Electrical Problems at Home: Troubleshooting and Quick Fixes

Older homes and fixer-uppers can develop some downright scary habits. Floors making noises for no apparent reason, doors that open and close themselves, howling sounds and cold drafts in the dark of night … nobody would blame you for thinking that your place is haunted based on those situations alone.

Life would be very different without electricity, but it’s also dangerous and the cause of many house fires, so if you’re dealing with spooky electrical issues be sure to put safety first and have it checked out by a pro.

It’s the electrical issues, however, that can really tip the scales. Nothing compares to the spookiness of lights that turn themselves off and on, televisions and stereos that randomly shatter the 2 a.m. silence and the flickering and the dimming and the popped breakers! These are some powerful indicators that you’ve got a problem!

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The good news is that most of these problems aren’t really all that spooky, if you know what to look for.

Here are five common electrical complaints and potential DIY solutions.

Always keep in mind that electricity is potentially deadly, so always be safe and turn your power off before touching your electrical components. If you have any doubts at all and don’t know exactly what you’re looking at, call a licensed electrician.

Lights Turning On and Off by Themselves

Possibility One: You’ve got some issues with your switch wiring.

For years, I had a lamp post out near the entrance to my driveway on about an acre of land. Normally, it was off. Sometimes, however, seemingly powered by some cosmic force beyond my vision, it would just come on. It would stay that way for days no matter what I did. Then it was off again.

When you’re in an older home, there is no telling what someone else might have jury-rigged in years prior. Sometimes you just have to run new wiring

The problem: Some very confused DIY wiring inside my house had that light connected to more than one switch and who knows what else? There was a very peculiar arrangement of existing switches inside the house, almost like a secret access code to some hidden chamber. If this one was off, and this one was on, and the dimmer in the back was at halfway? I actually never figured it out.

Lesson: When you’re in an older home, there is no telling what someone else might have jury-rigged in years prior. Sometimes you just have to run new wiring.

Possibility Two: Overheating protection switches are being activated.

If the offending light is a recessed fixture, it’s possible that the fixture itself is getting too hot. Recessed fixtures often have an overheat protection feature that just shuts them off if the housing or surrounding area gets too hot. This is a safety feature designed to prevent fires.

It’s possible that the heat sensor itself is bad and is overly sensitive, or it’s possible that feature is the only thing keeping the light from catching on fire!

One of the most common culprits is an oversized bulb. If a fixture is designed for a 40-watt bulb and you put a 200-watt bulb in it, you’re asking for trouble. That higher wattage bulb is not only drawing more power than the fixture is designed to deliver, it’s also creating more heat energy than the fixture is designed to withstand.

Try first to replace the bulb with a properly sized bulb for the fixture. If the light still turns off and on randomly, you could have a wiring problem or a bad fixture.

TV Turns on By Itself

TVs and stereos that have a mind of their own are often explained in the same ways. They could be connected to a light switch without you knowing it and they are turning off and on based on someone flipping a switch in another room. Or, it’s very possible that there is a loose connection somewhere in the power supply wiring that is randomly losing and regaining connection.

To rule out the switch possibility, you can team up with a partner to go around flipping switches everywhere in the house while you wait for the TV to shut off. Labor intensive but simple, this will often find the problem quickly. It’s pretty surprising sometimes how a distant switch nowhere near the TV can control the power source.

If the problem is somewhere in the wiring inside your walls, a qualified electrician will have to do some testing and troubleshooting to find and fix the issue.

Lights Flickering in House

A more common sign of loose connections in your home’s wiring is flickering lights.

The spooky factor can be off the charts with this one. If you happen to have a connected phenomena like an eerie howling noise that accompanies the flickering or a nearby door that seems to have a mind of its own at the exact same time as the light flickers, it can up the heart rate a tad.

Nine times out of ten, though, the problem is just some loose wiring combined with something non-electrical. A door that isn’t hung properly, for example, might slam shut on its own and the vibrations caused by that impact can shake a loose electrical connection, thus causing a simultaneous light flicker.

Lights Dimming in House

Dimming lights are often a different story. Dimming is usually an indication of uneven power supply. Whereas a blown 55-inch TV can be the sign of a bad power surge, dimming lights can signify a partial power loss, often referred to as a “brownout”.

If you’re having regular dimming of the lights in your home, it could be a sign of something pulling too much power periodically.

More often than not, brownouts are a result of something beyond just your home. Some problem on the power grid is reducing power to everyone around, not just you. This type of brownout is not usually a consistent problem. The power company usually deals with these issues quickly.

If you’re having regular dimming of the lights in your home, it could be a sign of something pulling too much power periodically. If your water comes from a well, for example, the well pump might be pulling too much electricity when it kicks on. HVAC equipment sometimes has the same result as it kicks on based on signals from the thermostat.

This is the kind of thing that demands the presence of a qualified electrician because it usually means more than one issue is at play.

Electric Keeps Tripping

Thankfully the most common electrical issue is also one of the easiest to solve.

If you’re tripping breakers in your house on a regular basis, there are two things to check first.

  1. Do you have too much stuff plugged in to a single circuit? If you’ve ever seen Chevy Chase in Christmas Vacation you know what can happen when you plug too much stuff into one outlet. You might not know, however, that many of your outlets are wired together. As a group they are what’s referred to as a “circuit.” So one loaded power strip on each of three side-by-side outlets could be the same as three full power strips on one single plug.
  2. Is the breaker just old and worn out? If you aren’t running much power at all through a circuit and the breaker is tripping anyway, sometimes it just means you need to replace the breaker. This is far more likely in older homes than newer homes. Breakers aren’t hard to replace, but doing so requires getting into the electrical panel. Only very experienced and qualified individuals should be opening your electrical panel and they should never do so without turning the main power completely off somewhere before it gets to that panel.

Of course, as with almost everything else in the electrical troubleshooting world, there is always the possibility that your breaker is tripping because of loose wiring somewhere in your walls or attic. So always take this kind of thing seriously and have an electrician check it out.