle was using using back stab connections? (It sounds like that was the case since you said when you pulled out the receptacle one wire simply came loose). Back stab connections are known to be unreliable and I do hope when you pigtailed to install the new outlet that you attached the pigtails via screws to the receptacle. – Michael Karas Jun 17 '15 at 13:00
  • @MichaelKaras: Oddly no, they were not back stab, at least like I'm used to. They were screw terminal, but you insert the wire into a slot and then tighten the side screw to clamp the wires. With 3 wires in the slots I imagine that there was not enough pressure on all of the wires. I did pigtail them onto the screw terminals of a new outlet. – Jeff B Jun 17 '15 at 18:37
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    My experience with the screw clamp type wire terminations is that even those are best with just one wire. On many outlets except for best commercial grade outlets the clamp brackets will bend and deform leaving a questionable hold on the wire. The wrap around attachment of the wire under a binder head screw is still the very best termination. – Michael Karas Jun 17 '15 at 21:17

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