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Power Fluctuation - bad neutral suspected but not identified
Asked Oct 16, 2007, 09:43 PM
Thanks, first, for any help we get on here!
We have been experiencing power fluctuation in our home for several months. The home is very old, and we are finding had some corroded parts we had to replace and some strange wiring. The problems basically started when we repaired our washer, which was no longer spinning. After that, we started having flickering lights during the wash cycle.
I called the electric company, and he said it sounded like a neutral problem, but that the levels were fine on their end, and the problem must be in the house. We replaced a few corroded bits on the neutral at the main breaker that the electric company guy had pointed out, but it didn't fix anything. The problem seemed to grow from that and we started getting the flickering lights with other major appliance usage, like the refrigerator going on and off.
The problem was getting worse, and soon we noticed things like not being able to run the microwave and toaster oven at the same time. We got the main panel replaced with a brand new 240V service, something we needed to have done anyway. That didn't fix anything, and in fact the flickering and lack of power has just gotten worse. Sometimes the washer will shut off at spin cycle. Sometimes the microwave just won't heat anything at all without anything else being on.
So today, the electricians put in 5 new circuits, as with the house being older, there were too many things on just a few circuits. The microwave, frig, washer, dryer, etc got new circuits. Unfortunately, we still have the same problems.
Can anyone lend their thoughts? The electrician is coming back tomorrow but I'm afraid a big price tag will come along with identifying the problem. Is there a way to isolate this neutral problem, if that is what we're having? Perhaps identify a particular circuit that is failing so we only have to replace that?
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Senior Electrical & Lighting Expert
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Oct 17, 2007, 02:43 AM
Is the electrician guessing, or is he doing troubleshooting, to find the cause? He should be able to determine which lights and circuits are involved. If the lights flickering are only on the washer circuit, then it is a load issue on that circuit.
Are several circuits involved? Then there is a common problem. If the circuits involved are only on one incoming leg, then that is the common problem. If circuits are on both legs, and some lights are getting brighter than normal, then it is a neutral problem.
The electrician needs to narrow this down, one by the accurate information provided by you as to the exact lights that are affected and when this happens. He should be able to map out the circuit(s) and each outlet, to determine if any load is causing it, or can there be a loose connection.
The flickering can be isolated and measured by using a recording power meter, it can be connected directly at the Main to both hot legs and neutral to determine if the incoming power is the culprit, and if the utility is responsible.
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Oct 17, 2007, 09:14 AM
I feel your pain.
Definitely see if you can get them to put a meter recorder on (I have one now, second time). It may show them what they need to know right quick. Maybe not.
It can be a tedious timely task of making sure it is not your home, and it may not be cheap depending on his labor charges. As you can see you have updated your main panel (same here) and still have issues.
Was the meter socket updated too?(I assume it was)
Before the electrician replaces anything, make sure he can tell you what and why, you are paying for it after all. And then check to make sure what he has said has some merit. Not just guessing.
Mine got worse when it was windy out, evenings. And when they added new poles and transformers to try and fix the problem, each time it had some effect. Good and bad.
We replaced a few corroded bits on the neutral at the main breaker that the electric company guy had pointed out, but it didn't fix anything.
Just remember IF you are doing some of the repairs yourself, ALWAYS use a voltmeter even if you think the circuit is off, and respect those wires they may still be able to hurt you. Protective gloves safety glasses etc..
Slow and safe.
You don't happen to live in IA do you? Some of my neighbors have had similar issues and don't report it to the power company, so how are they to know how widespread the issue is.
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Jan 8, 2008, 08:10 PM
I understand my post is a little late, but this information may be useful to the next guy. I will review my recent situation. Please note that I live in a Pennsylvania townhome that is about 30 years old.
1. 6 months ago, whenever our washing machine was on the agitator cycle, all of the lights in the house, ALL of them, would blink in sync with the washing machine. Once the cycle completed and the washing machine was soaking, rinsing, or spinning, the lights would return to normal.
2. I did some light Google research but found nothing helpful. I recall some weak suggestions about a power filter because the washing machine might be causing interference or some junk
3. The problem eventually just went away, but we had the blinking lights problem for so long, I didn't even notice that it wasn't happening anymore
4. 3 weeks ago, I was sitting in our living room while my wife started the washing machine. You guessed it, blinking lights again during the agitator cycle. I was upset, but again assumed this situation was just something I had to accept.
5. Then, the lights in our house started to blink at random times, independent of the washing machine. Next, some lights would just dim or brighten, again randomly.
6. Since we live in a townhome, I thought maybe we were experiencing a problem that was generally affecting our little group of homes. So, when our lights would blink or dim, I would listen for any major appliances engaging at nearby homes, for example, a heat pump or something like that. I never found anything that I could associate with the blinking or dimming lights.
6a. I ask a neighbor if they have had any problems and they say NO
7. 3 days ago, my wife went to use our Microwave in the kitchen, and while the microwave started, the lights in the microwave were very dim, it didn't heat the food, and it just sounded like it didn't have enough power. At the same time, half of the lights in our house became dim. Our refrigerator, on the same circuit as the Microwave, also sounded like it wasn't getting enough power.
8. So I at this point conclude that there is a definite problem worth pursuing, even with NFL playoff games in full swing.
9. First the random quick attempts at troubleshooting and fixing.
9a. Unplug microwave, lights are still dim and refrigerator sounds weak
9b. Plug in microwave, unplug fridge, microwave still won't work right
9c. Turn off breaker for kitchen circuit killing microwave and fridge, half the lights in the house are still dim
9d. Turn breaker back on
9e. Turn off all breakers in house except kitchen, microwave still won't work right, kitchen lights still dim
10. Like with all good troubleshooting, I ask my wife to try non-microwaveable meals while I step away from the problem for an hour, with the full intention of resuming troubleshooting with voltmeter and notebook in hand, to actually write down what I'm doing and start eliminating things
11. Measure voltage in microwave outlet and voltage is low, like 110V, normally 120V
12. Measure voltage of outlet on another circuit, fortunately on the other phase as well, and voltage is high, 130V
12a. Plug microwave into outlet on this other circuit, while measuring voltage on circuit, microwave still won't work and voltage drops from 130V to 100V, while lights in kitchen brighten
13. Remove cover from breaker box and measure voltage on all circuits to ground: half of circuits, alternating down each row in the circuit breaker, are 100V, the other are 140V
14. Measure main service connections inside breaker box to ground, one is 140V, other is 100V
15. Measure across both main service connections: 240V
16. Turn off main power breaker and measure main service connections as they enter breaker box: 125V and 115V
17. Power back on main and measure service connections again in breaker box: 125V and 115V
18. Try microwave again on circuit that is reading 125V and microwave still won't work
19. Conclude that I have an electrical problem affecting my entire house, possibly caused by the Power Company
20. Google research and learn of "bad neutral" from Power Company, also learn that power company typically denies this problem and may take a while to fix it
21. Decide to call Power Company
22. First call my friend who does underground for the power company, he doesn't answer
23. Call power company and enter phone menu, select electrical problem, dim or flickering lights, and since it is after 6PM on a Sunday, the phone menu tells me to call back on Monday during business hours
24. I start recording voltage on each service line to ground every hour and observe generally fluctuating voltages, but they always add up to 240V and my 240V appliances: hot water heater, stove, electric furnace, they all work fine
25. Call Power Company first thing Monday morning, they interpret my report of dim, flickering lights as "low voltage problem" and indicate that a crew will be dispatched
26. No one is dispatched, I am not contacted, I call back at end of day and they basically say no one responded to the call, wait until the next day
27. That night, I unplug damn near everything in my house, and get the worst voltage reading yet: one service line: 165V, the other 75V. This is a fire hazard if something blows up. I unplug everything except a fan in my bedroom. Can't sleep so I hear the fan powering up and down all night long.
28. Call Power Company first thing the following morning, Tuesday, and they indicate that a crew has been dispatched.
29. A technician arrives at the house, reviews the problem with my wife, perhaps reads my notes and voltage logs, and concludes that we have a Power Company problem, requiring a new meter
30. He installs a new power meter and mentions that a wire was damaged.
31. Power returns to normal. I can only assume that this was a bad neutral but I will follow up with the power company to see if they can provide any details, particularly if I find a damaged appliance as a result of these voltage problems.
32. My power company-employeed friend finally calls me back, listens briefly to my description of the problem, and quickly indicates that it is a bad neutral line
So to summarize, I did the basic voltmeter troubleshooting and luckily had the power company repair the problem within one day of reporting the issue, without involving an electrician, and my house didn't burn down.
My dryer still doesn't dry clothes in a reasonable amount of time, my wife thinks our electric heater is broken, our toilet runs excessively and I don't have a door on my pantry or shelves in our bedroom closet.
But hey, that's what the weekend is for.
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Jan 9, 2008, 06:44 AM
Similar problem at my place in November. House was completely rewired in April/May. My voltages were 196 on one leg, 43 on the other. Power company said, "Oh, sounds like you lost a neutral." They came out on a Sunday evening, pulled my meter, used a "Beast of Burden" test meter and confirmed. Problem was on their side, between transformer and my meter, so they simply put a jumper on the neutral feed to my service entry ahead of the mast head. All good since.
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Feb 11, 2010, 07:51 AM
We've had the same problems for a couple of years here in Maryland. Sometimes a space heater would run faster at the point when the furnace blower was in startup mode! The power company (Pepco) came out during one summer and trimmed a 30' arborvitae at the corner of the house where the lines were. No difference except that the tree looked bad. Saturday 010610 just after the second blizzard of the season the tree keeled over with the snow weight and took the power and optical lines with it. After 60 hours in the cold Pepco reattached the power line to the pole and we now have strong, absolutely flicker-free electricity--- it's like a new house. The dishwasher doesn't quit in mid cycle, the microwave is strong and the range solenoids no longer click when there is a load applied somewhere in the house.
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