A week or so ago, I was sitting in our den when the power went out. I was in the middle of installing Leopard on my iMac when it happened.
When I saw that it wasn’t the circuit breaker in the basement, I determined the culprit to be the GFCI outlet behind Sonja’s desk that was causing the problem. Since our house is over 50 years old, most of the outlets are not grounded, including the ones in the den, where our computers are.
Having the house rewired to ground all the outlets and fixtures is not in the cards at the moment, so we took the advice of a family friend and installed a GFCI in the outlet that most of the expensive electronics used. I should mention that all the important stuff is plugged into a good surge protector, and the electric company installed a surge protector where the main electrical line comes into the house. The idea was that if a jolt came into the house and got as far as the den, the GFCI would shut itself off before it could do any damage.
So I assumed that’s what had happened. I waited a little while, then reset the outlet. Everything came back on, so I figured that the problem was solved. Of course it wasn’t, otherwise I would be writing a post about it. A few minutes later, the room went dark again. By this point, it was getting late and I was frustrated and tired. I had successfully installed Leopard on my iMac, and had moved on to installing it on my Powerbook. Since I take the laptop to work with me everyday, I had no choice but to finish and then re-install everything that I’d need at work the next day. So Sonja and I went to Lowe’s and bought a new, non-GFCI outlet to replace the one we thought had gone bad.
When we got home, I promptly broke the new outlet, which forced me to run back to Lowe’s only to find out it had just closed. Luckily, the Wal Mart next door was still open, so I picked up a new outlet there and headed back home.
I installed the new outlet and plugged a lamp in to see if it had worked. The light came on, but after a faint “pop” and a tiny blue spark inside the outlet, the room went dark. The rest of the house was apparently unaffected, except for the overhead light in the garage, which is next to the den.
Going against all the fire safety training I’d gone through growing up, I grabbed an industrial extension cord and power strip from the garage, and ran it through the dining room into the den. I finished setting up my laptop around 2 a.m. and went to bed.
After that, I got kind of lazy. I knew that I had to deal with the electrical problem, but I was dreading what it would cost to have an electrician come fix it. We lived with the extension cord running across the floor for about a week, hoping that no one would decide to drop by unannounced.
Then, this weekend, we decided that we were going to tackle another project in the house that required another trip to Lowe’s to pick up some sandpaper and paintbrushes. While we were there, Sonja mentioned that her dad recommended we get an outlet tester to see if we could figure out the problem ourselves. While we were doing that, an employee approached us to see if he could help. We described the problem, and he pointed us to a different (and cheaper) tester that would do what we needed, and also suggested we check out nearby outlets as well.
I was a little skeptical because I was pretty sure we had found the cause of the problem, but when we got home, I began testing the outlets, starting with the ones closest to the den. I didn’t get far before I came to one on a wall in the dining room, which adjoins the office. That outlet is pictured above.
All along, we had focused on an outlet that was apparently functioning properly, while this one nearly burned our house down. I turned off the circuit breaker, removed the faceplate and pulled out the receptacle to discover this:
It’s not easy to tell from the picture, but the whole top and back of this outlet is charred and melted. It’s an eye-opener to realize that your house almost burned down. Frankly, I’m still a little surprised that it didn’t.
As you can see, the wire that goes to the top terminal has more than an inch of bare wire, and the insulation is charred all the way back into the box. That bare wire probably shorted out by touching the inside of the metal box or another wire. Perhaps what is most unnerving is that all that was plugged into this outlet was a $17 IKEA floor lamp.
I went back to Lowe’s with the melted outlet, looking for advice. There I spoke to Wendell, who told me to strip the burned wire back, install a new outlet, and all should be well. Wendell was very helpful, and compared putting a GFCI outlet on an ungrounded outlet to putting a band-aid on a bullet wound. I thanked him and bought two outlets for a grand total of 99¢, and headed home. Ironically, I think the GFCI might have been what saved our house from going up in smoke. It was on the same circuit as the bad outlet, and it did exactly what it was supposed to do and shut off the current.
Installing the new outlet took about 10 minutes, and since then, everything has been fine. The extension cord running across the floor is gone, and the lamp is unplugged. I’m a little paranoid now, and every little scent that might be burning electrical wire sends me scrambling. If this is the last post I write, you’ll know why.
Continue reading Not what you want to find in your wall.