Frequently Asked Electrical Questions

On this page you will find answers to questions most frequently asked by our customers. These questions are intended to be a resource for you regarding your electrical system. These questions are not intended to be a “troubleshooting guide” for electrical problems in your home. If you become injured or your property is damaged as a result of your own electrical work, Root Electric will not be held responsible. You should always contact a licensed electrician to perform electrical repairs or make modifications to your electrical system.

What is a “short” or a “short circuit”?

A “short” and “short circuit” describe the same problem. A short circuit happens when the “hot” wire (the wire carrying the electrical current, most commonly the “black” wire) comes into contact with either the grounded conductor (also called the neutral, most commonly the “white” wire) or the equipment ground (the “bare copper” wire or “green” wire). When a short circuit occurs, excessive heat is generated. A practical example of a controlled short circuit is the spark generated by an arc welder. In the same way, a short circuit that occurs in your home will generate heat and sparks if left unchecked. Thankfully, the circuit breakers in your electrical panel will cut power to the circuit in the event of a short circuit.

What is a GFCI outlet?

A GFCI outlet is an outlet receptacle designed to protect you from electrical shock when moisture is present. If your house was built in or after 1981, there is a good chance that your kitchen, bathrooms, garage, and outdoor outlets are protected by GFCI outlets. You can identify a GFCI outlet by the two buttons on the face of the outlet. One button will say “test” the other says “reset”. The “test” button will cause the GFCI outlet to trip (or turn off), and the “reset” button will reset (or turn on) the GFCI outlet if it has tripped. If the outlet will not reset when the “reset” button is depressed, there may be a problem.

The outlet in my bathroom does not work, and it is not a GFCI outlet. What is wrong?

GFCI outlets can be wired in series. For example, a GFCI outlet in your first floor bathroom can be installed so that it protects all of the bathrooms in your house. This GFCI outlet may also be found in your basement, your garage, or your master bathroom, depending on the age of your home. If you notice that the outlet in one of your bathrooms does not work, check other bathroom outlets. If more than one bathroom outlet is out, chances are there is a GFCI in one of the locations mentioned above that controls all of the bathrooms. You can reset the GFCI outlet by depressing the “reset” button. Upon depressing the “reset” button, you should hear a “click” and power will be restored. If you do not hear a “click” and power is not restored, there could be a problem in the circuit that poses a hazard. Consult a licensed electrician who is qualified to evaluate the problem.

The refrigerator in my kitchen does not work and the circuit breaker is not tripped. What is wrong?

Many older houses are wired so that there are two “general purpose” kitchen circuits. These circuits feed the outlets on the kitchen countertops, the refrigerator, and the microwave. If your house was built after 1981, there is a good chance that there is a GFCI outlet in your kitchen that has tripped. Locate a GFCI outlet in your kitchen. Check behind pots, pans, appliances, and pictures, as outlets sometimes get covered and forgotten. Once you locate a GFCI outlet, depress the “reset” button. Upon depressing the “reset” button, you should hear a “click” and power will be restored. If you do not hear a “click” and power is not restored, there could be a problem in the circuit that poses a hazard. If there are no GFCI outlets in your kitchen, there may be a problem with the wiring. Consult a licensed electrician who is qualified to evaluate the problem.

I have a refrigerator in my basement or garage that does not work, or the GFCI receptacle that it is plugged into trips on occasion, causing the refrigerator to defrost. What causes this problem?

Refrigerators cool themselves with a compressor similar to a heat pump or air-conditioner. The compressor is driven by an electric motor. That being said, there are two possibilities as to why the refrigerator is loosing power: 1) The refrigerator is beginning to overload the circuit. Depending on the size of the refrigerator, it can draw between 900 and 1500 watts. The maximum allowable wattage of a 15 amp circuit is 1480 watts, with a maximum capacity of approximately 1800 watts. This refrigerator may be overloading this circuit, especially if the outlet is on the same circuit with other high-use outlets in the house, such as bathrooms or outdoor outlets. 2) The electric motor may be causing the GFCI outlet to trip. As refrigerators age the motor driving the compressor wears. As this motor wears, it begins to develop very slight problems that the GFCI will pick up, causing the GFCI outlet to trip.

When I use my cabinet-mounted microwave, the lights dim and/or the circuit breaker trips. What causes this problem?

Cabinet-mounted microwaves draw between 1100 and 1800 watts, depending on the model and features of the particular appliance. Most cabinet mounted microwaves are appliances added to a house after the home has been built. Builders generally only install a range hood above the oven/range to exhaust cooking fumes. This range hood is generally powered by a convenient 15 amp lighting circuit, shared with other lights and outlets in your house. The maximum allowable load of a 15 amp circuit is 1480 watts, and the circuit breaker will trip when the circuit passes about 1800 watts. If your cabinet mounted microwave draws, say, 1500 watts while it is cooking, it is already beginning to max out the circuit. Once kitchen and dining room lights are switched “on”, the circuit begins to be pushed past its maximum capacity of 1800 watts, causing the lights to dim or the circuit breaker to trip. The best solution for a cabinet mounted microwave is to install a new 20 amp 120 volt dedicated circuit for that microwave. Not only is this solution up to current code standards, but it will also allow the microwave adequate power to run without tripping the circuit.

I have a light fixture in my house that causes light bulbs to blow constantly. Is there a “short” in the wires causing this?

A short circuit is not causing your light bulbs to burn out. Your circuit breakers will protect you against short circuits. In the event of a short circuit, the circuit breaker would trip, thus cutting power to the circuit. The most common reason for light bulbs to burn out, other than old age is heat and vibration. Heat will kill a light bulb if its light fixture has an enclosed lens that does not allow adequate air flow to disperse the heat from the light bulb. One way to cut down on bulb mortality in this situation is to use a lower wattage bulb. Always check the labels on the light fixture and do not install light bulbs larger than specified by the labels. Doing so will not only burn out the light bulb, but it will cook the insulation of the wiring in the fixture, possibly leading to a fire. Vibration burns out light bulbs because the filament inside (which is about as thick as a human hair) gets rattled until it breaks. It’s the same principal as when you continually bend a paper clip, causing it to snap. Light fixtures that are next to doors or below areas of travel such as bathrooms, hallways, or kids bedrooms absorb all of the vibration from door slams, footsteps, objects dropped on the floor, or kids jumping and playing. One way to solve this problem is to switch to a halogen light bulb. Halogen bulbs are about as big as your finger tip with thick, tightly wound filaments. (The “bulb” that you see with a halogen light bulb is merely a reflector that houses the light bulb itself) Halogen light bulbs are not only stronger than standard incandescent light bulbs, but they are also more efficient.

Another potential problem could be the voltage at your house. Most light bulbs that you can purchase at a hardware store are designed to run on 110 volts or 120 volts. Many homes have voltage as high as 125 volts. This higher voltage will decrease the lifespan of your light bulbs. A solution to this is to buy 130 volt light bulbs. 130 volt light bulbs can be found at a local electrical supply store or lighting store.

I just bought a house and my home inspection says that the electrical panel is an unsafe brand. Should I be concerned?

There are two brands of electrical panels in the Northern Virginia area that have been known to have serious defects: these brands are Federal Pacific “Stab-Lok” panels, and Zinsco electrical panels. Federal Pacific electrical panels are notorious for having circuit breakers that fail to trip in a short-circuit situation. The electrical panels themselves also suffer from design flaws concerning the buss bars and the way the circuit breakers clip into the electrical panel. The most dangerous part about these electrical panels is that they can operate without a problem for 20 or 30 years and then unexpectedly fail to trip for a short circuit or overload. Zinsco panels suffer from a similar, yet less extensive problem. The circuit breakers in some Zinsco panels tend to overheat and melt down over time, causing failure of the overheated circuit breakers and others surrounding it. Imagine your electrical panel being the foundation of the electrical system in your house. All of the electricity that comes into your house must first go through the electrical panel and each circuit breaker. It is your last line of defense against electrical fires. If you have reason to believe that your electrical panel is unsafe, please consult a licensed electrician. While replacing an outdated electrical panel is about as fun as replacing the transmission in your car, it will also help to bring years of safety in your homes electrical system.

I replaced the light bulbs in my fluorescent light fixture and the bulbs still do not work or they are just flickering. Am I doing something wrong?

The answer is, possibly. Fluorescent light bulbs attach to light fixtures with 4 prongs: 2 at each end of the bulb. If these prongs are not matched to each end perfectly, they will not install to the light fixture, and not supply power to the light bulb. Also, check to make sure that ALL of the light bulbs have been replaced. Some fluorescent light fixtures will not turn on if only one of the burned out light bulbs is replaced. Finally, the ballast may have burned out. The ballast in a fluorescent light fixture is the black box on the inside of the fixture. It is essentially a transformer that converts the voltage from 120 volts to whatever the fluorescent bulb needs to run. If the ballast is bad, the light fixture will not turn on or it will cause the light bulbs to flicker dimly.

I have a portable generator that I use to power my well pump and a few appliances when the power goes out. When the generator is running, and connected to the generator panel it barely powers light fixtures and 240 volt appliances, such as my well pump do not run.

Some higher quality portable generators have a switch on their control panel that allows the user to toggle between 120 volt settings and 240 volt settings. Be sure that this toggle switch is set to the 240 volt setting. If it is not supplying 240 volts to the generator panel, appliances needing 240 volts will not run at all, and the 120 volt circuits will be stressed trying to carry the burden of 240 volt appliances (thus causing light fixtures and 120 volt appliances to run faintly.

I have a portable generator that I use to power my well pump and a few appliances when the power goes out. I can’t figure out how to attach the power cord to the generator and to the interface outlet. What am I missing?

Generators connect to your house with something called a “twist-lock” plug. Instead of simply pushing the plug into a socket, you push the twist-lock plug into the socket, and then rotate the plug approximately ¼” in a clockwise motion. This locks the plug into the socket, thus eliminating the possibility of losing a connection. One good way to make sure the plug is secured is to pull on it slightly after it has been installed to the plug (just be sure that the generator is not running at this point). If the plug will not go into the socket or if it will not stay in, check to make sure you have the plug properly aligned to the socket. Carefully inspect the pattern of the prongs on the plug, and ensure they match the pattern of prongs on the generator socket and the interface socket.

I have a ceiling fan that is controlled by a remote. When I push the buttons on the remote, nothing happens, or the fan turns slowly. What is happening?

Most ceiling fan remotes are “aftermarket”. In other words, the ceiling fan did not come with the remote. Most remotes are installed on a ceiling fan designed to be controlled with pull chains. The best thing to do is to set the fan on “hi” using the remote. Then, pull the pull chain until you see the fan start to spin at the desired “hi” setting.

I have a ceiling fan that is controlled by a wall switch. When I activate the fan with the wall switch, nothing happens, or the fan turns slowly. What is happening?

Most ceiling fan wall switches are “aftermarket”. In other words, the ceiling fan did not come with the wall switch. Most wall switches are installed on a ceiling fan designed to be controlled with pull chains. The best way to solve the problem is to set the fan on “hi” using the wall switch. Then, pull the pull chain until you see the fan start to spin at the desired “hi” setting.

I have a motion sensing light in my back yard. Some nights it stays on all night or just blinks on and off. What is going on here?

Most people install motion sensing lights to allow light for a pet in the back yard, or to thwart a potential burglary. If you are experiencing too many “false alarms”, read on.

Motion sensing lights have a sensitivity dial mounted below the sensor itself. This dial may be set too high for the amount of regular motion in the back yard. Try turning the dial down to decrease the sensitivity of the motion sensor. The sensor will still pick up the motion of a pet or intruder, but will not be activated by a tree or plant blowing in the wind.

I have a light pole in my front yard that does not work even after I have replaced the light bulb. Is there a short causing this problem?

A short circuit is a potential problem for a light pole. In some cases, the installer did not properly protect the light pole wire, and it was cut by an unknowing gardener sometime later. More commonly, however, light poles stop working because the photo cell has died. The photo cell is a small round apparatus with a red “squiggly line” inside of it that can turn the light post “on” or “off” by sensing sunlight or the lack thereof. The photo cell can usually be found on the side of the light pole, or in a weatherproof box on the front of the house. The repair of the light pole is usually as simple as replacing the photo cell.

A dimmer in my house is very hot to the touch. Should I be concerned?

A dimmer is nothing more than a small transformer that causes the light bulbs to dim by decreasing the voltage applied to them. As the dimmer decreases the amount of voltage going to the light bulbs, excess heat is generated and radiates from the switch via the switch plate. The heat that you feel is nothing to be concerned about unless you can smell plastic burning or notice the lights flickering.

I have light switches in my house that don’t appear to do anything.

In most occasions the switch does do something, it just isn’t obvious. Many light switches that do not appear to control anything control what is called a “switched outlet”. Switched outlets are sockets in a room in your house that are controlled by a wall switch. These sockets are designed so that a floor lamp can be plugged in and controlled by a wall switch. Most new homes are built with switched outlets as the lighting source because they are less expensive for the builder to install than an actual ceiling fixture.

I have an outlet in my house that does not work. Should I be worried?

Before you worry, find a small table lamp and plug it into the outlet in question. Then, find all of the wall switches in the room and start turning them on. If you find that the table lamp turns on when you flip a wall switch, you will have stumbled on the solution. Some of the outlets in your house are controlled by a wall switch. This allows a floor lamp to be plugged into the wall as a light source. If you cannot find a switch that turns the outlet “on”, check around the room and see if other outlets or lights are out. Next, check the electrical panel to see if any circuits are tripped. If they are, reset the circuit breaker. If you cannot find a light switch or tripped circuit breaker and the outlet still does not work, be sure to call a licensed electrician to evaluate the problem.

I found a tripped circuit breaker in my electrical panel, but I cannot turn it back on.

There are a few possibilities here. The first is that the circuit breaker has simply tripped, and needs to be reset. To reset a circuit breaker, the switch must be set completely to the “off” position until you feel a “click”; once the switch has been set to off, set the switch back to the “on” position. If it returns to the “on” position without tripping again, the circuit breaker has been successfully reset. If the circuit breaker will not reset and trips when the switch is set to the “on” position, there may be a short circuit or overload on that circuit. If the circuit breaker cannot be reset, please be sure to call a licensed electrician to evaluate the problem.


Customer Testimonial

John and Bryan did an amazing job with our panel upgrade today. They were done so quickly and even checked other rooms and fixed problems without charging us a dime more than the estimate. Thanks so much! I will absolutely recommend your services to everyone that needs it.

Ryan Smith 
Arlington, VA                 

My home has aluminum wire. Is this something for me to be concerned about?

All houses, including new houses contain some aluminum wire. For example, the service cable that connects your meter base to your electrical panel is an aluminum cable. Some of the feeds for your large appliances such as a heat pump or range may also be aluminum. Aluminum used for these applications is still completely safe. The type of aluminum wire that has gained a bad reputation is aluminum branch circuit wiring. Aluminum branch circuit wiring can be found most commonly in houses built between 1965 and 1973. Branch circuits are circuits for your lighting and wall outlets. The reason aluminum wire tends to show more problem areas in branch circuits is because of the greater amount of splices in a branch circuit. Every wall outlet and every wall switch in your house contains at least three splices: one for the ground, one for the neutral, and one for the hot. Each of these splices is a place for a potential loose connection. Because aluminum has a greater expansion coefficient than other metals used in wiring devices, it tends to create a loose connection at places that it is spliced. These loose connections eventually begin to spark and generate heat, which can lead to a fire if left un-repaired. If you have aluminum wiring of any kind in your home and have a question or a concern, please call a licensed electrician.

Why do my lights dim when I switch on a vacuum cleaner?

Like your refrigerator, dishwasher, or washing machine, your vacuum cleaner features an electric motor. While running, an electric motor consumes a steady amount of electrical current (called RLA, or “running load amps”). However, when starting, an electric motor consumes approximately seven times the current that it would normally consume while running steadily ( called LRA or “locked rotor amps”). Take for example a vacuum cleaner that consumes five amps while the vacuum is running steadily. When you switch the vacuum “on”, that electric motor will consume approximately thirty-five amps of electricity until the motor has reached its operating speed. This creates a tremendous load on the circuit that the vacuum is plugged into, thus causing the lights to dim while the vacuum motor is accelerating to its operating speed. Once the operating speed is reached, the vacuum consumes less energy and does not cause the lights to dim.

A home inspector noticed that my home has some light fixtures wired with orange extension cords and lamp cords. Is this safe?

In a nutshell, “no”. Orange extension cords are designed to temporarily carry power to a location that does not have access to permanent power. They are not, however, designed to be permanently installed in your home’s attic or behind drywall.

Lamp cords are also not qualified to be permanently installed in your home’s attic or behind drywall. Lamp cords only carry two conductors: one hot and one neutral. The wiring in your home carries two conductors: one hot and one neutral, plus an equipment ground wire. The lighting and outlet circuits in your home are also installed with 14 AWG wire, which is rated to handle several light fixtures or appliances at once. If there is a short circuit or overload, the circuit breaker will trip before the 14 AWG wire overheats to the point of starting a fire. A typical lamp cord is either 16 AWG or 18 AWG (dimensionally smaller than 14 AWG wire) which is only designed to support the needs of one light fixture. That being said, a lamp cord used as a permanent wiring installation can easily be overloaded. If the lamp cord overloads, causing the wire to overheat and melt the insulation, the overload will not be sufficient to trip the circuit breaker, thus creating a serious fire hazard. If you see orange extension cords or lamp cords used as permanent wiring in your home, please consult a licensed electrician.

The lights in my house will sometimes dim slightly then return to normal. What causes this?

You could be experiencing a “brown out”. Brown outs typically occur during the summer months when air conditioners run continually to keep buildings and houses cool. The power grid gets stressed, causing less electricity to be available to your home. This may cause your lights to dim temporarily.

The other possibility is that there could be a loose neutral connection the power line connecting to your home or inside your electrical panel. If you experience this problem, first alert the power company. If they cannot determine a problem, call a licensed electrician to handle the problem.

My electric oven, cook top, air conditioner, and water heater do not work. To make things even worse, some of the lights in my house work and some don’t! What on earth is happening?

You may have lost a phase. Your house has three wires entering your meter base: two hot wires, each carrying 120 volts (called “A” phase, and “B” phase), and a neutral wire. Your 120 volt appliances such as your refrigerator and microwave, lights, and plugs only need one phase (either “A” phase or “B” phase) to work. Your 240 volt appliances, however, such as your oven, cook top, air conditioner, etc need both “A” phase and “B” phase (two phases at 120 volts each gives you 240 volts). If one of the phases becomes broken either at the power line, underground, or in your electrical panel, your 240 volt appliances and any lights or outlets on the broken phase will not operate. If you experience this problem, first alert the power company. If they cannot determine a problem, call a licensed electrician to handle the problem.

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