Fixing/understanding an outlet failure

thullApril 12, 2008

In my living room, I have a quad outlet that powers all the electronics and television. Most of the stuff is plugged into a Tripp Lite surge protector, with the power amp for the stereo and a couple of older items plugged straight into the wall.

The other night, all 4 outlets just shut down. I basically unplugged everything and then plugged it back in, and it seemed to work. I did check the breaker (not tripped) and upstream outlet on another wall (working fine). Happened again last night and nothing worked to get power back to the outlet.

Here's what I found when I pulled the outlets out to see what was going on. They're on a 20A circuit, and this was a DIY job a while back, where I put in industrial-grade outlets (backwired- not backstabbed). The quad outlet was set up with the ground pigtailed, but the hot and neutral were daisy chained between the two outlets.

Plugging in one of those Sperry testers before I powered it down showed "hot/ground reverse." And the neutral on the incoming connection to the upstream outlet was fried- insulation melted back a little from the outlet. I had to pull pretty hard to get it loose after loosening the screw.

I'm going to replace that outlet, and I'm going to pigtail both outlets off the incoming line. But I'm worried that I don't know the root cause, and that I won't have really fixed the problem. Any suggestions about what else to check? I'm a little nervous that it's a short of some kind caused by the TV.

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This is a classic failed neutral connection. The connection at the back wire screw was too loose, or became loose.

Everyone loves backwire receptacles, but I don't care for them, just for this reason.
If you spin the receptacle to put it into the box it can cut grooves in the conductor creating a loose connection.
I greatly prefer standard screw connections, even on spec grade receptacles, such as Leviton CR15's and 20's.

    Bookmark   April 12, 2008 at 9:44AM
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First, I would be concerned that the breaker did not trip. What is the brand of your main panel? It is possible that a couple of the connections came in touch with each other. Are the receptacles in a metal box? As you replace the receptacles, wrap each one with electrical tape so they do not come in touch with each other. I personally wire duplex outlets with pigtails and I always use the side screws but that's just my preference.

    Bookmark   April 12, 2008 at 9:47AM
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If there are no indications of overheating or spark-pitted metal on any of the hot wires or screws, then I would buy petey's explanation. I have limited experience with back-wired devices, but do remember feeling a need to retighten the screws after I got things twisted around to line up.

In that case there would be no overcurrent to trip a conventional breaker. I assume this is not on an AFCI breaker that would have been likely to trip from arcing in the neutral connection.

    Bookmark   April 12, 2008 at 12:19PM
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It wasn't on an AFCI; panel is a 200A Cutler Hammer (not sure of series). The outlets are in a plastic retrofit box. And the neutral that was welded to the outlet was on the RH outlet, so it was adjacent to the hot side of the other outlet. But I didn't see any any signs of arcing except on the one wire- the insulation on the others was intact and I didn't see any blackening/oxidation.

The failed outlet was a spec grade Pass & Seymour (about $6 to replace). I'm not sure about the connection- I'd see where spinning it could cut a groove on a spring-loaded backstab outlet, but this one looks to me like the side screw is just compressing the wire between two plates.

Anyway, I'm mostly hopeful/thankful it wasn't the 200-lb TV that needs fixing (a) heavy; b) expensive).

    Bookmark   April 12, 2008 at 1:20PM
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Even if the wire is tight in between the plates, it can sometimes still spin. This will loosen it just enough to cause a problem later, especially under heavy loads.

    Bookmark   April 12, 2008 at 1:50PM
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