Home electronics break daily and wiring is OK. Any ideas?

35

8

We have a very old house, circa 1850-1900. It seems that as often as every week we have had to replace an electronic device. In the past six months, we have had to in total, replace:

  • 1 washing machine
  • 1 refrigerator
  • 1 PC motherboard (of my custom PC)
  • 1 laptop
  • 3 laptop chargers
  • 4 hard drives
  • 1 tv
  • 1 monitor
  • 1 Nvidia shield remote
  • 1 PLC controller board
  • 4 modems and routers
  • 1 plug in smoke alarm

I tested all outlets in the house for voltage, they all test 108-120 volts, AC. Within reason, correct? Under full load, every circuit stays above 108 volts. Polarity is correct on all plugs but one, which is never used. All electronics (that can be) are protected by at least a 2000 joule surge protector, a piece.

No one in my family knows what is going on. Most of the insulation is tar, and hemp, however, there seems to be nothing wrong with the circuit, as I said. I have taken every measure (that I know of) myself to diagnose my problem, but came back empty handed. Any suggestions?

The only other thing I could say is that my area seems to be really weird with electromagnetic radiation. Half of the time, we can't get a local radio station broadcasted no more than 20 miles away. We can't get any AM half the time either. Could there be something there? Or would it just be something to have FirstEnergy look at?

matthapkidokarate

Posted 2016-11-26T03:31:42.033

Reputation: 276

8I'd have to your power company check for burned neutral connections on your main power feed. You suggest your using surge suppressors but you indicated your house is from the ungrounded era, surge suppressors need a proper ground to work, is that taken care of?Tyson 2016-11-26T14:09:36.730

4Were your radio tests performed on battery-powered receivers to eliminate wiring issues?Agent_L 2016-11-26T19:28:33.800

When you measured and got 108 volts, were you measuring to ground or to neutral? 108 volts to ground might be reasonable. 108 to neutral is not. (It makes a huge difference because usually about half the voltage drop comes from each side.)David Schwartz 2016-11-26T21:39:57.997

2One thing I would like to say about the PC situation. Use a good UPS with built in surge protection. This is a good idea even for new construction if you have an expensive custom built rig.NZKshatriya 2016-11-26T23:19:15.883

When you tested the voltage, did you look at the voltage of each outlet with the appliance both on and then off? If so, the voltage change that a device causes at the outlet would be of great interest.wallyk 2016-11-27T06:55:06.867

3If your home has wiring from the late 1800s, especially if it has "copper insulation," it's time for a full wiring upgrade, even if your wiring isn't the cause of these specific issues.WBT 2016-11-27T15:13:57.817

3now, as a computer tech with little housing wiring knowledge - i will tell you just this: spikes, surges, brown and blackouts all damage your circuitry. If your house lights change brightness regularly, that is why all of your things keep breaking....something something call your electrical companyRozzA 2016-11-27T20:29:26.187

I would suspect a bad neutral connection, either within the house or in the power company's feed. This is especially likely with some older setups where the neutral was kind of an afterthought. What can happen is that you turn on a toaster and the voltage on that leg goes to 50V, while voltage on the other leg shoots up to 190V. And it's not unusual for the connection to be intermittent.Hot Licks 2016-11-28T01:41:46.150

I would definitely get at least a couple UPS to place on sensitive equipment. Most office supply stores or computer stores have apc 1000va or 1500va units.cybernard 2016-11-28T02:55:13.730

2Voltmeter readings can be misleading - AC voltmeters come in three flavors: RMS, peak, and "calculated RMS from peak" (a cheap DMM tends to be the third type). All of them can hide something from you :)rackandboneman 2016-11-28T10:24:17.997

2"Tar and hemp" insulation? Are you aware that on all houses, electrical faults are the single largest cause of fires, and that your century-old wiring is basically using gasoline and tinder for insulation? Consider this IMMEDIATELY LIFETHREATENING. If you wouldn't set your children on fire just to see what happens, don't leave it one more day before booking an electrician. I can't emphasise enough how lucky you are that you and your family are still alive and uninjured.Graham 2016-11-28T12:27:41.273

1@Graham Tar and hemp worked great for like 100 years - why do you think it became "immediately lifethreatening" basically overnight? The existence of better insulation makes the old one obsolete, not stops it from working. Anyway, most fires come from lose and/or overloaded joints, not from insulation failing.Agent_L 2016-11-29T07:34:22.633

Unrelated, why do you have a PLC in your house, that you know enough about to replace?immibis 2016-11-29T09:03:55.517

2@Agent_L They didn't "work great", they were simply the only flexible insulation available at the time. As soon as rubber insulation was available, people stopped using it. As far as the "lifethreatening" part goes, the OP is describing faults where bad connections are the most likely cause, which as you say is the most common cause of electrical fires. I'd consider it's been lifethreatening for decades - the owners of the house have simply been lucky and got away with it. Sooner or later they'll stop rolling sevens though. Could be in another hundred years, or could be tomorrow night.Graham 2016-11-29T11:39:29.487

Probably worth mentioning either what country you're in (USA?), or what the residential voltage where you are is (120V?).Wai Ha Lee 2016-11-29T11:57:01.817

@Graham I understood your comment that you attributed all problems to hemp and tar insulation while completely ignoring connections. BTW, we switched to rubber only because it was cheaper and then PVC was even more cheaper as it no longer required expensive woven sheath.Agent_L 2016-11-29T11:59:26.033

1One of the selling points of surge suppressors is that some of them offer an insurance policy, i.e., if your electronics are fried, they pay for them. You might want to check if any of your suppressors have that feature.Nolo Problemo 2016-11-29T16:44:24.430

I'm just thinking that at this point there's 0 reasons to not call the electricity company and/or get an electrician out there. You've already spent a tonne of money on fried electronic devices and unless you resolve the problem you will continue spending money. You're gonna have to have this looked at at some point or other, may as well do it now before even more stuff breaks.Clonkex 2016-12-04T13:00:48.767

Answers

40

No, 108V is NOT "within reason". You have all the symptoms of a VERY SERIOUS power wiring problem. You should consult a licensed electrician immediately before your house burns down. The symptoms you describe suggest that your power wiring could catch your house on fire at any moment. Seriously, this is not something to fool around with.

Richard Crowley

Posted 2016-11-26T03:31:42.033

Reputation: 701

13Call your power company. Get them to check their equipment. The AM radio issue leads me to think this is a service transformer issue.Dan D. 2016-11-26T06:26:37.130

3Not disputing what you say, but didn't the US once have nominal 110V - or is that my faulty memory? If so, is it possible that somehow this house (transformer / whatever) got 'left' on nominal 110V in which case 108V is fine?abligh 2016-11-26T09:46:36.707

1@abligh IIRC 120V right now – and historical things wouldn't apply to the present, would they?Marcus Müller 2016-11-26T10:00:07.810

@MarcusMüller - don't know how the upgrade was done. If at a supply transformer level, it's conceivable some were not upgraded, in which case it's a problem, but not a 'very serious power wiring problem'. But the advice to call the power company is correct.abligh 2016-11-26T10:21:09.857

The symptoms, description, and age of the wiring does not indicate a problem-free situation. If you call the power utility, be prepared to be disconnected if they discover dangerous wiring. OTOH, if the problem is with the utility service, they are the only ones who can fix it.Richard Crowley 2016-11-26T11:28:59.780

3List of mains voltages for each country, 100, 110, 115, 120, 127, 220, 230, and 240 V. United States is listed as 120 V.Peter Mortensen 2016-11-26T12:04:52.457

20@abligh, there is a small chance that 108V is "fine", even in the USA -- but not in a house that also has 120V! That means there are serious wiring faults in those circuits that measure 108V. Somewhere something is getting dangerously hot.Brock Adams 2016-11-26T23:13:07.240

Great answer. Also take pictures and keep receipts. Power company is liable for all of your electronics if they are at fault. Now faulty wiring in home - no.DMoore 2016-11-29T06:50:46.680

@DMoore Depends on the agreement you have with them, you'll find most have a disclaimer stating that they 'aren't responsible for damages as a result of missupply'. Home insurance should however cover for the dead equipment.cybermonkey 2016-11-30T07:52:43.043

17

In addition to what @RichardCrowley says (and he's right, do call the power company), just because you measure 108V-120V that doesn't mean that there are no transients that spike much higher. Equipment dies infrequently from undervoltage, but often dies from overvoltage - particularly electronic equipment where a specific component (perhaps metal oxide varistor) in the power supply deliberately goes short circuit and blows an (internal) fuse under such circumstances.

Your surge protector may be junk, or may not be good enough (neither is uncommon).

Causes of such transients can include lightning strike, very heavy inductive loads nearby matched with a poor supply, faulty supply transformers, or electronic warfare (though I'm guessing you haven't been annoying any nation states).

In any case the answer is the same (electronic warfare aside): call the power company.

abligh

Posted 2016-11-26T03:31:42.033

Reputation: 316

6Don't think I angered any nation states. Don't think I angered the government. So, electric company it is.matthapkidokarate 2016-11-28T00:31:35.770

Another obvious cause of transients is arc-faults - connections so poor that they are actually creating arcs when current is drawn through them. These types of faults are extreme fire hazards and can also generate EMF that would interfere with things like @matthapkidokarate 's radio. They would also cause the odd RMS voltage drops in places around the house.J... 2016-11-30T09:11:36.320

14

Most houses in the USA receive two "hot" wires which supply current in opposite directions at any given time along with a neutral wire. If the loads served by both not wires are perfectly balanced, no current will need to flow in the neutral. Otherwise the current in the neutral will be the difference between the currents in both legs.

If the neutral becomes disconnected but the loads on both sides are perfectly balanced (not a common situation), everything will work normally [since there would be no need for the neutral wire to carry any current]. If the neutral is disconnected but the two sides are not balanced (a more common situation) the side which is more heavily loaded will receive less voltage than the side which is less heavily loaded, but the amounts of voltage will go up and down depending upon loads.

The only way some outlets would be able to receive 108 volts while others are receiving 120 would be if a huge amount of power is being dissipated somewhere continuously (so much so that something would be quote noticeably hot) or there's an open neutral somewhere that's allowing some devices to receive more voltage than they should while others receive less. Open neutrals can be extremely destructive and dangerous, and your description makes that sound like a possibility.

supercat

Posted 2016-11-26T03:31:42.033

Reputation: 650

Makes sense. I know that although the circuits are (usually) balanced, I know that things seem to go wrong when we notice them on big load changes, such as turning on light fixtures or dryers. I have suspected frequent brown outs before, as we are the third to last utility transformer in the line, receiving only single phase (all be it 2 phase (180 degrees out of phase) like most us homes internally.) And, we have the very rare (only twice) shock from a grounded part of anything, it may be possible that at all plugs may have the grounding bound to the grounded conductor, explaining the shock.matthapkidokarate 2016-11-28T00:20:02.993

I have noticed that those two shocks have only happened during extreamly (unbalanced I believe) high load. Hardly enough to establish a pattern, but, may be causing an issue with electronics. I remember, back a few years ago when a family member used a blow dryer every day, we would have to turn off everything else in the house. Possibly the same issue with the voltage potential between the grounded and grounding conductor where there should be none. The more I read the US electrical code, the stupider I feel.matthapkidokarate 2016-11-28T00:23:51.017

@matthapkidokarate Getting shocked on a grounded wire is never a good sign - are the outlets themselves grounded? Is there a main grounding rod (a metal rod, sunk in the ground, with a single wire running to it, usually somewhere near the breaker box/incoming power)? If not, that by itself could explain the dying electronics. All in all, it sounds like your wiring really needs replaced/updated...ArmanX 2016-11-29T18:50:04.453

@ArmanX: I was wondering if it would be possible that the pole and the house are getting grounds from different sources that should be, but aren't, connected via actual wire?supercat 2016-11-29T18:58:51.843

@supercat definitely possible; if ground anywhere isn't wired to the (actual, dirt) ground, then even an otherwise-correctly-wired house is going to occasionally have voltage spikes on a wire that shouldn't ever have power, and that will cause all sorts of havoc. No ground=bad, but bad/miswired ground=bye-bye electronics, hello fire.ArmanX 2016-11-29T19:06:19.693

@ArmanX: If the pole has a ground stake connected stake to the center tap of the transformer, and the home has a solid ground connected to a different ground stake, resistance between the stakes might be low enough to make things work in the scenario where one load is near zero and the other side isn't too big [without any ground connection, having one side unloaded would make the other side useless], but a poor-quality ground connection might be able to handle the case where one side is unloaded and the other is lightly loaded.supercat 2016-11-29T19:20:00.007

1@matthapkidokarate: If you know of two breakers on opposite phases from which you could unplug everything, I'd suggest unplugging everything from those two breakers, turning off the main and then all the other breakers (turn off main FIRST!) and then turning main back on and measuring the voltages on those two circuits. Then plug a heater into one and switch it on, and measure the voltage on the other. If the voltage on the side opposite the heater goes UP, that would imply a problem in the grounded/neutral conductor somewhere between the utility's transformer and the heater.supercat 2016-11-29T19:23:45.127

1I echo the bad ground issue. I had a house issue where the ground connection behind the meter (power co ground ) had rusted from water intrusion and was causing split loads as bad as 85/155 Vcasey 2016-11-30T00:19:14.687

12

Your house may have been built 1850-1900, but surely the electrical wiring isn't over 100 years old? If it is, replace it now. All of it.

Laurence Payne

Posted 2016-11-26T03:31:42.033

Reputation: 237

3+1 Having just completed my first renovation, a full house rewire will be top of the cards for any future purchase. Our house actually had wiring less than 30 years old - done exceptionally badly and with already flaky insulation. It also had a lot of original wiring (now dead) and it was incredible how it had just deteriorated. I have no doubt there are houses in the street using that original wiring and, well, they're just fires waiting to happen.Dan 2016-11-27T21:35:21.127

What did the wiring look like in 1850?DMoore 2016-11-29T06:51:41.973

10

Since there seems to be some debate in the comments: here is the standard on voltage tolerances in the US. For point-of-utilization, the requirement is 110V-125V for lighting circuits, 108V-126V for everything else.

However, they allow a range of 106V-127V, with the stipulation that

[This range] includes voltages above and below [normal] limits that necessarily result from practical design and operating conditions on supply or user systems, or both. Although such conditions are a part of practical operations, they shall be limited in extent, frequency, and duration. When they occur, on a sustained basis, corrective measures shall be undertaken within a reasonable time to improve voltages to meet [normal] requirements.

In other words, seeing 108V on any circuit that supplies lights is unacceptable, and should be corrected by your electric company.

(Additionally, it's extremely unusual to see a swing of 12V in outlets within the same house. That's something they should also correct)

BlueRaja - Danny Pflughoeft

Posted 2016-11-26T03:31:42.033

Reputation: 1 547

4

In Canada (which I believe is the same in the U.S.), a residential feed is 3 wires; insulation on each conductor is color-coded red and black for two power phases and white for neutral. Across red and black is a nominal 240V, between red and white or between black and white is a nominal 120V. The white neutral wire should always be at ground potential, and in a properly balanced service, there should be little or no current flowing in the white wire to/from the house (although in practice there is bound to always be some imbalance). All outlet boxes should be grounded back to the service panel, which in turn should be grounded to well... ground. I think the neutral is supposed to be grounded at the utility company transformer for your house, to keep the neutral at ground potential (although I don't recall if it is bonded at the service panel as well or instead).

Bottom line: perhaps the problem is that neutral is floating with respect to ground. If so, this could be responsible for the damage to your electronics and appliances, and would be very dangerous as both a fire and electrocution hazard. Note that in the case of a floating neutral, you can measure any "hot" to neutral and always get the expected nominal 120V, while neutral to ground could be anything from zero to thousands of volts, in which case "hot" to ground would be that same zero to thousands of volts PLUS the 120. That could cause over-voltage failures in all sorts of devices, not to mention over-current failures in human hearts.

Anthony X

Posted 2016-11-26T03:31:42.033

Reputation: 526

3This bears repeating. Have an electrician check for a floating neutral.rackandboneman 2016-11-28T10:17:07.397

In a 150 year old house I would be very surprised to see 3 wires properly colour coded given the OP stated most of the wiring was tar and hemp insulated. I'd even be surprised to see the hot and neutral consistently following the same path through the walls.Myles 2016-11-28T20:11:33.033

@Myles I can understand that, but would hope the service onto the property is more up to date. Anyway, using the color codes was more to help the explanation of how it works (or is supposed to) than what the OP should expect to see.Anthony X 2016-11-29T01:47:07.137

2

I'd go with 'dirty power' coming in as a first guess, probably as @abliegh suggested >very heavy inductive loads nearby<. That could also be the cause of AM interference. That is upstream of the meter, so the power company may not need to get in the house so may not shut you down. Power Quality Analyzer would be required. Better yet if it does a high speed datalogging to catch fast transients that you would never see with a DMM.

Gordo

Posted 2016-11-26T03:31:42.033

Reputation: 21

2

It's important to note that electronic devices rely very heavily on the sine wave of the AC power coming into your house (60 Hz in the US). That's why there's two flavors of generators: regular (common and can run electrical equipment) and inverter generators. Knowing the difference can help you explain why your electronic equipment is failing (emphasis mine)

Conventional generators have been around for quite a while, and the basic concept behind them has remained essentially unchanged. They consist of an energy source, usually a fossil fuel such as diesel, propane or gasoline, which powers a motor attached to an alternator that produces electricity. The motor must run at a constant speed (usually 3600 rpm) to produce the standard current that most household uses require (in the U.S., typically 120 Volts AC @ 60 Hertz). If the engine’s rpm fluctuates, so will the frequency (Hertz) of electrical output.

With an inverter generator, the engine is connected to an efficient alternator, which produces AC electricity, just like a conventional generator. But then a rectifier is used to convert the AC power to DC and capacitors are used to smooth it out to a certain degree. The DC power is then “inverted” back into clean AC power of the desired frequency and voltage (e.g., 110-120VAC @ 60Hz). Regulation is very good and this system produces consistent power characteristics independent of the engine speed. The result is much “cleaner” power (“pure sine waves”) than is possible with a conventional generator, essentially the same quality of electricity that you typically get from your electric company. Why is this important? Well, more and more products today use some form of microprocessor. Not just your computer, but also your phones, TVs, game consoles, printers, DVD players, and even kitchen appliances and power tools. And all these microprocessors are very sensitive to the quality of the electricity they use. Using power that isn't "clean" can make these devices malfunction, or even damage them. So any application that uses sensitive electronics – and that includes a lot more things than you might think – will likely benefit substantially from the cleaner power provided by an inverter generator.

A clean sine wave looks like this

(image source)

Based on the other answers, it sounds like your wiring has been damaged. The fact that you're getting EMF interference would also lead me to think that this is the cause of your problems. Even if your wiring is "fine", it may not have sufficient shielding to prevent spikes (modern wire insulation provides some limited EMF shielding).

You'll need a trained electrician, to be sure. But make certain, whatever you do, that they confirm you're getting a clean 60Hz. Even a small variance will cause all sorts of problems for computers, up to, and including, failure.

Machavity

Posted 2016-11-26T03:31:42.033

Reputation: 4 512

3Most electronics these days exactly do not rely on it much - many of the commonly used switchmode power supplies would be fine with you feeding them DC!rackandboneman 2016-11-28T10:19:41.143

2

There is a large amount of information in the answers but one thing I do not see is a discussion on the grounding system. With a home of this age there were only 2 conductors run in the electrical system and the neutral was normally bonded to the water pipe. One of the issues I have come across in the last few years in older homes is the original water mains have been replaced with plastic pipe and no new ground rod driven (UFER grounds were not invented until World War 2 so unless the home has a new foundation it will not have this type of grounding system). I would suggest the addition of a minimum of 1 and possibly 2 new rods to be added and connected at the service panel with #6 copper wire. The surge arrestor not having a good ground would allow higher than normal transients on the line. The suppressors used by power company's clamp at higher values than home models and only limit the spikes when in line from the load (if there is a strike between the station and your home or large electric motors in use close to your home the sub station limiters don't limit your spikes). I mentioned Large electric motors do you live close to a industrial plant, do they still have electric busses (I used to live in Dayton and the busses create spikes also.)? Even several miles away when large motors are started or stopped the line voltage can swing and huge spikes may be present. A good solid ground to attach your surge suppressor to may be all that is needed. I have installed several large units (whole house suppressors/ arrestors) on homes that were on the same "Main feeder" as a Lumber Mill. The home(s) Had similar equipment losses to yours with newer wiring, after the install they quit losing equipment until the unit failed. I then installed a much larger system that has a monitor to show if it is working and have not been back for years other than to install similar systems in that neighborhood.

Ed Beal

Posted 2016-11-26T03:31:42.033

Reputation: 20 459

1

It's almost certainly caused by some part of the circuit having an intermittent connection. Any inductive load on such a circuit would send voltage spikes throughout the rest of the system.

A bad connection like that can produce a LOT of heat. It can easily get to the point of melting the contacts, creating sparks, and so easily lead to fire. Honestly, it's amazing your house is anything but ash.

Tar + hemp + 1000° = fire

Jodes

Posted 2016-11-26T03:31:42.033

Reputation: 194

1

One more factor:

It sounds like you are using ordinary cheap surge suppressors. These devices have a very serious flaw: They are sacrificial in nature, there's a MOV (or perhaps more than one) in there that absorbs small surges but when it eats a big one it dies. Next time around there's no surge protection. No such strip can actually indicate if it's working, the lights are a lie. (At best indicating whether the MOV was blown up, something that can happen when it eats a big one.)

The normal advice is after a big surge you replace the suppressors--obviously not an option for you given how often it's happening. The other alternative is the much more expensive units that don't use MOVs.

Loren Pechtel

Posted 2016-11-26T03:31:42.033

Reputation: 721