How to Find an Electrical Short

Using a flashlight to check a tripped circuit.
  • 1-3 hours
  • Advanced
  • 0-60
What You'll Need
1/4 " blade or #1 Robertson Screwdriver
Long-nose Pliers
What You'll Need
1/4 " blade or #1 Robertson Screwdriver
Long-nose Pliers

An electrical short happens when an accidental path is created between the hot line and the neutral wire or the ground in a circuit, generating a connection where there shouldn’t be one. It's usually very obvious when it happens as a short will reveal itself by fuses being repeatedly blown or the circuit breaker tripping repeatedly. It also usually causes a loud popping sound when the circuit is activated.

When a short occurs, it should be addressed right away since this problem could deteriorate the wire and its insulation, or the breaker itself, or even cause a fire. You can find and repair the cause of an electrical short yourself by following the steps below.

Step 1 – Check Appliances

The first thing to do is to take note of every plug, lights, and appliance that is np longer working due to the short circuit. The most likely culprit is the electrical appliance you were using when the short occurred.

Unplug it and measure across both flat prongs with an ohmmeter to see if it is shorted. If it's not, look around, on the same circuit for an appliance drawing a lot of power such as a heater or a toaster that was just recently used drawing an excess of current on the breaker.

None of it has to be shorted, but if a circuit wired on a 15 Amps circuit that is already drawing 3-4 amps from lights and small appliances is being overloaded by a newly plugged heater requiring 12-13 Amps to operate, the breaker's capacity being overdrawn by a couple of amps will trip itself off.

To make sure that it's not caused by a short along the line, switch off and unplug everything on that circuit then switch the breaker back on. With nothing left in the circuit, if the breaker keeps tripping, the problem lies inside the walls.

If the circuit breaker still trips out or if the fuse blows, it could be caused by a faulty breaker, receptacle, switch, or light socket, or a short in the wiring.

Step 2 – Isolating the Breaker

Before starting to work at an electrical circuit, MAKE SURE THERE IS NO POWER IN THAT CIRCUIT BY TURNING OFF THE BREAKER. Confirm it's turned off with the multimeter switching it to AC Volts. Insert the metal probes into the problem receptacle and check for zero volts. If voltage is present, you'll have to find the right breaker and repeat the procedure. once the power is off, remove the wall plate and pull out the wall plug, switch, or light socket to expose the wires.

Step 3 – Check in all Terminal Boxes

With the power (breaker) still turned off, switch the multimeter to ohms. Check the wires for a short by placing one lead of the meter to the black wire and the other to the white wire. If the meter shows infinite ohms or O.L., then the receptacle and its circuit right up to the breaker is good. The breaker, however, could have deteriorated and heat-up/trip from a lower current flow. In this case, an electrician will be required to access the main panel and replace it.

If the meter shows continuity, there is a short circuit that could be anything from a faulty breaker to a defective wire or a faulty receptacle or switch. Remove the black wire from the terminal to isolate the receptacle or other devices from the line and perform the same continuity test between the black and the white wire.

If you don't get continuity, replace the faulty receptacle or switch, but if you still get continuity (short) the problem is further along the line. Inspect the cable and all its wires to ensure that there isn't any sign of wear or cuts showing bare copper that could touch somewhere and short out. If all is good, then screw the black wire back to its original terminal, reinstall in the box with the wall plate.

Next, you can proceed to the next electrical box along the circuit and repeat the exact same procedure, thus eliminating each wall plug, switch and light socket from the defective list. If at the end none of the electrical box's device is the cause, but you still measure the short circuit, it's probably caused by a defective breaker.


How to Find an Electrical Short FAQ

What causes a wire to short out?

When wires short out, things stop working. It can even cause a fire hazard, as a wire with a short on it can spark and catch on fire.

Shorts in wires happen when a path of low resistance receives a high-volume electrical current. This essentially means that the power running through the wire is too strong for the wire, and that results in a short.

Can you find a short with a multimeter?

If you suspect you have a short but you are not sure where it is, you can use a multimeter to locate this shorted wire. However, you must use this tool very precisely and carefully to avoid doing damage to the wires or to yourself.

Turn off all the power to the electrical circuit. Remove all batteries and power adapters as needed.

Turn the multimeter to the resistance or continuity setting. Apply the tips of the probe to the circuit you want to test.

The probes should be touching the wire or a lead. Now, look at the multimeter reading.

If the multimeter is displaying a 1 or OL, then you have a short circuit.

How do you test a wire to see if it has a short?

The best way to test a wire to find out if it has a short is to use a multimeter. This tool is specifically designed to test for power, after all.

You can also visually inspect wires and get a good idea of whether or not a short is present. Often, wires that have shorts in them will display visible signs such as burn marks or melted portions.

How do you trace a bad electrical wire?

If you need to trace a bad electrical wire, you can get frustrated pretty quickly unless you have a good plan. Probably the easiest way to trace a wire is to use a magnetic stud finger, which will identify wires even behind drywall.

What is the best way to find a short in a wire?

If you suspect you have a short in a wire, you need to confirm this right away because a short can develop into a fire hazard and that is extremely dangerous. The best and easiest way to find a short on a wire is to use a multimeter, as this tool can help you isolate the problem and locate the short more precisely.