Why does my home's power fade and surge when I plug things in?

32

9

I live in Texas. I ran 300 ft of aluminum electric direct-bury 4-4-2 from the pole on street to my new home. The pole is metered and yes, I had my utility's blessing to do so.

Everything worked perfectly for 6 months, but now suddenly if I plug anything (lamp, heater, charger ) in my lights dim, or sometimes if I plug in elsewhere things get very bright or plug in heaters work better or worse depending.

There’s no rhyme or reason to any of it.

  • I have undone and redone every receptacle to be sure.
  • I installed 50 amp breakers in every slot of box on house to try to solve this problem to no avail. (I have never once tripped a breaker ever)
  • I haven’t been able to put up sheetrock because I don’t want to have to remove it.

Sarita W

Posted 2017-12-10T17:15:39.123

Reputation: 164

86I think you don't understand what your breakers are doing, if you replaced ll of them with 50's, you have a fire just waiting to happen the first time here's an issue on a circuit wired with 12 or 14 ga wire. – Ecnerwal – 2017-12-10T17:29:59.197

I was told to install 50’s on most to try to fix this problem. Why would it all work perfectly for 6 months if there were an issue? – Sarita W – 2017-12-10T17:33:31.060

47@SaritaW because the reasons we have an Electrical Code don't happen immediately. – Harper – 2017-12-10T18:10:47.910

48LOL with 50A breakers I'm not surprised you haven't tripped a breaker. 14AWG wire would be hotter than the surface of the sun before a 50 tripped. – Harper – 2017-12-10T18:30:43.530

14Any chance you're directly connecting aluminum to copper? – fixer1234 – 2017-12-10T21:13:58.000

1

Need to know if you used anti-oxidant at your connections. Like this ($6.95): https://www.homedepot.com/p/Ideal-NOALOX-4-oz-Anti-Oxidant-Compound-30-026/202276208 - It will resist the air getting to the metal and degrading it over time.

– SDsolar – 2017-12-10T21:40:22.073

3Side note, if you are keeping the power on before the utility shows up, unplug anything with sensitive electronics. This might include the fridge, if it's a newer one. (And heed the advice about putting the right breakers back in before they show up...) – Aloysius Defenestrate – 2017-12-11T00:04:27.203

1It could be galvanic action between dis-simliar metals. Aluminum has been eliminated in our city, I would suggest to just use copper. – cybernard – 2017-12-11T02:28:16.603

84This is serious. You could kill someone, or burn your house down, if you don't sort this out urgently. Switch everything off at the main switch, and call an electrician immediately. Tell them it's urgent. Do not use any electricity in your house until you've had professional advice about this. You could kill someone or burn your house down, if you don't sort this out urgently. And don't listen to the muppet who told you to put 50A breakers everywhere. – Dawood ibn Kareem – 2017-12-11T04:21:48.857

20Sounds like a lost neutral. And I only know that because of HNQ. Lost neutrals tend to make for fun questions apparently. As was already answered, turn off the main power before your house burns down! – immibis – 2017-12-11T04:50:48.393

26If you swapped out your breakers from what they should be to 50A breakers "to try and solve the problem", you are a danger to yourself and others as you obviously do not have the experience and knowledge to deal with this issue safely. Bring in someone who is licensed to figure out what's going on. In addition, with your lack of knowledge of basic electrical over-current protection, I would be concerned about any other electrical work you've touched in that house as well (such as replacing outlets, rewiring, etc.). – Milwrdfan – 2017-12-11T15:19:49.120

13Like everyone else already said, put the original breakers back immediately and have an electrician come over to assess the damage you might have already caused to the wiring. Depending on how long you overloaded them you may have caused the insulation to degrade to the point where it might fail short-circuit somewhere, which is a huge fire hazard (especially if you do not remove the overrated breakers). As a side note, you should not be messing with systems that transfer kilowatts of power if you do not know exactly what you're doing. You're lucky you didn't burn your house down. – Demonblack – 2017-12-11T15:23:50.437

7Who buried the wire? Was it done to code? What depth was it buried at? Does it cross a driveway or any other path where traffic crosses it? Answers to these questions such as "you; don't know; 6-inches; yes" could easily explain why it worked for six months before having problems. – J... – 2017-12-11T17:22:54.937

9Like everyone else is saying: put the breakers back. If your house catches fire because of this, your insurance might not cover your loss. Oh, and you could die. – JimmyJames – 2017-12-11T18:32:10.790

2Your circuit breaker/fuse is supposed to have the value of the maximum current a particular wire can safely draw - not that of how much you'd like to connect to it. A wire of X thickness can only safely handle a current of Y amps, so that's the value of your breaker. – Baard Kopperud – 2017-12-11T18:39:20.090

6PS: The reason why electricians seems so expensive, is that they've been trained in these matters and have been certified - hence they actually knows what they're doing, and how to do it safely! For example, I have a book of about 400 pages containing the regulations for doing electrical installations (I'm from Norway) - and this includes stuff like what your allowed to install in different "zones" (distance from showerhead &c) in a bathroom, and what fuse to use for a wire of a certain thickness. If you intend to install yourself, you ought to know such regulations to do it safely... – Baard Kopperud – 2017-12-11T18:53:33.897

8Am I correctly inferring that OP has been living in a house without any drywall for six months? – None – 2017-12-11T19:08:19.833

Definitely a problem with your neutral. – Hot Licks – 2017-12-11T23:47:51.387

14@Snowman On the plus side, living in a house without drywall could make it easier to extinguish the inevitable electrical fires. – Zach Lipton – 2017-12-12T00:27:11.743

3@ZachLipton or, in the absence of electrical fires, it is easier for an electrician to identify and replace melted wires from using 50 amp breakers with 12/14 gauge wire. – None – 2017-12-12T02:35:13.500

4Have any photos of the panel & any other electrical wires/outlets, the pole, the buried to house wire, etc? Have those ancient edison socket fuses that're easy to switch, or you really removed all the 15/20A breakers & put in 50A's, or what size were the original breakers? (ps. You're not a troll, are you?) – Xen2050 – 2017-12-12T03:31:38.897

7Whatever happens, please do let us know what you did and how it worked out. – Criggie – 2017-12-12T09:02:16.357

9Or at least that you are still alive. – Josef – 2017-12-12T14:19:27.083

3any news or update? – Trevor Boyd Smith – 2017-12-13T17:32:11.573

Answers

133

Call your UTILITY now on their EMERGENCY NUMBER

Your service neutral is going bad. This is a power outage even though it doesn't appear so -- the fluctuations in light and heat you see are because the 0V reference mark for all your 120V outlets is no longer acting as such, resulting in outlets getting higher and lower voltages depending on what else is plugged in. There's a good chance some things will eventually catch on fire if you keep this up

And please put properly rated breakers back in, so you aren't playing with fire for any longer than you already have been! Whoever told you to do what you did with your breakers knows nothing about electricity, and should not be treated as a reliable source of electrical advice ever again!

ThreePhaseEel

Posted 2017-12-10T17:15:39.123

Reputation: 21 915

1Ok I still have the breakers so will re install them but the service neutral coming in, will it show an issue when a continuity tester is used? – Sarita W – 2017-12-10T17:38:06.503

2@SaritaW -- it's probably failing in a way that a continuity tester won't pick up. – ThreePhaseEel – 2017-12-10T17:42:34.617

Ugh. This has been exasperating. I obviously don’t want a fire but if hiring an electrician were in the budget I’d have done it. I’m going to run a new service neutral inside a conduit and see if that works before anything else unless you have any other advice. – Sarita W – 2017-12-10T17:52:18.533

19@SaritaW -- you'll have to run an entirely new cable if the problem's in the cable, but CALL YOUR UTILITY FIRST -- it could very well be the utility's problem to fix, NOT yours! – ThreePhaseEel – 2017-12-10T18:12:39.550

16@SaritaW he didn't say call an electrician! He said call your utility and report a power outage. That is a complete opposite thing. They should check this out for free because it's serious and is likely on their end.. – Harper – 2017-12-10T18:13:17.433

3Ok then that’s the route I will take, calling the utility I mean. – Sarita W – 2017-12-10T18:15:15.767

5I 100% agree with threephaseeel ,Aluminum conductors are fine for feeders if properly installed, I always use deox/ noalox/ or some type of oxide inhibitor if the lugs or wire is aluminum. Large conductors even if properly torqued are almost always loose! Tricks professional electricians use to keep things like this from happening are torquing backing off torquing several times , or wiggling the wire back and forth and retorquing. These are things that some do not know about and I have seen feeders burn off at the lugs because of loose or oxidized connections. – Ed Beal – 2017-12-10T18:45:11.840

49Shut off the main and put the correct breakers back, then call the utility co. ( holy crp! ) – agentp – 2017-12-10T19:01:56.930

11I seem to remember from a previous question somewhere that you should call your utility and report the actual problem so they'll recognize the problem and treat it more seriously than an outage. A "power outage" means "no power" which is not necessarily an urgent problem. – immibis – 2017-12-11T04:52:30.430

32This is a 911 situation. Your electricity company should have a 24 hour emergency number and you should call it. It's not a power outage, its more like a downed power line (though that's not it exactly either). In fact it's so serious that I personally would turn off the mains breaker and just wait for the power company in the dark. But my power company would have someone here in two hours. – coteyr – 2017-12-11T06:31:17.420

4The term we are looking for is "floating neutral". And out with the 50 amp breakers!!! – rackandboneman – 2017-12-12T23:32:32.967

5Ahhh, something to be aware of: the heating of wires equals to current S Q U A R E D. A given wire at 50 amps will be 11 times hotter than at 15 amps. A 50 amp breaker might, depending on trip curve, sustain a 250 amp short for a second or so. at 250 amp, you get ~260 times the heating effect compared to 15 amps.... which is slightly hazardous even for a second. if you assume a cable to get ~10°C hotter under full nominal load (realistic, I'd say) - imagine what 260 times the heat input will do. – rackandboneman – 2017-12-12T23:41:24.117

4In any case, even if it is shady advice: Don't let the utility folks see the 50 amp breakers, they could react severely rude. – rackandboneman – 2017-12-12T23:44:50.297

10@SaritaW if hiring an electrician were in the budget I’d have done it And is rebuilding your house from scratch after the fire, and serving jail time for the negligence causing the deaths of your family, factored into your budget? You are lucky it hasn't already happened. It's only a matter of time before you roll snake-eyes and your house burns down, and then you have to hope you and your family don't also roll snake-eyes. Your absolute ignorance and incompetence with electrical work is a direct threat to your life and theirs. I can't be any clearer. – Graham – 2017-12-13T17:31:13.460

10@SaritaW I'm not trying to be rude. I simply can't emphasise enough how dangerous what you've been doing is. I have to assume you don't know that otherwise you wouldn't be doing it (unless you juggle chainsaws for fun ;) So please, take it seriously. Hire an electrician who will stop you killing yourself and anyone else living in your house. – Graham – 2017-12-13T17:33:33.967

1@SaritaW This sounds like one of those situations where you can't afford not to have someone who knows the trade. In short, you should either hire someone knowledgeable or scrap the entire project. – jpmc26 – 2017-12-14T00:30:51.040

13

There's clearly a reluctance to ask the utility or others for local help. To convince yourself of the need to get help with the wiring, use a volt meter to check the line-to-neutral voltage on both legs of the supply coming in to the main panel during a time when this bright-and-dim phenomenon is occurring. A difference of more than 1-2 volts in the two readings suggests an imbalanced/overloaded neutral or a failing connection on the neutral, as many others have already suggested. If you find this condition then there's nothing you can safely do to resolve it without involving the utility at least. In my experience, a utility will disconnect and reconnect service at no charge to the customer to support this kind of repair. Please don't hesitate to involve the utility because of concerns about budget.

Greg Hill

Posted 2017-12-10T17:15:39.123

Reputation: 311

12

I'd have to guess that there is (as usual, which is why I never go direct burial) a problem with the direct-buried wire - some rodent decided to chew it, or it was damaged by careless backfilling.

Conduit provides better protection for the wire and means only having to dig the trench once.

But, before you go to digging it up, it's worth going over the connections, since aluminum wire connections are tricky, and doing them right might solve your problem. You need to use a proper anti-oxidiant joint compound, and apply it correctly, then torque the connections to the correct specified torque. Obviously power needs to be OFF when doing this, so if one end of your wire is in the meterbox, you will need the utility's cooperation in getting this done, and you might want to hire an electrician anyway for the benefit of years of experience connecting aluminum wires.

Ecnerwal

Posted 2017-12-10T17:15:39.123

Reputation: 53 241

I understand and the rodent thing is a definite possibility so I’m going to check all that. Can you answer my question the testing of that specific cable? Will I be able to use my clamp continuity tester to see if that’s where the problem lies? – Sarita W – 2017-12-10T17:47:28.237

11@SaritaW With almost perfect certainty I can say that you do not have the tools to do this. Testing for a "bad" contact at a service feeder lug, or damage to the wire, is a matter of measuring fractions of an ohm. A typical meter for this purpose costs thousands of dollars. Call an electrician. Seriously. – J... – 2017-12-11T17:39:22.893

And it is very possible that significant heat could be generated at the point of the failure, potentially causing a fire. – David Schwartz – 2017-12-12T17:12:57.277

7

Clearly the connection is showing some resistance and it is intermittent.

It would be a very good idea to call a qualified electrician to take a look at it since any resistance translates directly into heat and can be a fire hazard.

It can be a loosening connection, or perhaps water intrusion causing corrosion, or even stray critters, all of which can be easily checked.

It might very well be oxidation. Aluminum is famous for it.

It is recommended that all Aluminum connections be treated to prevent oxidation.

Here is an example of the compound that can be applied to the connection:

NOALOX 4 oz. Anti-Oxidant Compound (Home Depot $6.95)

enter image description here

SDsolar

Posted 2017-12-10T17:15:39.123

Reputation: 1 707

1I am waiting on the utility company to get here now and will update when I know. I switched the breakers back that were 50’s the day I posted my question and things seemed ok but it’s back doing the same weird stuff so I am back to square one. – Sarita W – 2017-12-13T14:50:47.273

Good news. They will know what to look for. If you rechecked the tightness of the connection and don't see water intrusion then it is likely to be oxidation. They will have a lot of experience in connections like yours so should be able to help. – SDsolar – 2017-12-13T19:05:57.743

3

It's just a hunch, but the fact that it worked correctly for 6 months and is now displaying symptoms of a ground fault to me indicates corrosion.

You mention that the 300 foot of wire you buried from the utility pole was aluminum. Your house is most likely copper. Did you use bi-metal splices to join the two wires together?

You should never join dissimilar metals together directly. The two different metals will result in galvanic corrosion. Over time this will be a fire hazard, as you will get arcing across the gap created by the corrosion.

So my advice would be to have a qualified electrician inspect these wires and the unions as quickly as possible. The situation you describe is a dangerous fire hazard.

BoredBsee

Posted 2017-12-10T17:15:39.123

Reputation: 31

This. Very much so. – Joshua – 2017-12-14T03:12:31.980