Electrical Troubleshooting Quiz — October 18, 2022

You recently started your own electrical services business and one of your goals is to get good references to help you land bigger jobs. Right now, you only have one full-time hire, Lucy. He’s a journeyman electrician.

A developer in the area bought a 30-unit apartment complex a few weeks ago. The previous owner contracted a handyman to be the maintenance man. Old trouble tickets show what, to the developer, appears to be a high incidence of complaints about electrical issues. He’s compiled a list of things, and the top three are loose sockets that move when you unplug them, a crackling sound when a switch is flipped, and plugged-in devices that seemingly lose power intermittently.

The biggest problem is that the same issues reoccur in the same units. It turns out that the maintenance person continues to “fix” this problem by replacing outlets and switches. He says they are just bad because of tenant abuse.

The developer wants you to find a permanent solution to these issues. Where would you start?

Wiring errors

Let’s address the sizzle first, noting that these apartments must have been built before arc fault circuit interrupters (AFCIs) were needed, otherwise there would be no sizzle and no electricity, du less in the bedrooms.

The traditional spade-type pliers stripper cannot strip the sheath on non-metallic sheathed cable, which is typically used in residential applications. A common solution is to use a buck knife or other pocket knife to make cuts in the coating and remove it. This can easily cut through the insulation underneath, so great care must be taken. With a knife in hand, why not just repeat this process on the individual conductors? So it is also done. This results in a jagged insulation edge, uneven insulation shrinkage, and nicked wires. So far so good (not really).

The next time-saving working method is to jam these wires into the knife ports on the back of the device. These hold the thread via spring pressure. On less expensive models, you can pull the wire out with a quick tug. This method is further compromised if the wire is notched because the clamping area is reduced; you will need to insert the wire exactly under the clamping face to avoid trying to clamp on the notch.

If the installing electrician uses the universal type stripping pliers (you can recognize it by its clamping jaws), it is very easy to strip the sheath without damaging anything. It will also allow you to quickly strip individual conductors. In fact, it works on any size wire, until you get into things like power cables.

Instead of using the backstabs, use needle nose pliers to make a suitable loop at the end of the conductor and wrap it around the appropriate screw (neutral to silver screw, hot to bronze screw) so that the tightening the screw tightens the buckle. It won’t come off even with a strong tug. And you have more engaged contact area.

Incorrect strip length is a common problem; here’s how to avoid it. If you look at the back of a typical outlet, you will see a stripping gauge. This shows you how much insulation to remove. Set your fancy strippers to remove that much, and you won’t get insulation under the screw or have excess bare wire sticking out of the terminal. After doing this a few times, you can probably watch it in the future.

Even if the installing electrician has followed the correct stripping and connection methods, there is another common mistake that results in loose connections behind the wall. It is the error of placing more than one conductor under a terminal in a switch or residential outlet. Not only does this violate several provisions of 110.14, but it ensures that you will have a loose connection.

A typical outlet will allow you to attach the power wiring to one set of screws and the “downstream” wiring to the other side; this makes the receptacle essentially a wiring splice in the circuit. It works, it’s up to code, and it’s safe. However, this also means that the neutral (return) of this circuit depends on the appliance. Switches don’t have this feature, so you can’t wire them that way. Still, people try.

If you are in the habit of connecting at least the neutral to each socket, you have a safer installation, unless it is an earth leakage circuit breaker, in which case you never connect hot or neutral. New types of solderless connection devices save space and time, so see what’s out there. Where you have a switch, still pigtailed rather than running more than one wire to a screw.

If the do-it-yourselfer simply replaced outlets and switches without correcting the wiring errors that were the actual source of the arc, the arc would temporarily stop because all the connections are new, even if poorly made. Because the sizzle stops and then comes back after a while, incorrect (and possibly loose) connections are the culprit. They are also the cause of intermittent power loss.

Repairs without plasterboard work

Lucy must enter each of these tickets and repair the wiring work on the affected outlet(s). There should be enough spare wire in each box to allow for this. If not, one solution is to install another box and receptacle between the existing one and the power supply. Make this outlet an AFCI. You can then run a length of new cable between the boxes to give you enough conductor length in the box. As a bonus, the coin has an extra receptacle, and that’s never a bad thing.

Ah, but the drywall work! Not really. This can often be accomplished without creating a drywall project by removing the trim board from the lower wall, carefully cutting the exposed drywall under the top of where the trim board goes, and drilling dowel holes to the cable above where the trim board goes (so you don’t drive any screws or nails into the conductor).

When it’s all done, attach the piece of drywall to the studs and nail the trim in place (you may need to push the old nails in from behind or bend them). You’ll save the homeowner a big repair bill and a big mess, so document how you did it and give a dollar figure for what you saved. Then use that dollar figure to show exactly how you made the AFCI so affordable to add.

The same negligence that led to these two problems led to the loose container problem. This often happens when the box is too far back. The receptacle is left loose so that it protrudes enough. A box extender can solve this problem. It may also be possible to remove the existing box through the existing hole in the drywall and remount it in the correct position.

Sometimes a quick fix of using a jack spacer is a good choice. Or, in this case, the service person may not have tightened the receptacle screws, because leaving them loose allowed him to have the receptacle look directly behind the receptacle cover.

This work should get you a good recommendation. But even better is having “before” and “after” photos and videos to show the difference between “good enough” and your high standards.