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I own a home in California and was emailed by my property manager about an electrical problem with an outlet. The outlet was fixed according to the tenant but the repair man through the manager thinks there is still a problem. Just wanted to know if this sounds right or if I'm being scammed. This is the email:

"I installed a new outlet as needed in the upstairs guest bathroom. I also tested each of the bathroom GFI circuits and they are now operating properly. The old outlet failed on the inside and melted. The plastic covering on the wires were also meted. Because of that I also started checking some of the other circuits in the bedrooms. I'm extremely concerned based on the tests I did on a few random bedroom outlets. I found an amperage issue. Normal amperage is either 15 or 20 amps. The bedroom outlets that I tested were pulling 36-49 amps. This is very dangerous. I would need to test all of the outlets and switches in the home and outside the home to trace where the amperage issue starts. I will also need to go through the main electrical breakers one by one. The volts aren't an issue here, it's an electrical outlet, switch, breaker, or bad wires pulling a high level of amps. High amps like that will make the wires heat up and melt the plastic coating off. If that plastic coating is melted due to the wires heating up, it will allow the copper wires to touch each other and that can potentially cause a fire. Because I will need to open up each outlet and switch one by one and also test all the breakers. It will take several hours. The estimated cost of labor will be $340. If we need to replace more outlets or breakers or even wiring in the walls obviously the price will need to be revised to accommodate the cost of any new parts. Please let me know ASAP If you want me to proceed. I can move it to the top of my list because it's a life and safety issue. This issue is not only very dangerous, it can burn out any products that are plugged in to outlets, such as TVs, stereos, and any electronic devices. I told the tenants to unplug any high dollar items just to make sure nothing will get damaged due to a surge in amps. Again please let me know how to proceed as soon as you can. I'm afraid this problem may cause a fire. It also might be a good idea to replace all the smoke detector batteries if they haven't been done for a while. That would cost $50 in labor and $40 for all the 9v batteries. The cost of the batteries are high because due to the new law when detector batteries are changed, they need to be replaced with the 10 year batteries and the date of install marked on each one. If you go online you can check the pricing of the batteries. Unfortunately the required 10 year batteries are twice as much as the regular 9v batteries. "

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    What circuit breaker panel is being used for circuit protection? Sylvania/Zinsco and Federal Pacific are notorious for not tripping and allowing excessive current draw. Seeing melted stuff is not normal operations unless you want flammability in your future. – Fiasco Labs Sep 15 '15 at 22:08
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    That would cost $50 in labor and $40 for all the 9v batteries what a scammer...that alone pisses me off. Who can't change their own smoke detector batteries, for whats he's charging he should throw that in... – JonH Sep 16 '15 at 19:35
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    @JonH: Keep in mind it's an apartment building, we don't know how large it is. – BlueRaja - Danny Pflughoeft Sep 16 '15 at 22:01
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    Please do let us know what the 2nd opinion says, just for curiousity (I think you said you're getting one). My gut is that you're dealing with someone telling you about an actual problem, but communicating it really badly, and who may well be at best a middling electrician in the first place. E.g., not actually scamming, just not good at communication and potentially not very good at diagnosing (vs. installing) things. The old "Don't attribute to malice that which can be attributed to incompetence" but perhaps not quite that harsh. (Though "socket pulling amps" is pretty out there.) – T.J. Crowder Sep 17 '15 at 12:20
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    Please do update us, it's curious. If he DID mean that the outlets have ~40amps running through them continuously, then... have you noticed a huge electrical bill? That's ~4kW, so ~115 kWh per day - your bill would be massive. – Jim W Sep 17 '15 at 18:17
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Quote: "The bedroom outlets that I tested were pulling 36-49 amps."

Sounds fishy. Outlets do not pull any amps by themselves. Did this electrician plug in to the outlet with some kind of test load to draw this power? If not, the electrician is probably not honest or does not know their job. I was an electrician for about 10 years, granted that was 30 years ago but I have never heard of testing the "amps pulled by an outlet" since outlets do not "pull power" at all, only the load (your lamp, tv, or whatever) plugged into the outlet "pulls power."

Finding the breaker at the panel is easy:

This paragraph assumes you have only one breaker panel and is a good place to start if you don't happen to know. Plug a radio into one of the outlets in question and turn the volume up so you can hear it from the breaker panel. A lamp works also but you have to run back and forth to check if the lamp is on. Turn off all 15 and 20 amp breakers one at a time. You should hear the radio go silent when the proper breaker is turned off. If there is still power to the outlet(s) in question after all 15 and 20 amp breakers are off, then it would be logical that they are not wired properly and may well be wired to a higher amp breaker. Skip the next paragraph in that case.

If you found the breaker that controls the outlet(s) in question you can replace the breaker if you want to be sure there is no problem with the breaker.

If the outlets are not powered off after all the 15 and 20 amp breakers are off, then try the higher amp breakers one at a time until you find the guilty breaker. THEN, be sure you do not have a sub panel somewhere that is fed by that high amp breaker. If you do, then you need to start over with that breaker panel.

BTW, even if there is no "amps problem" you may still want to open all the outlets and check them if one had melted insulation. That is almost always caused by a poor connection or nicked wire. The outlet was likely not installed properly to start with.

Another reason the outlet may have failed, since the electrician claimed that it melted from the inside, is that a heater or other high draw appliance was plugged in loosely. That would cause the same problem as a bad connection to the outlet. In fact it would be a bad connection, just that it happens to be the plug, not in the wall wiring. If your outlets are worn out, that is, you feel little or no resistance when you plug something in, they are a fire waiting to happen when someone plugs a space heater in.

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    I must agree with this answer. Outlets to not draw amps. The way you check an outlet is you plug a voltmeter in. A socket draws amps depending on what is plugged into it, not a property of a socket at all. – Joshua Sep 16 '15 at 2:32
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    If we're being technical, the circuit allows the current draw and the outlet is part of completing that circuit. Personally, I read the electrician's comments as shorthand for "the circuit allows pulling 36-49 amps through the outlet" and not as a sign of ignorance. I do have questions about what type of tool he would have measured this safely though. – statueuphemism Sep 16 '15 at 12:29
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    Just a small thing to make life easier; once you have identified which breaker is which, label them. – RedSonja Sep 16 '15 at 12:46
  • @statuephemism: There's no such circuit as would allow safe measuring. Even my arc for testing breakers really isn't all that safe. – Joshua Sep 16 '15 at 15:04
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    @statueuphemism: Your interpretation doesn't really make sense with the rest of what's written. I read it as, the circuit the outlet is on is currently drawing 36-49 amps. You can measure this easily using a clamp meter. And he's correct that this is extremely dangerous. However my first question (which he did not answer) would be, why is the breaker not tripping? – BlueRaja - Danny Pflughoeft Sep 16 '15 at 21:52
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Without even reading what this person wrote, the answer in this situation is always the same. If you don't feel confident that a contractor/electrician/plumber/etc. is telling the truth, or even if you do but simply want to evaluate their estimate. Get a second opinion (and third, or fourth).

26

I totally agree with Speedy Petey on calling someone else for an estimate. The writing style definitely seems scam-ish, particularly with the "hire me now" vibe throughout the message.

That said, if he measured current draws of 36-49 amps, then he is right to be concerned since this is a serious safety hazard and his plan of action does not sound too far fetched. If true, it sounds like someone may have illegally tapped off of a 50 amp line somewhere in the building to power some of the outlets in the building. You wouldn't necessarily be able to tell this simply by looking at a schematic, the breaker panel, or the wires at individual outlets because someone would have done this as illegal patchwork. When work is illegal and nowhere near code, chances are that the person who performed the work didn't leave a nice record of what they did in the form of a schematic or otherwise. Therefore, there is no way to tell where it started without going through systematically and figuring out where the problem starts as suggested in the proposal.

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    Thanks everyone. Having someone come out from another other company tomorrow just in case. Hopefully he was wrong and whatever repairs can be done. – K. Moore Sep 15 '15 at 21:56
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    IMHO, a more probable, and even more dangerous, scenario would be that two or more circuits might have their hot wires connected somewhere. If things are wired properly, and one plugs in a device which will start safely making noise when powered, turning off all the breakers and then turning them on one at a time should identify only one which turns on the device. If two breakers turn on a device, that would represent a major safety hazard, and one which might not be easy to diagnose. – supercat Sep 16 '15 at 20:57
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    @supercat To each his own regarding probability. A previous owner of my house tapped off the wiring for a 70A subpanel run to power the two 15A outlets for my garage door. This is one of several findings that inspired me to rewire my whole house. – statueuphemism Sep 16 '15 at 21:06
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    @statueuphemism: In any case, either scenario could exist, and both are dangerous. Personally, I wish there were a convention of marking the source and destination ends of cables distinctly, so that given a box with a switch and an outlet, which e.g. had wires coming in for a lighting circuit and a receptacle circuit, and wires going out for a switched light and additional outlets, it would be obvious that the first two circuits must not be attached to each other. Otherwise, if something gets miswired somewhere, someone who doesn't recognize the existence of two separate circuits... – supercat Sep 16 '15 at 21:30
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    ...might mistake one of the cables feeding into the box as being a cable which should be fed from the box, and thus connect the two hots together--an easy mistake, but one which could be easily prevented if power inputs and outputs were distinctly marked. – supercat Sep 16 '15 at 21:31
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If the circuits are properly wired and on proper sized breakers, ie: #14 on a 15A breaker and #12 on a 20A breaker, then there is NO way the circuits could be pulling more than 35 amps for more than a minute or two. There is no way the wires would burn up if the breakers are correct as they would trip.

I have NO idea what he means by all this and no, it does not sound right. From what you describe it does sound like some kind of a scam. It also kind of sounds like maybe he found some burned wires, typically due to a poor connection, and does not know how to troubleshoot it. Was this guy a real electrician, or some kind o handyman??

First thing I would do is get clarification form this guy, then call someone else to give you a second or even third opinion estimate.

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    Have the proerty manager provide his license number and then go look that up with the state licensing board (authority, whatever) for electricians, for a start. looks like this might do it? dir.ca.gov/dlse/ecu/ElectCert/ElectCertSearch.asp – Ecnerwal Sep 15 '15 at 21:47
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    there is NO way the circuits could be pulling more than 35 amps Never make a blanket statement like that <grin>. How old is the house? Was it built in those years where certain notorious Circuit Breaker panels were manufactured? Certain things must be determined before blowing off the electrician as a cowboy operator. Get a second opinion by a reputable electrician's firm. – Fiasco Labs Sep 15 '15 at 22:11
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    The home was built in 2006 and is about 4000 sq ft. So I'm hoping there isn't a huge problem in the wiring. The tenant said all outlets are working fine now, but I'm not sure if there would still be some underlying issue. – K. Moore Sep 15 '15 at 22:19
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    Read up on Federal Pacific and Sylvania/Zinsco breakers. You can't determine if they are faulty till you measure the results and find they are not tripping. The Federal Pacific units fail such that they cannot be shut off. – Fiasco Labs Sep 15 '15 at 22:19
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    @Speedy Petey How do I get one of those new amp draw outlet testers, I have never heard of one. – WarLoki Sep 16 '15 at 0:29
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Other answers are good, but one more thing surprised me in electrician's letter:

it can burn out any products that are plugged in to outlets

If voltage is right, and product not damaged, then it will draw what amps it needs to and nothing more. No risk of burning. And outlet has no way to make voltage higher.

The only way I see it might not be a scam is if:

  1. He tested outlets with test load to see when breakers will cut the line and found it allows too much current and
  2. He expected you and your landlord not understand "technical speech", tried to simplify it, and failed miserably.

It's not impossible for the above to happen, of course, but even if your outlet is connected via breaker with too high amp rating, you shouldn't be in an immediate danger, and language electrician was using seems to be exaggerated and scary on purpose.

Personally, I would check which breaker it's connected to (as described by Jm Alt), and replace it. It's cheap and it's always better to be sure. Next weekend or other convenient time, I would also check other outlets, to be sure they are connected to breakers with proper rating. In my flat whole procedure took 2 people less than 15 minutes, but of course your mileage will vary - houses have it more complicated. If you don't have time or inclination, call another electrician. As unrelated to the first one as possible. Don't tell him about "findings" of his colleague (he might feel inclined to cover for him, even subconsciously), just ask him for breaker inspection and diagram which one goes where.

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    "He expected you and your landlord not understand "technical speech", tried to simplify it, and failed miserably." Indeed, the canard is: Don't attribute to malice what can be attributed to incompetence. – T.J. Crowder Sep 17 '15 at 12:07
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    @T.J.Crowder but in my country it rather goes like this: "If no one knows what it is about, it is about money" – Mołot Sep 17 '15 at 12:10
  • Oooh, I'm going to use that. (What country?) – T.J. Crowder Sep 17 '15 at 12:15
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    @T.J.Crowder Poland. "Jeśli nie wiadomo, o co chodzi, to chodzi o pieniądze" – Mołot Sep 17 '15 at 12:20
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I found an amperage issue. Normal amperage is either 15 or 20 amps. The bedroom outlets that I tested were pulling 36-49 amps

So like others here, I would be interested to know what he did to test this? you must plug in some kind of load box that begins shorting out the line and measuring current. What it says is, the breaker is not working.

You find which breaker it is, and find out where it came from and possibly find out who installed them because if thats the case? It could be an issue for neighbors who had their homes built by the same builder.

Besides the breaker not working, the GFCI that melted internally? find out where that came from, the company might be some made in China ripoff where the home builder used cheap junk to try and charge for high quality GFCI's at say $15-20 each but paid $1 each; Maybe the same for the breakers, charged for quality made in USA breakers but installed made in China junk?

Youve got an issue where either the home builder or some contractor has used the wrong parts for household wiring (or someone put the wrong parts in), so other families could be at risk who don't yet know and you should tell your city manager or someone who issued permits.

You would want to KEEP the old gfci that melted, and KEEP the bad breakers, they could be important evidence and save lives.

It sounds like if what the Electrician says is true they are doing the right thing but if its true? someone out there is putting families in danger by bad wiring, so do the right thing.

3

Ask him to explain what he thinks actually happened. What he wrote is absurd, if taken literally, but may have been merely inaccurate wording in the reporting.

An outlet, working properly, should never "pull" any number of amps. "Pulling current" is a phrase used to describe loads placed on a circuit. The outlet should not be a load, just a way to connect the load to the house wiring. If I translated that correctly, it would mean the outlets are each consuming 36-49 amps of current. Given these are 120V lines, this means each outlet is using 4.3-5.8kW of power on a continuous basis. This would show up in a power bill noticeably. In realistic situations, the power consumption of an entire house doesn't average that high, and we're talking about a single outlet!

If I assume he is just being sloppy with wording, I can come up with a valid explanation for what he said. Whether it is valid or not is not my call to make, you should ask the electrician for more information, and verify what he actually did (disclaimer: I am not an electrician, nor a lawyer). If the plastic insulation on wiring melts, that's a really unusual thing. The insulation is usually rated to handle the heat from currents well in excess of the rating on the wire, and we put a circuit breaker on the circuit to stop said current before it becomes an issue (such as if you short the circuit out with a malfunctioning appliance). Seeing melting wires would trip my curiosity detector for sure. If my van is well equipped, I may have a testing box which I can use to see how much load I can put on a circuit before the circuit breaker trips. Such a meter is easy to create, using a rather large variable resistor and some circuitry to lower the resistance until the circuit breaker trips. It probably even has some clever circuitry to safely trip circuit breakers without putting enough sustained load to overheat wires. If I were using such a meter, and I was sloppy, I might phrase something as "the outlet pulls X amps," when I actually mean "when connected to the outlet, my tester was able to pull X amps before the breaker tripped." Seeing those 36-49 numbers would also raise my awareness. He is correct that most house circuits (virtually all of them) are wired for 15-20 amps unless special considerations are needed. Seeing double that suggests that there may be something unusual upstream.

If all of these interpretations are correct, then he is correct when he states that it is a safety hazard. We design the electrical system of a house to fail in the least-dangerous places first. Thus, we want the circuit breaker to trip long before we start to hit the wire's maximum rated amperage. If a circuit breaker flips, it angers a tenant, and they have to go reset the breaker. If a wire fails... well.. you never know where in the walls that failure is, and what damage it might cause before it is noticed and solved. The electrician may have found evidence that there is something incorrect in your house's wiring, and now the wiring is becoming the "first line of defense" for your house.

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    I think it's worth pointing out that your figure of 4.3 - 5.8 kW translates to anywhere between two and six space heaters (1-2 kW rating), on the same circuit, running simultaneously on full power. Forget the electricity bill; think of the temperatures you'd be seeing indoors if this was the case! All power consumed must go somewhere, and somewhat simplified, all power consumed translates into an equivalent energy amount of heat added to the environment in which the power consumption takes place. So if a device (no matter what kind) consumes 1 kW, that amounts to adding 1 kW of heat there. – a CVn Sep 17 '15 at 8:24
  • @MichaelKjörling Very true! And, that number is "per outlet" as well, if you take the words at their face value! – Cort Ammon Sep 17 '15 at 15:05
1

This makes no sense to me at all.

As others have said, the only way he could actually be saying this is if he used a load test to see what he could draw before the breaker popped.

The problem with this is that the breaker pops--he knows what's miswired (although knowing what's miswired and knowing where it's miswired are two very different things.)

Saying that it's drawing too much without indicating what it's actually wired to sounds very suspicious to me!

1

Any contractor that can move you to the front of the line has no line. There are several red-flag statements in this response/proposal. Recommending battery replacements, for example, is not in scope.

Try again with at least two other proposals.

protected by Niall C. Sep 17 '15 at 15:10

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