Looking around the modern home, it’s sometimes difficult to remember that electricity is a fairly new invention. From the coffee pot to the stove to the lights while we shower, electricity is a central component to just about any home.
With electricity being introduced across generations of homes and businesses, the types of electrical systems can range widely. However, when troubleshooting issues, all electrical problems share many commonalities.
If the saw shorts out, the work light hums, or a string of outlets stop working, it’s time to put your diagnostic tools and DIY mindset to work.
Note—Use extreme caution when working with anything electrical. Always unplug appliances. If working with home wiring, always turn off the relevant circuit breakers and test the lines to ensure they are not live.
1. Power Surges
A surge of electricity can be caused by electricity, damaged power lines, or devices within your home.
A power surge can cause irreparable damage to televisions, computers, gaming systems, and other electronic devices.
Sometimes a homeowner will have no warning of a power surge. Other times, it becomes predictable, such as when an air conditioning unit kicks on and off. Either way, you’ll want to equip your home and your goods with surge protection.
Step 1 - Install Surge Protection Power Strips
Each of your small electronics should be plugged into a surge protector. This device looks like a strip of outlets that are all on the same unit. The unit then plugs into a wall.
Some outlet strips are meant to provide additional outlets, but they're not all surge protectors. Before you plug in your computer or TV, make sure your power strip offers surge protection.
If you’re not sure, flip your power strip over and look for what is called a Joule rating. The information may be on the box it came in too. This rating provides the maximum voltage the strip can handle during a power surge.
Surge protectors are easy to install. Simply plug the device into an outlet. Then plug devices into the outlets on the strip. There is usually an on/off power switch on the top or the side of the surge protector.
Step 2 - Install GFCI Outlets
A GFCI is a ground fault circuit interrupter. It’s a device that redirects surge current into the ground. A GFCI looks like a regular outlet, but has test and reset buttons on it.
Building codes vary by area, but most require a GFCI outlet on each bathroom and kitchen electrical circuit. They are also often installed in other areas prone to wetness, such as laundry rooms, outdoors, basements, garages, and workshops.
To replace the outlet, turn off the power to the circuit and test for power. Remove the screws holding the faceplate and outlet in place. Then pull out the outlet and remove all attached wires to uninstall it.
Install the new GFCI outlet in the same way as the one you just removed and return the faceplate. Test your GFCI by turning the power back on. Plug a device into the outlet, such as a hair dryer. When you test the button, it will turn off. Push reset to restore power.
Step 3 - Install a Whole House Surge Protector
Add an extra layer of protection with a surge protector that is installed at the source of your home’s power. This type of protection buffers against surges as they enter the home.
To install, first turn off your home’s power with the main circuit breaker. Styles vary slightly, but most home wiring feeds into the circuit panel through empty circuit breaker slots. The surge protector should be installed in the slots closest to the main circuit breaker.
If other circuit breakers are in those spots, move them to another location in the panel. Wire your surge protector as instructed and test the system once power is returned.
2. Buzzing Sounds
When we flip the switch, the power comes on, silently transporting power wherever we command. It’s an amazing thing. Electrical systems are prone to problems due to improper installation or worn components.
If you hear buzzing sounds coming from your walls or outlets, address the issue as soon as possible.
Several things can cause buzzing in your home’s electrical system, including a loose wire, an overloaded wire, or an improperly grounded wire. Any of these issues can cause a fire, so it’s important to make a quick diagnosis and repair.
Step 1 - Turn off the Power
Open your circuit panel and flip the main power off. If the buzzing stops, at least you know it is associated with the central electricity. If the buzzing doesn’t stop, that’s not your problem.
Step 2 - Turn on the Power
Next, turn circuit breakers on one at a time, starting with the circuits that feed power to the area where you heard the buzzing. When you hear the buzzing start, you know which circuit you’re dealing with.
Step 3 - Circuit Breaker Safety
If the source of the buzzing is at the circuit breaker, turn it off and leave it off until you can have a professional electrician look at it. A buzzing circuit breaker often indicates an overload and can be a fire hazard.
Step 4 - Check the Bulbs
If your noise is coming from a light fixture, start by changing out the bulbs. More often than not, that’s the problem.
Step 5 - Check Appliances
Once the circuit breaker comes on, follow any buzzing to identify all appliances on the circuit. Check each one for buzzing sounds.
Step 6 - Check Outlets
If the buzzing sound emits from an outlet, turn off the power, remove the outlet and replace it with a new one to see if that resolves the problem.
Step 7 - Spy on Your Walls
Use a stethoscope, glass, funnel, or other amplifier to try to identify buzzing noises that come from inside the walls. If it’s not near a switch or outlet, call a professional to address the issue.
3. Flickering Lights
If the lights are flickering, it doesn’t mean Poltergeist is trying to contact you, but it might mean your house is trying to tell you something.
Step 1 - Identify the Single Flicker
If the flickering is only happening on one fixture, it’s most likely an issue with a lightbulb. Check all bulbs for tightness. If they are all secure, but still flickering, try replacing them all.
If that doesn’t solve the problem, turn off the power, remove the fixture, and check the wiring. It’s likely you have a loose wire. Also check the wiring at the switch that powers the fixture. If two switches control the fixture, make sure one of them isn’t partially flipped.
If none of these solve the problem, call in a pro for a diagnosis.
Step 2 - Address the Multi-Fixture Flicker
If multiple fixtures flicker at the same time, it’s clearly not an issue with a single bulb or fixture. Instead, it could be a temporary weather event or inconsistent power from your provider. It can also happen with the power surges mentioned earlier.
If the problem is consistent, you’re dealing with inconsistent voltage in the home and it’s time to call an electrician.
4. Outlets Not Working
There are a variety of reasons your outlets may not be getting power.
Step 1 - Check the GFCI
If your GFCI is doing its job, it will shut the circuit off when there’s a power surge. Start by hitting the reset button on any circuit that has a GFCI. Press the test button and then the reset button to see if power is restored.
Step 2 - Check the Circuit Breaker
You may have tripped a circuit breaker at the box. Open your circuit breaker panel and look at every circuit breaker. If any of them are even slightly away from the on position, flip it off and then on again to see if it solves the problem.
Step 3 - Replace the Outlet
If only one outlet is without power, try replacing the single unit to see if it helps. While it might just be a loose connection, if you have the outlet out anyway, go ahead and install a new one.
Step 4 - Consider Recent Work
Sometimes, another project in the house can affect a seemingly unrelated outlet. Has someone recently been working downstairs, upstairs, or even outside? If so, they may have installed something incorrectly, causing the issue with another outlet.
5. Tripping GFCI
Those GFCIs you installed are doing a great job in protecting your home against power surges--perhaps too good of a job if one or more are frequently popping.
There are myriad reasons a GFCI will trip, outside the normal occasional occurrence. Moisture inside the receptacle can cause the unit to flip. Your GFCI could also be responding to an overloaded circuit, improper installation, a faulty outlet or fixture, or an appliance.
Step 1 - Check for Moisture
Check to make sure there isn’t a water source dripping or creating excessive dampness.
Step 2 - Look for Dirt and Debris
Remove the GFCI and look inside the receptacle box. Clean it out with a soft rag.
Step 3 - Check Connections
Check old wiring. Look for corroded or pinched wires and loose connections.
Step 4 - Check for Overload
If the circuit is overloading, your GFCI is doing its job. Consider what appliances are plugged into the circuit (not just one outlet). Unplug everything. Then plug things in one at a time, allowing time in between to see if the GFCI trips.
When the addition of an appliance causes it to trip, it could be that there are just too many devices plugged in. It can also mean the device is faulty.
Try unplugging everything again. Then plug in only the suspected appliance to see if it causes a trip while nothing else is plugged in. If it does, you’ve found your culprit.
Otherwise, it may be time to call in an electrician to find the cause.
6. Tripping Circuit Breakers
It’s not uncommon for homeowners to have one or two circuit breakers that flip more often than the others. There are several reasons for this.
Step 1 - Move Devices Around
High-drawing appliances like refrigerators, air conditioning units, or microwaves don’t play nice with others who want electronic attention.
Give your fridge its own outlet on a circuit that’s separate from your other major appliances, including the fridge on the other side of the wall in the garage.
Put the portable air conditioner on a circuit that’s separate from the desktop and the television.
Step 2 - Check for a Short Circuit
If your circuit breaker trips the moment you move it back into the on position, you’re likely dealing with a short circuit. You may need to replace the breaker, fix wiring in the wall, or deal with a faulty appliance.
The same symptoms may occur if you’re having an issue with your GFCI on the box or on a circuit in the house.
7. Frequent Bulb Burnouts
If you have a fixture that’s frequently burning out bulbs, there are many factors to consider.
Step 1 - Check the Lightbulbs
If you’re using a bulb with a higher-than-recommended wattage, you may be overloading the fixture, causing it to burn out bulbs. Most household fixtures are equipped to handle 60-watt bulbs, or a 10-watt LED bulb.
Also make sure to match the bulb with the type of switch and fixture. For example, if you’re using a dimmer switch, you need to have a compatible bulb.
Step 2 - Check the Fixture
A short in the fixture will also cause bulbs to blow. Turn off the main source of power. Then remove the fixture and check the wiring. Also check the socket the light bulb plugs into to make sure it’s securely attached.
If you have recessed lighting, check to make sure the light isn’t overheating from insulation in the attic.
If it’s an older fixture, replace it.
Warning About Odors
Sometimes you don’t notice any issues with the performance of your electrical system. There may, however, be a clue you think is unrelated but actually points directly toward an electrical issue—the smell of fish.
When the components inside an outlet begin to melt due to a faulty connection, improper installation, or an overloaded circuit, they can release a scent reminiscent of fish or urine.
So if you have a funky smell you can’t pin on the kitchen sponge or bathroom toilet, it may be your outlet.
For more info, check out our pieces about Wiring an Outlet and How to Test a GFCI Outlet.