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Erratic power outlet may mean a dangerous loose connection


I received an e-mail from a person who rents an apartment in a converted old farmhouse in Carroll County and who has what she thinks might be a serious wiring problem.

She writes: "I only have working outlets in half of my apartment, and most of the time when I use my dryer, it trips the main breaker, not the breaker it is on.

"On a rare occasion I will see that a light on the outlet works and then it doesn't again for most of the time. .... At one point, if I had two outlets running and/or only two lights on in the whole apartment, it would trip the main breaker. ...

"I am tired of having to sit in the dark and turn everything off to dry clothes and hope it still won't trip."

Her landlord told her she had a bad breaker, and personally replaced it. She does not know which breaker was replaced, and the new breaker did not correct the problem. The landlord now says the reason the breaker trips is because it is an older dryer.

Circuit breakers are designed to trip when more electricity is used than the circuit is designed to handle. In the case of the main breaker, it trips to prevent overload of the panel or the service cable coming into the house. This prevents fires and other damage due to overheating of wiring, receptacles, switches, etc. It can also prevent damage to overloaded appliances.

Obviously, a licensed electrician should be consulted to handle the problems you are experiencing. There may be multiple problems causing the conditions you describe. Here are some possibilities that come to mind.

Any time there are outlets that intermittently don't work, it is cause for concern. A loose connection can not only cause an intermittent interruption of the power supply, but will tend to overheat and can pose a fire hazard.

In my experience, apartments in old houses often have marginal-to-inadequate power supplies. If your apartment has less than 50 amps, you could easily use more power than you have available, but that alone wouldn't account for all that you describe.

A defective main breaker could trip even though it is not overloaded, which would cut off all your power. Also, if the main breaker is malfunctioning in such a way that one side of it is tripping without the other, it could both stop the dryer from working and cut off power to some but not all of the receptacles in the house.

The landlord's theory that the old dryer is the cause of the problem is dubious, mainly because the fuse or circuit breaker for the dryer should trip before the main breaker if the dryer is using too much power.

Inspector's Eye

Dean Uhler has been a home inspector for more than 12 years and is president of Baltimore-based Boswell Building Surveys, Inc. Uhler is a member of the American Society of Home Inspectors (ASHI) and is the treasurer of the Greater Baltimore Chapter of ASHI.

Questions, with name, address and daytime telephone number, about homes and home inspections can be faxed to 410-783-2517, e-mailed to or mailed to Inspector's Eye, Second Floor, 501 N. Calvert St., Baltimore, Md. 21278-0001.

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