When an outlet stops working, you might start your day with a kettle that won’t boil or a cell phone that isn’t charged. Although disruption to your daily schedule might seem to be the only concern, it could be a problem with an outlet that could potentially be much worse.
Electrical outlets can lose power intermittently or permanently, for several reasons, including:
- tripped circuit breakers or GFCI
- loose circuit wires
- a faulty socket
An intermittent fault suggests a faulty socket or loose wire. Often an incorrectly rated appliance is the cause.
Electrical outlet problems in the home or office may be too complex and even dangerous for the average layman to fix. But with a few basic tools and a little DIY knowledge, many issues can be identified and resolved quickly.
6 Reasons Why An Outlet Works Intermittently
Whether you have just moved into a new home or have lived in the same one for ages, chances are pretty good that at some point you will face an electrical outlet that either stops working intermittently or goes on the blink permanently.
Check these handy tips for tackling your faulty outlets:
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#1: Circuit Breaker Tripping
Circuit breakers are safety devices designed to control the electrical current flowing through your home. The circuit will trip automatically when the electrical current flowing through your circuit breaker exceeds its maximum safety rating. Without this fail-safe, overheating and damage to the circuit or connected appliances can occur.
If an electrical outlet is not working, it may be that this circuit breaker has tripped. Flip it to the “on” position and check again. If it happens again, then it may be that your outlet is faulty, causing a current surge.
See section #5 for faulty outlets.
#2: GFCI Outlet Tripping
GFCIs (Ground Fault Circuit Interrupters) are found in areas where water is present, such as the kitchen and bathroom. They are designed to trip when a short circuit is detected, protecting you from potential electrical shock. They usually have a “test” and “reset” button between the plugs.
You will experience intermittent tripping when a faulty appliance is connected to it. For example, your mobile charger may work fine, but your GFCI trips when plugging in a hairdryer. A short circuit may affect one or multiple outlets at the same time.
#3: Electrical Current Overload
A circuit breaker might trip if you plug in a certain appliance. Try another socket in the house to see if it happens again. If so, it may be that the appliance is faulty or the amp rating for that appliance is too high for that circuit.
Most household circuits are rated at 15 amperes (amps). Anything drawing more current than the rating will trip the circuit. Common culprits are high-power appliances that generate heat, such as:
Tools such as:
- angle grinders
Electrical gardening equipment such as:
- lawn mowers
- edge cutters
#4: Loose Or Faulty Wiring
This is one of the main causes of intermittent electrical outlet faults. A home’s circuit wiring is connected to the receptacles at the back of the outlet socket. Sometimes one of these wires will loosen over time and make only partial contact with the electrical outlet.
Wires that only make partial contact are particularly dangerous and potential fire hazards. These loose wires can disrupt the electricity flow, which increases the resistance and generates heat. Constant arcing could create sparks and start a fire.
- Switch off the main circuit breaker to rule out the risk of electrical shock.
- Unscrew and remove the outlet and check that all the wires are secured properly.
- If you find a loose wire, strip it back or clean any blackened ends with fine sandpaper.
- Reconnect tightly.
NOTE: Call an electrician out if you are not 100% confident with what you are doing.
#5: Faulty Outlet Working Intermittently
Electrical outlets, particularly in older houses, can become faulty over time. The receptacle may work loose, causing intermittent contact with your appliance. As is the case with loose wiring, this may cause arcing and sparking and can cause a fire.
Replace the outlet as soon as possible. Again, if you are unsure what to do, call a professional.
The outlet can also burn out, causing the blade receptacle to lose sufficient contact with the plug’s blade. If you see any blackening, it’s time to replace rather than repair it.
#6: Poor Quality Wiring Or Workmanship
Copper reticulation has been the gold standard for some time. However, building contractors and architects often take shortcuts and use aluminum wiring instead. Aluminum is cheaper but is also of lower quality and more brittle, breaking more easily.
Aluminum is also less conductive than copper, and the increased resistance can cause the wiring to overheat. If appliances are continually run on these circuits, you may notice intermittent issues with some of the appliances that are not rated for this type of circuit.
Get a qualified electrician for expert advice on what options there are.
Basic DIY Troubleshooting
Booking a professional to come out and look at your intermittent electrical outlet issues can be expensive and sometimes unnecessary. There are some basic things you can safely check yourself before calling an electrician.
Of course, the first critical step is to turn the main switch off to cut off the entire electrical supply to your house. Failing to do this can be a costly, even fatal, mistake.
Start testing by pressing the GFCI reset switch on the outlet. This will reset the circuit breaker. If this doesn’t do it, check the circuit board for any:
- burn marks
- blown fuses
Check and replace any outlets that show signs of:
- melted contacts
- chips and cracks
Any wires that show excessive wear or are blackened should be:
- stripped back
Make sure you reconnect the wires to the correct terminals:
Make sure the plugs for your appliances fit snugly into the outlets. Excessively loose plugs indicate a potential problem with the contacts and could cause issues further down the line if not promptly attended to.
Intermittent problems with faulty outlets are no reason to panic. They are commonplace and in most cases, are caused by a minor issue. Anyone with a little DIY sensibility and a few basic tools such as a screwdriver and set of pliers should be able to investigate and repair most problems.
The important aspect of doing any electrical work is safety first. And if in doubt, also seek the advice of a professional.
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