Locating the suspected loose neutral problem

Discussion in 'General Electronics Chat' started by chefnhouston, Jan 2, 2016.

  1. chefnhouston

    Thread Starter New Member

    Jan 2, 2016
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    Hello everyone! So, I've learned a lot from reading trough this forum - and have determined I have a "loose neutral" situation. Somewhere. Here's the scenario.... and thanks in advance for all comments and suggestions! This is a very old country house that's probably been added to and modified electrically over the years. I'm certain there are 3-prong GFC outlets where there is no actual ground wire - and I know this is an issue, but not the one I'm fighting with now. What's happening is that under certain appliance loads (mostly seen when electric heaters cycling on) - EVERYTHING in the house on every circuit starts clicking on and off, lights flashing, and a couple satellite TV receivers (on different circuits) got smoked. After reading many other stories, it sounds like a loose neutral. So, my thinking is that there must be a loose neutral wire in the "main" panel outside the house or possibly a bad connection to the "sub-panel) inside the house? I'm thinking this because all 9 circuits inside the house seem affected at the same time - and I've had appliances fail on completely different circuits, even ones that are truly grounded and testing normal using a three-prong tester. Also, using that same three-prong tester, I see that most of the receptacles test "normal" but several do test "open ground"... but again I don't doubt this as I know that these were installed where there isn't a ground wire available. None of the receptacles tested gave me an "open neutral" reading though, which also has me puzzled. Based on what I've described here - am I correct in thinking it might be a loose neutral somewhere affecting the entire house and every circuit?

    Thanks so much!
     
  2. crutschow

    Expert

    Mar 14, 2008
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    Sounds like that could be an intermittent neutral or an intermittent hot wire.
    The only way to tell which it is, is to monitor the hot voltage to ground (not neutral) and see if it fluctuates when the lights start flashing.
    But I would have an electrician (who understands how the fuse panel works since you are dealing with lethal voltages) to tighten all the main connections in the fuse panel.
     
  3. chefnhouston

    Thread Starter New Member

    Jan 2, 2016
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    Thanks Crutschow for the feedback! I'm definitely having an electrician come out to tighten everything up... as I'm not comfortable sticking a screwdriver in the outside panel, for a couple of reasons. First reason being that I don't see a "main" breaker to cut power from the meter... just seems to be bolted in. Second reason is raining outside and doesn't seem smart to stand in water and touch anything in this box. ;-)
    Anyway, just trying to narrow down the possibilities as that's what I like to do - but I'll definitely leave it to the pros to fix. Thanks again!
     
  4. OBW0549

    Well-Known Member

    Mar 2, 2015
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    Sure sounds to me like it could be a loose neutral. I had that same thing happen years ago in a rented house; every time the fridge turned on, some of the house lights would dim and others would get real bright. Turned out the entire back of the breaker box had rusted away...
     
  5. SLK001

    Well-Known Member

    Nov 29, 2011
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    I would have suspected the main breaker, but since you don't have one, I suspect the meter itself. You don't indicate what the wattage of your heaters are (central heat?), but when they kick in, they draw a huge amount of current. This is definitely something that you should leave to an electrician.
     
  6. chefnhouston

    Thread Starter New Member

    Jan 2, 2016
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    Thanks again to all. The heaters are electric space heaters in a couple bedrooms... not sure of the wattage as I'm not there at the moment - but when I upped one of them to high heat, problems definitely arose. Is my logic correct in thinking that since all circuits are affected, it's likely a problem at the meter or main box outside the house? I'd rather not go through the effort of checking all receptacles if I'm wasting my time. Seems like since everything in the house goes haywire, its a main connection problem. I did call the electric company already and they said they ran a "test" to the meter which seemed normal - but nobody actually inspected in person.
     
  7. ErnieM

    AAC Fanatic!

    Apr 24, 2011
    7,386
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    I had a loose neutral back on the pole that was delivering the power to my house.

    My symptom was the lights would occasionally flash or dim along with something else (heat circulate pump, clothes of dish washer) turn on or off.

    Power company came out and a guy actually climbed up our house and up the pole to inspect our lines.
     
  8. #12

    Expert

    Nov 30, 2010
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    This is what I found at my house. Buried under dozens of proper wires, a cheap iron clamp with a lot of tape on it became rusty and my neutral went loose. That splice is illegal to even be there. An iron clamp is bullshit. Black tape is illegal. Frikkin' amateurs!:mad:
     
  9. chefnhouston

    Thread Starter New Member

    Jan 2, 2016
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    Updated information.

    Thanks again to all for your feedback, its really appreciated. I have some additional details to share now. The power company came out to check the supply lines and connections - which they said were all sound. They even came in and checked the breaker panels, and receptacles - and also said these all appear to be good. No loose neutrals found. BUT, they did say that the pole/transformer is too far of a distance from the house and suggested moving it closer. Apparently the thinking is that when the house was first supplied with electricity, many many years ago, this configuration was sufficient. Now with me adding many more appliances and power requirements - I'm getting low voltage to many of the appliances which is causing the problem. They even asked me to turn on everything in the house (and of course while they were there, no flickering or or visible issues) - but they did test a few receptacles and low voltage available.
    So, now my questions are:
    - Does this sound reasonable that low volts going to a satellite dish receiver would smoke it? (This happened several times unfortunately).
    - Make sense to have the pole moved closer to house?
    - Would low voltage cause flickering lights and appliances quickly turning off and on?

    These were super nice guys that came out and went way above their responsibilities by checking my boxes and internal connections... they didn't have to do that. But I guess they've seen these issues before in these old farm houses that aren't used to multiple space heaters, tvs, microwaves, etc.

    Thoughts?

    Thanks!!!
     
  10. #12

    Expert

    Nov 30, 2010
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    No surprise. It took me weeks to gather the courage to pull dozens of perfectly legal wires out of my breaker box and find the illegal splice clear at the bottom of the pile. After all, the main feed from the meter always goes in first, so it's under everything else. Nasty job in a dangerous place. I checked every other likely fault before I did the hard digging.

    ps, the symptoms at my house were that the lights would get brighter when certain large 120 volt appliancs came on. Clothes washer goes into spin, a space heater clicks on, a microwave is started up. All of these things pulled more current from one side of the 240 line than the other and the neutral voltage would wander off of zero toward the leg with the heavier load. That leg got less voltage because of the bad ground connection it was trying to ground through and everything on the other leg of the 240 line would get all of the 240 volts that were not on the side with the heavier load. No flickering, but something did burn out. I just forget what it was.

    At this very moment, I am suffering from the stench of a bad receptical in my Uninterruptible Power Supply. No reason. It just developed some resistance and slowly got worse until I could smell it burning. Easy cure. Replace the corroded end on the cord to the computer bench and plug it into one of the other five outlets in the UPS. Still, I'm going to unplug the whole computer bench before I go to sleep, for at least a week. When I can't detect the smell, then, maybe, I will trust it to be plugged in at night. And, yes, I do have 6 smoke alarms, all interconnected. If the computer room goes smokey, it will alarm in the computer room, my bedroom, and 4 other rooms.
     
    Last edited: Jan 2, 2016
  11. SLK001

    Well-Known Member

    Nov 29, 2011
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    The wattage of the portable space heaters isn't really enough to give you the brown power that you are experiencing (provided that the incoming lines are the proper gauge for the load/run). Low voltage will also not cause the flickering lights that you see - they should just dim (as if controlled by a dimmer). Even the satellite receivers shouldn't be that affected by low voltage (the main circuits are behind a transformer - rectifier setup) and even with the low voltage, would probably remain in regulation.

    I don't believe that your problem has been discovered yet.
     
  12. #12

    Expert

    Nov 30, 2010
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    A faulty connection changes the useful gauge of the wire. The illegal splice at my house was in the 150 amp wire from the meter and the splice got so bad that a 10 amp microwave would cause symptoms.

    I agree. That's why I'm still typing.
     
  13. chefnhouston

    Thread Starter New Member

    Jan 2, 2016
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    Thanks again guys. Yeah, it doesnt seem very logical that low volgage to the house could cause all of these issues - in fact, the lights don't just flicker but a couple of them have gotten super bright a couple of times and others have burned out very quickly - which is the opposite of the "dimmer effect" that I should see with low voltage. So, I guess I still need the electrician out. Might still have the pole moved closer to the house for the heck of it.

    Many many thanks - you guys are awesome.
     
  14. BReeves

    Member

    Nov 24, 2012
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    I would be really concerned about running space heaters on old house wiring, every year several houses are lost to space heaters causing fires. Just be careful and never run one unattended or go to sleep with space heaters running. Whatever is causing your problem is likely a poor or corroded connection that has a good chance of getting very hot. Best you can hope for is it isn't next to any wood and you find it before you have a bigger problem.
     
  15. GopherT

    AAC Fanatic!

    Nov 23, 2012
    5,979
    3,686

    You could buy, rent or borrow a thermal imaging camera to look for hot spots in each outlet/switchbox and circuit panel. The camera are amazing at this. The fire department came to my house one day and helped me look for a smoke/"hot electrical" smell. They scanned all of my walls, floor and ceiling. You can see areas of poor insulation and anything that is warm. Ultimately it was a seized bearing on my furnace blower. In your case, weak electrical connections should warm up if you connect your heaters and look at the wiring. Your fire department should be able to help you if you cannot find one on your own.
     
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  16. chefnhouston

    Thread Starter New Member

    Jan 2, 2016
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    So I've thinking through this a little more and have another question or two. I understand electricity can do some odd things - and there isn't always an explanation other than "there's a problem somewhere and I need to find it"... but I'm just trying to narrow down where the problem could/should be. So the guys from the power company checked both panels and said everything looked good and tight. They also turned on all lights/appliances in the house and tested available voltage in a couple receptacles which read "low" - making hem suggest that I have the pole/transformer moved closer to the house. Ok, maybe that's a good idea anyway. They also tested the receptacles and didn't see anything that should cause problems.

    I do believe though that I still have a more serious problem. I love the idea of getting a thermal camera and looking for hotspots - that's on my list. But, back to the space heaters. Is it logical that the heaters are pulling enough volts that when they are running they are "uncovering" a loose neutral or other connection/corrosion problem? A problem that when the wires in question get hot enough - I start getting lights flashing and appliances dying? This doesn't happen right away when I turn on the heaters - and thus didn't happen when the guys were out - but does happen. And as far as I can remember only happens when the heaters are plugged in. And again, when it does happen - it happens to every light/receptacle/circuit in the house... not just where the heaters are plugged in. And since the receptacles and panels have been checked - should I start with the light switches? Is it possible that there is a bad connection in a wall switch that gets worse when the heaters are pulling high watts?

    Thank you very much!
     
  17. chefnhouston

    Thread Starter New Member

    Jan 2, 2016
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    One final thought about the power guys reporting low voltage to the house being the root cause. I do remember one instance when I cranked up a space heater from "low" to "high"... running on low there were no issues - as soon as I put on high, satellite box fried. So, is it reasonable to think the heater pulled too much power from all other circuits and killed the receiver? Also, there is a different brand heater I've tried that when these issues occur, seems to keep turning off/on very quickly... (and also making the lights flash in sync) like every 1/2 second or so. Could that heater be turning off/on quickly due to not enough voltage and thus trying to turn itself back on and pulling all available power from house?

    Thanks!
     
  18. #12

    Expert

    Nov 30, 2010
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    This leads me all the way out to the transformer on the pole.
    If you have an off-center neutral, every load in the house would have to, by coincidence, be connected to the same leg of the 240 volt service, or, the problem is clear back to where the 240V is created. Carnac the Magician says: Move the transformer. The real cause will be discovered during that work.

    Don't spend your brain power on the heater cycling. That's a symptom, not the cause.
     
  19. chefnhouston

    Thread Starter New Member

    Jan 2, 2016
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    Thanks Carnac! I'll go with this and have it moved... and report back afterwards if problem solved. I truly appreciate everyones experience and advice.
     
  20. BR-549

    Well-Known Member

    Sep 22, 2013
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    How old and how long is your power line from house to transformer?

    What were the WX conditions at flicker time?

    Be sure to have fire dept. scan your house. Great idea and service.

    I would go for a new pole quickly. For it will most likely replace everything. It can only help the future. If the power company is going to charge you, get private bids.

    I have one of those (black and yellow freight harbor clearance table 5 bucks)infrared temperature scanners. I highly recommend these to everyone. Great instrument.

    I have not disassembled my power panel, but from using it for all kinds of things around the house, I'm sure you could see the temp. diff. on a loose connection. If that's your problem.

    From what I've heard, I suspect an intermittent leg.

    Even if you don't find something............the scanner is a great tool.
     
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