When [Electrical] Problems Arise

Troubleshooting the Core of the Problem


In the middle of a kitchen remodel for my brother, the electrical rough in was just about done so the drywaller could get in and hang his board. The old kitchen was stripped down to the studs and because there had been a drop ceiling build into a soffit which wrapped the kitchen, there were a few circuits that had been run through this ceiling space. With the drop ceiling being removed, flexible conduit and wire were hanging everywhere, the electrical problems began to show up. To add to this, the subpanel was in the garage, opposite one kitchen wall, so most of the homerun circuits for the condo were run through the kitchen at some point.Thus, part of this remodel had become a reroute and rewire with a criss-crossed spiderweb of circuits.


The Problem


Without disconnecting all the unit’s power, I was trying to keep as much of the electricity on as possible without disrupting their remaining living space and what the other trades were doing. One of the flex conduits which fed the living room lighting had to be disconnected, lengthened and rerouted, had two circuits in it. When I shut off the breaker, removed the wirenut from one circuit and pulled the conductors apart, I noticed the other circuit in the conduit was also dead.


Thinking Through It


Whenever a problem occurs, it’s important to remember that the issue you or your customer is looking at is generally not the issue which needs to be resolved. Most often it is just a symptom of the problem. This will help you save time and frustration from dismantling much of the circuit, it’s devices and/or fixtures. Save yourself from disappointed- after resolving the issue- when you realize that tearing everything apart trying to figure the thing out wasn’t necessary.


When facing a problem, don’t get stuck in the weeds. Stop for a moment, step back, and think about the issue before you.


I often suggest that troubleshooting is linear; in that, when solving a problem you should examine the system, or circuit, you are working on, and start at one point (the “problem”) and trace it forward or back to another point (such as the circuit breaker). In tracing the issue this way, you will stop at every point, linearly, where the source of a problem could occur, in this case every junction box on the circuit. Practically speaking, if you are looking a problem device, in tracing the circuit back to the circuit breaker in the panel, look at every junction box/device, in order, as you go.


The key with linear troubleshooting, is not to jump around randomly in the system or circuit, as this will most likely confuse you or throw you off. Remember, you are narrowing down the possibilities from the unknown to the known. As you identify and collect information, draw a map in your mind.


Taking Action


The loss of power in one circuit when another circuit was turned off could be a few things: something wired incorrectly, maybe both circuits were actually one circuit if both wires were tied together somewhere, or…


The first thing I went and checked was the electrical panel, to see if I had mistakenly turned off two circuits. Upon closer examination, I noticed a single conductor had been disconnected from something and left capped with a wire nut, which I assumed to be a hot conductor due to its color and sharing a neutral and the hot wire, which I just turned off and disconnected, in a connector leaving the panel. Interesting.


After connecting this “loose” wire to a spare breaker and turning it on, both of the circuits in question turned on again. Even more interesting.


So, going back to my originally disconnected wires, I then traced the forward, away from the panel, through a light fixture and then to a bathroom switch and GFCI. Often your gut tells you that you’ve solved a problem as soon as you see it. Indeed, there it was, one hot red wire tied to the outlet, and one hot black wire tied to the switch… with a short orange wire tied between the two.


Once the orange wire was removed, both circuits were turned on, tested and everything worked fine again- at least long enough for me to get back to my original rewire work. Apparently, someone had run across this problem in the past and instead of looking for and fixing the source of the problem, they just fixed a symptom of it.


Lessons Learned


Whenever you are troubleshooting a problem, make sure you are looking for the problem itself and not a symptom of the problem. Too often, someone inexperienced will “fix” a problem by taking a shortcut, perhaps even unknowingly, and instead of taking the time to resolve the primary issue, they will come up with some quick fix on the fly.


For the electrician, troubleshooting the problem is essential to prevent future problems, wasting some other electrician’s time, causing harm to someone, potential damage to equipment, and it also makes you a better craftsman.


My gut tells me that this level of troubleshooting also applies to life, but who knows, sometimes I feel like I know more about electrical work than I do about life.


Be safe.

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