Ghosts in the Machine
Strange electrical events at home. How often has this happened to you? The lights start to flicker, the hair dryer turns off by itself, you’re watching a favorite television show and the screen goes blank for a moment or two (or worse, doesn’t come back on at all).
Ghosts in the machine? No, not the 1981 album by the Police and probably not poltergeists messing with your head. But perhaps an electrical problem that requires your attention.
You can expect lights to dim, a buzzing noise, or your electrical system to shut down altogether during windy weather or a thunderstorm. Something is going on with the larger power system that feeds your home, such as a tree branch falling and knocking out a transformer. But if the sun is shining and these odd electrical disturbances occur regularly, there is some kind of issue with your home electrical wiring.
This isn’t the kind of thing you can ignore and maybe get around to later. If you are experiencing brief outages or strange noises from your electrical circuits, the time to address them is as soon as possible. Waiting too long can further degrade your home electrical system. Worse, it could cause a fire; according to the National Fire Prevention Association, electrical malfunction is the second leading cause of fire in the U.S.
If you experience any of these common electrical concerns, it’s time to call an experienced electrician:
Let’s take a look at each of these issues to understand the underlying causes.
If you are hearing constant buzzing in your ears at home, you either have a large infestation of bees or an electrical wiring issue. In all probability, it is the wiring. (Though bees sometimes do happen. A 100-year-old home in Nebraska harbored 6,000 bees in its walls.)
Buzzing noises are different from the hum you might hear from appliances such as refrigerators. So-called “mains hum” or “cycle hum” is normal. This electrical hum is the audible sound of alternating current when appliance motors switch on and off. A mains hum is generally harmless; however if the hum gets louder than usual, you might need an appliance repair service to investigate.
Unlike humming, buzzing takes place at a much higher frequency (120-180 hertz for buzzing, around 60 hertz for hums). A frayed, loose or improperly grounded wire is sometimes the cause of the problem. Buzzing is also generated by an overloaded electrical wire, outlet or circuit breaker.
What do we mean by “overloaded”? Wires are designed to carry a certain amount of voltage; when they carry an excessive amount of voltage, the wires buzz. An overloaded wire, as well as a loose, frayed or improperly grounded wire, is a cause for concern.
Whatever the cause of buzzing in your wires, you need to call a certified professional electrician. Not tomorrow or the day after, but right away. As an extra precaution, turn your electricity off until the technician arrives.
Fuses and circuit breakers are both used to interrupt the flow of electricity when it is overloaded by a power surge. But they differ in design and in what you need to do when they shut down power.
A blown fuse occurs when metal in the fuse melts, and prevents the flow of electricity to a room or area in your home. Blown fuses are replaced.
Circuit breakers use switch mechanisms that trip from on to off positions to prevent electrical surge. In most cases, the circuit breaker is simply switched back on to restore power. Circuit breakers do wear out over time, however, or may be damaged by a particularly powerful surge and require replacement.
Certain unusual events, such as a lightning strike or other unusual power surge, can cause a blown fuse or tripped circuit breaker. This is not a major cause for concern, and replacing the fuse or resetting the circuit breaker puts everything back to normal. However, if a fuse is repeatedly blown or a circuit breaker trips regularly, the problem is more serious than merely a constant annoyance.
One possibility is an overload caused by running too many appliances on a single circuit. You can try unplugging some devices, and avoid using too many power strips; however, the problem remains that you aren’t getting the power you need to run the devices you want. The solution is to install a larger breaker or fuse with new wiring sized to accommodate a higher load current.
Another possible issue is a short in the wiring itself. A short is when a live current comes into contact with a neutral wire, causing the flow of electricity to jump and bypass the intended circuit path. This sometimes happens where the wiring bends in a tight space and/or isn’t properly insulated and comes into contact with something sharp when the house settles. A wiring short is a hazard that can cause shocks or electrical fire.
In either case, the continually blown fuse or tripped circuit is preventing further damage to your electrical system, as well as preventing overheating that potentially leads to a house fire. Do not under any circumstances try to bypass the function of the fuse or circuit breaker. Misguided DIYers sometimes put an old penny in the fuse box, as copper is an excellent conductor of electricity. The problem is that employing such a workaround negates the whole purpose of having a fuse in the first place: to protect the circuit from overloading and potentially causing a fire or shock hazard.
There is no good reason to try to fix this problem on your own. A certified electrical technician can investigate and correct whatever is causing the problem.
If there’s smoke, there’s fire, and if you smell something burning, you may have a fire about to start. If the smell is coming from a heating/air conditioning vent, particularly if you are engaging the HVAC system at the start of a new season, check to see if there’s any dust or dirt that has accumulated in the duct. If you clean it up and the smell goes away, your problem is solved.
If, however, the smell seems to come from a power outlet or within a wall, it’s likely faulty wiring. Turn off your power and call an electrician right away.
A spark is a brief electrical discharge, causing a shock if you touch it. Typically the spark is blue in color. Every single time you plug something in, a spark occurs. This is nothing to worry about.
However, if a spark doesn’t go away after a second or two, is yellow or white in color, emits from power outlet holes, and/or produces a burning smell, we say once again: call an electrician right away.
Your power outlet should fit securely and tightly against the surface of the wall. If it doesn’t, the electrical box attached to the outlet is too far back, either because of improper installation or aging construction. The wires from a loose power outlet continually move, which can cause sparking and overheating that lead to fires.
A sure sign of a loose power outlet is when electrical cords won’t stay plugged in. Possibly you could replace the outlet with a new one to see if this corrects the problem (be sure to turn the circuit off before attempting any repairs!). However, the outlet itself usually isn’t the issue, but something beneath it in the electrical system it connects to. You can guess what we’re about to say: call an electrician to investigate further.
Sometimes, particularly when the air is dry during colder weather seasons, you can get shocked when you unplug devices. One way to avoid this is to avoid touching the metal prongs of the plug; when you unplug, touch the prongs to a wall or a piece of furniture to discharge the leftover electricity that is causing the shock.
If you aren’t touching the metal prongs but are still getting shocked, there may be something wrong with the outlet. Who are you gonna call? That’s right, an electrician.
The Electrician You Can Call — Ongaro and Sons
As a family-owned business, Ongaro and Sons understands the vital importance of proper electrical wiring to ensure the safety of your family.
A fixture in the North Bay community for nearly a century, the Ongaro and Sons service area includes Sonoma County, Marin County, Santa Rosa, and San Anselmo. Our fully licensed electricians are just a phone call away.
Contact us with any questions about any of these electrical conditions. Our experienced technicians offer a 100% customer satisfaction guarantee and peace of mind that your electrical system is running safely and at optimum efficiency.