The 4 Most Common Outlet Problems and How to Identify Them

The 4 Most Common Outlet Problems and How to Identify Them

You have an early day tomorrow and stayed up late tonight. So before you turn in, you set your bedside alarm, plug in your phone, and set a secondary alarm on your smartphone.

It’s only when you wake up an hour later than expected the next morning that you realize the outlet stopped working sometime during the night. The blinking, unset numerals of your alarm clock and the silence of your vital scheduling tools represent some of the most basic problems that accompany faulty electrical outlets.

You rely on the electrical outlets in your home to tap into the power. But sometimes outlets become “dead” or simply disconnected. These outlets can prove frustrating, inconvenient, and even dangerous.

If you notice problems with a single plug-in, an entire outlet, or all the outlets in room, one of these common outlet issues is likely to blame. In each section, we explain the correlation between the problem and power outages. Then, we walk you through the process of troubleshooting for that particular problem.

Safety Precautions

Before you take steps to identify the reason why an outlet went out, perform some basic safety measures. When you first notice an outlet not receiving power, do the following:

  • Switch off the lights in the area and unplug all appliances.
  • Test to see if the problem affects more than one outlet.
  • Mark each dead outlet with masking or painter’s tape.

As you unplug appliances, take note of each cord’s condition. Sometimes the problem lies not with the outlet, but with the cord or plug.

Common Issues

Once you minimize the risk of electric shock using the steps listed above, test for the following problems.

1. Tripped Circuit Breakers

If you notice one or more dead outlets, a tripped circuit breaker represents the most likely cause. Each circuit breaker supplies power to a specific part of your home. If that area becomes overloaded, the breaker flips, shutting off the power to prevent hazardous electrical conditions.

To identify a tripped breaker, go to your main electrical panel. Sometimes you’ll see a switch flipped completely to “off.” However, a switch may also stick in between “on” and “off.” If you don’t see an obvious flipped switch, turn the switch firmly off and then turn it back on. Test to see if this step resolved the problem.

2. Tripped Ground Fault Circuit Interrupters (GFCI)

When an outlet goes dead, it’s easy to assume you have a major problem and disregard simpler explanations. Many homeowners forget to check the status of any ground fault circuit interrupters, or GFCI.

These devices are part of individual plugs, especially those in kitchens and bathrooms. A GFCI serves a similar purpose to your circuit breakers-if the power surges, the GFCI turns the plug off.

If an outlet has a GFCI, you’ll see a small reset button on the surface (usually between the two plug receptacles). Simply press the button to restore power.

3. Burned Out Outlets

Sometimes outlets, especially older or out-of-date models, literally burn out. You may notice warning signs before the outlet goes fully dead, including:

  • Warmth on the plastic cover’s surface
  • Visible sparks
  • Blackening around a plug or both plugs on the outlet

If you notice these signs, immediately unplug all devices from the outlet and connect an electrician. You should also contact an electrician to replace the outlet if you notice any sparks, fire, or high-pitched noises when an outlet goes dead.

Burned out outlets represent a significant fire hazard and a trained professional should address the situation immediately.

4. Aged Receptacles

Maybe your outlet hasn’t died yet and you just have trouble getting plugs to stay in the outlet. If plugs routinely fall out of an outlet or you have to position a plug “just so” to get power, the outlet is probably older.

As an outlet ages, the surface erodes according to use. These changes over time can make it harder to keep plugs firmly attached. While a loose plug doesn’t indicate an immediate problem, it does indicate that the older outlet should be replaced.

Loose plugs can cause electrical shock. Additionally, older outlets have a higher risk for connection problems.

Another common explanation for dead outlets is a loose or disconnected wire. However, because you must remove the entire outlet to check for this issue, we recommend waiting for help from a professional.

Once you finish the basic troubleshooting found in this post, hold off on any further steps until you contact a professional electrician. If the wiring to a room or outlet becomes unstable, it’s better to stay away. These faulty systems can cause electrical burns or shocks to untrained, but ambitious DIYers.

As you try to identify the problem with your electrical outlets, take notes. Your electrician will appreciate knowing what you already tried and the results you saw.

For more information about your home’s electrical, plumbing, and climate control systems, visit our blog section.

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