Dead electrical outlet

Sometimes a dead electrical outlet means you need to call an electrician–but not always. Here’s how to troubleshoot a dead electrical outlet and solve the problem yourself, ranging from easiest to hardest, so you can decide when to stop and hire an electrician.

Dead electrical outlet: Check the breaker box

dead electrical outlet
If you have a dead electrical outlet, try these tricks first before you call an electrician.

It always pays to go to the electrical panel and check the circuit breakers or fuses first. Sometimes when a breaker trips, it doesn’t trip very convincingly. Check and make sure the breakers to that room actually are powered on, and don’t just look like they’re powered on. Look for a tripped breaker or any breaker that just looks suspicious and reset it. Also look for a GFCI breaker. If you happen to have GFCI breakers in the box, reset the GFCI there.

Dead electrical outlet: Check your light switches

In many older houses, rooms have one wall outlet controlled by a light switch. That practice became less common in the 1970s. But this works often enough that I always tell people the first thing to try is turning on any light switch in the room to make sure it’s not being controlled by a switch.

If you don’t want the outlet to be controlled by a switch anymore, here’s how you can disable that.

Dead electrical outlet: Check your GFCIs

dead electrical outlet
If a GFCI outlet trips, it will also cut power to the other wall outlets downstream of it. Always check nearby GFCIs when troubleshooting a dead electrical outlet.

When a ground fault circuit interrupter (GFCI) outlet trips, it takes down any outlet downstream of it along with it. That’s the way they’re designed. So if your dead electrical outlet worked fine yesterday, a tripped GFCI nearby is a good culprit. Pushing the reset buttons on any nearby GFCIs often fixes a dead outlet.

I always make a point of putting labels on any GFCI protected outlet to remind me because, yes, this has happened to me too.

It’s fairly rare for a GFCI to be tied to an outlet in another room but not impossible. Start by checking any other GFCIs in the room. If there aren’t any in the room, check to see if there are any in an adjacent room.

One time during a power failure, a GFCI outlet in my basement failed completely. This caused all of the outlets downstream of it to lose power as well. That meant several outlets in my basement had power and several didn’t, even though I didn’t have any tripped breakers.

This is more unusual than a GFCI outlet just tripping, but it can happen. The telltale signs were that the outlet refused to reset, and didn’t respond when I plugged an electrical outlet tester into it.

To restore power, I had to replace the outlet with a new GFCI. Sometimes they go bad.

Upstream outlets and light fixtures

stop bathroom light bulb flickering - wire loop
The first secret to good electrical connections is to loop your wire like this. It gives a secure connection and lots of contact.

It’s relatively rare for an electrical outlet to run all the way back to your panel. More frequently, the wires jump off another nearby wire run. If you have multiple outlets in the house not working, chances are the problem is something between those outlets and the circuit breaker.

The shortcut to troubleshooting this is to remember these things don’t happen on their own, generally speaking. The most likely source of a problem is the most recent electrical work that’s happened nearby. If you know you’ve replaced an electrical outlet or a light fixture recently, start there. Double check for loose connections and correct any that you happen to find.

In an electrical outlet, always attach wires by forming them into a loop before attaching them to the terminal screws on the side of the outlet. Don’t make it hard on yourself by trying to hold a straight wire with a screw. It won’t stay there. In a light fixture, twist the wires together before you put a wire nut on them. Don’t just hold the two wires next to each other like the number 11 and twist a wire nut on. They hold much better and much more permanently when you twist the wires together even a little bit.

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2 thoughts on “Dead electrical outlet

  • September 18, 2018 at 11:33 am

    In an old house, the most likely kind of electrical outlet failure is that the outlet itself has worn out. 100 years of metal fatigue can take their toll! Symptoms include outlets that the plugs simply won’t stay in, or ones where the connection is intermittent and wiggling the plug gets the device working temporarily.

    The good news is that it’s a really easy problem to fix. All you have to do is replace the failed outlet. Don’t forget to turn off the breaker first!

    • September 22, 2018 at 5:01 pm

      Good point. It’s been a long time since I’ve dealt with outlets so loose that plugs just fall out, but that can definitely happen too. I run into upstream issues more than anything else, but it all depends on the house’s history.

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