When an outlet goes dead, it’s easy to jump to conclusions and assume the worst. But more often than not, the problem is something simple, and you can save the cost of a service call just by taking a few steps to trace the cause. Don’t worry if you’re not comfortable doing electrical work. Better than half the time, you’ll solve the problem without even lifting a tool. We’ll show you how to start your search for the problem by checking in the most likely places. If that doesn’t work, we’ll show you where to look for loose connections that may be to blame, and how to fix them.
Of course, there will always be problems that are best left to an electrician. But if you take these steps first, there’s a good chance you’ll find the solution.
Check for Simple Solutions First
Shortly after moving into our house, we had an electrical problem. The exterior outlets and bathroom lights didn’t work. I knew enough to check for tripped circuit breakers and GFCI outlets. But I couldn’t find the problem. I was just about to start pulling apart the wiring when I double-checked the main panel and noticed the GFCI circuit breaker up in the corner.
Sure enough, the GFCI breaker was protecting the bathroom and exterior outlets and needed to be reset. I was lucky this time—I’ve been known to remove outlets and start to test circuits and then discover the simpler solution. The moral of the story is, don’t jump to conclusions. The fix for a dead outlet is usually simpler than you think.
Before you head for the circuit breakers, take a few minutes to check if other outlets, lights or appliances are affected. Switch lights on and off and test nearby outlets for power (use a voltage tester or plug in a lamp to test the outlets).
Unplug lamps and appliances from dead outlets to eliminate the possibility that a short or overload from one of them is causing the problem. Note the location of dead outlets or mark them with a piece of masking tape so you’ll be able to find them again after you’ve turned off the power.
After you unplug all the devices from the dead outlets, the next step is to check for a tripped circuit breaker or blown fuse. You’ll find the circuit breakers or fuses in the main electrical panel, which is usually located near where the electrical wires enter the house. Garages, basements and laundry rooms are common locations.
Locate the panel and open the metal door to reveal the fuses or circuit breakers. Photos 1 – 4 show a typical main panel and the process for resetting a tripped circuit breaker. Remember to turn off your computer before you switch the circuit breakers on and off.
Tripped circuit breakers aren’t always apparent. If you don’t see a tripped breaker, firmly press every breaker to the “off” position (Photo 3).Then switch them back on. If the tripped breaker won’t reset without tripping again, there could be a potentially dangerous short circuit or ground fault condition. Switch the circuit breaker off until you’ve located the problem.
In most cases, a tripped circuit breaker is caused by a temporary overload on the circuit or a short circuit in some device plugged into the circuit. But in rare cases, a loose wire in an electrical box could be causing the problem. Follow the photos in Step 4, to look for and repair loose connections.
GFCI (short for “ground fault circuit interrupter”) outlets, those unusual outlets with the test and reset buttons, are required in areas of the house where shock hazards are greatest. They protect against deadly electrical shocks by sensing leaks in the electrical current and immediately tripping to shut off the power. But it’s easy to overlook a tripped GFCI as the source of a dead outlet problem. That’s because in areas where GFCI-protected outlets are required, electricians often save money by connecting additional standard outlets to one GFCI outlet.
A current leak at any one of the outlets will trip the GFCI and cause all of the outlets connected to it to go dead. These GFCI-protected outlets are supposed to be labeled (Photo 1), but the label often falls off.
Look for GFCIs in bathrooms, kitchens, basements, garages and on the home’s exterior. Test and reset every GFCI you find (Photo 2). If the GFCI “reset” button doesn’t pop out when you press the “test” button, there may be no power to the GFCI or you may have a bad GFCI. On the other hand, if the “reset” button trips again every time you press it, there may be a dangerous current leak somewhere on the circuit.
In either case, solving the problem requires additional electrical testing that we won’t cover here. Refer to other electrical repair manuals or call an electrician for help. If resetting all of the GFCIs didn’t power up your dead outlet, then the last resort is to look for loose connections.
If checking the breakers and resetting the GFCIs haven’t restored power to the outlet, the next step, without getting into circuit testing, is to remove the outlet from the box and look for loose connections.
We’ll show you three common types of loose connections: loose terminal screws, loose stab-in connections, and loose wires at wire connectors. You may find one or more of these when you remove your outlet and look in the electrical box.
Loose or broken wires The first problem we show is a loose connection under the outlet’s terminal screw. In Photo 2, you can see the charred outlet and melted wire insulation that are a result of heat generated by the loose connection. These telltale signs aren’t always present, though, which is why you should double-check the connections by gently bending each wire to see if it moves under the screw.
If you do discover a loose connection at an outlet, whether it’s at the screw terminal or a stab-in connection, we recommend replacing the outlet with a new one. That’s because loose connections almost always create excess heat that could damage the outlet and lead to future problems. Photo 3 shows how to install a new outlet.
If the outlet you’re replacing is wired like the one shown in Photo 2, with pairs of hot and neutral wires (wires under all four screws), connect the pairs of like-colored wires along with a third 6-in. length of wire, called a pigtail, under one wire connector. Then connect the loose end of each pigtail to the appropriate outlet screw. This method reduces the chance that a loose connection under a screw will cause a problem with other outlets on the circuit.
Loose Wires at the Stab-in Connections
As a timesaver for electricians, some outlets can be wired by pressing stripped wires into holes on the back of the outlet. This wiring method is allowed by the electrical code, but it isn’t good practice since these stab-in connections can loosen over time and cause problems. Look for these stab-in connections as you troubleshoot your dead outlet. Tug each wire to check for loose connections.
If you find loose stab-in connections, don’t just reinsert the wire. Instead, cut and strip the end of the wire and connect it to the screw terminal on the side of the outlet. Or better yet, cut and strip all of the wires and connect them to a new outlet (Photo 3).
If you have aluminum wiring, don't mess with it! Call in a licensed pro who's certified to work with it. This wiring is dull gray, not the dull orange that's characteristic of copper.
Grab the wire connector. Tug on each wire in the bundle to see if any are loose. If you discover a loose wire, remove the wire connector. Cut and strip all the wires in the bundle to expose 1/2 in. to 3/4 in. of fresh copper wire (check the instructions on the wire connector container for the exact stripping length).
A wire that’s come loose from a wire connector is another problem that can cause a dead outlet. Follow the steps in Photos 1 and 2 to find and fix this type of loose connection.
If you don’t find any loose connections in this box and are still anxious to pursue the problem, expand your search to other outlets in the vicinity (start with the ones you marked earlier with masking tape). Make sure to turn off the main circuit breaker (Photo 1) when you’re checking for loose connections.
When you’re done looking for loose connections, reinstall the outlets and switch the main circuit breaker back on. Now test the outlets again to see if you’ve solved the problem. If you still have dead outlets, it’s time to call an electrician.