General Question

LuckyGuy's avatar

Is there a tester that helps find a break in house wiring?

Asked by LuckyGuy (37852points) July 2nd, 2010

Suddenly, half of the outlets on one circuit breaker stopped working. I shut off the breaker then turned it back on again with no change. I live in a older house so it is possible Micky Mouse chewed through a wire. One outlet has a switch on it and that light worked but the outlet did not.

To get things going I hooked the working wire to the dead outlet and now everything works fine. (I know this is not code but it works as a temporary fix. In fact I can argue it is safer because there is no voltage difference between the two cut ends. Any way, that’s what I told my wife.)

Is there an electrical tester that lets you follow a wire until there is a break? I imagine some kind of radio transmitter that would attach to the electrical box and a pen-sized receiver that you could hold near the wall to follow the wire. It sure would be handy.

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18 Answers

jrpowell's avatar

You could get a Hotstick. But that would cost more then having a electrician come out and put in a new wire.

There are some tools to find the break but those are usually used by utility companies and are not accurate over short distances.

I would just spend the hundred bucks to have the wire replaced.

LuckyGuy's avatar

@johnpowell Thanks. That is sort of the idea. But, to use it as I want, I would have to cut the power to everything except that line. Before I start digging around in the walls I want to know where the wiring is located: in the wall? in the ceiling? in the floor?

I was thinking along the lines of a small battery operated box that transmitted a frequency into the wiring. You open the circuit breaker, plug in the box to any outlet on the run and it makes your house wiring a weak transmitter. Wave the magic wand receiver over the wires until it stops. There’s your break. You plug the box into an outlet on the other side and confirm. Fast and easy.

I’m an independent guy. My daddy taught me it is better to spend the money on tools and learn to fix things yourself.

If this tool does not exist, it should. There! I gave away a great idea. Enjoy.
Pssst, someone in China is making it as we speak.

jrpowell's avatar

They do make a tool that you plug into the outlet and you wave the pen part over the breaker and it beeps. But that is worthless for finding a break. It just says this outlet goes to this breaker. Unfortunately it is so weak that you couldn’t trace a wire through a wall with it.

Edit :: I take that back.. I used ours at movie theaters. Most of the walls were cinder block. It could work on drywall. I don’t remember who made them. But I know it wasn’t Fluke. They were pretty cheap.

I googled and I am having zero luck finding them.

LuckyGuy's avatar

Thanks for checking. I looked around for it too but could nit find it. I’m willing to bet some electrician has two in his tool box.

dpworkin's avatar

A continuity tester. You can get one at Home Depot.

boffin's avatar

It’s possible that the actual breaker is bad… It’s a switch and the switch is the weakest link in a circuit. Plus it’s possible that one of the legs have come loose or have been spiked by a recent wall hanging?

LuckyGuy's avatar

@boffin @dpworkin
The breaker is fine. The problem is half the outlets work the other half don’t. I know which ones are good and which are bad. The issue is trying to find the break. It is in the wall someplace. I want to limit the amount of damage I have to do to fix this.
I already checked the connection on the outlets on both sides of the break and they are tight. I have a multimeter and know the power, neutral and ground connections are good.

Where’s X-ray vision when you need it.

stratman37's avatar

on a related note, guys, what’s the first thing you do when you get shocked by a hot wire?

you look around to see if anyone SAW you! Am I right?

LuckyGuy's avatar

@stratman37 Exactly! And if someone did see me I say, “I meant to do that.”

alamo's avatar

There are testers like that out there. I got one at home depot. It’s for phone lines, if the power isn’t off it’s fried. Also, if the wire was too deep in the wall , it lost the signal. However, if you find a break in the wall, you have to repair the wire in a box with access. It can be just adding an outlet or a blank cover, but to repair a wire behind a wall then cover the hole is unsafe and violates electrical code.
If you are sure the break is between two outlets, replace the wire from outlet to outlet. HD and Lowes have very long drill bits that are “steerable”. Pull the outlet out of the box, beak up the old box, and use the drill bit to drill a hole in the 2*4 top(or bottom) plate in the wall. After the bit breaks through to an area you can reach, tape the wire to the back of the bit and pull the bit and wire through. Go to the other outlet, and do the same but when it breaks through, tape the wire to the sharp end of the bit and pull it into the hole. Use remodel boxes to replace the boxes that the outlet screws to.
Beware, there may be other things in the wall besides this wire; ie water lines, cable tv lines, other electrical, drain lines, sewer vents etc.
This time it might be worth using an electrician’s expertise and watch him or her work, then go buy some cools new tools.

alamo's avatar

Forgot to add. Sometimes, you can use the old wire to pull the new one between boxes. The wire is supposed to be stapled to the stud very close to the outlet, but sometimes they aren’t.

gondwanalon's avatar

Ask yourself what caused a break in your house wiring? If you can’t think of any reason for the circuit break then check the little circuit breaker in your bathroom outlet. It is usually a small orange button on the outlet by the sink.

Jabe73's avatar

You can buy a cheap multi-meter (most meters already have an ohm/continuity function combined with a voltage tester) at almost anywhere like Wal-Mart, Lowes, Home Depot, Auto-Zone, etc for less than $20. I will try to word this as accurately as I can. You most likely have a break or “open” somewhere with the wire feeding the outlets or a loose connection in a splice somewhere. I do not know your lay-out but I hope this helps. I do not know if all these outlets (ones that work/don’t work) are on the same breaker but I will assume they are. You didn’t mention where in your house the outlets are located, if in the kitchen you may have a tripped GFCI (I know you said it is an older house) but just to eliminate the GFCI (if you have one installed in this circuit).

If the breaker or GFCI (if installed in this circuit) can be eliminated as the problem you will need to have the multi-meter ready and to start following the wire. Turn the breaker off and use your meter to make sure the power is dead to all your outlets than start taking all the outlet covers off you are dealing with (make sure when you check for voltage you have the meter knob on ac voltage and NOT CONTINUITY) or you will damage or destroy your meter! When you know the power is off (check each outlet for voltage) than switch your meter to the lowest ohm setting to check for continuity (always make sure the power is off before checking for ohms/continuity) or your meter is toast. If each wire/cable goes from one outlet to the other you will want to check each connection (from one outlet to the other) for continuity, wiggle the wire at each connection to make sure there are no broken brittle points on the wire that you sometimes can’t see, if there are splices in any of the outlet boxes take the wirenuts off and make sure all the ends of the wires are connected and look for breaks there as well. If all these outlets are on the same circuit the problem is some type of break/loose connection somewhere between the wires feeding each outlet. If the outlets (ones that work/don’t work) are on the same circuit (BE SURE OF THIS) the problem is most likely going to be between the area of the single outlet that works and the next single outlet (next closest outlet) that does not work so check the area between these two outlets first. The biggest thing here is knowing which circuit/s these outlets are on and tracing the wires and eliminating each area between the outlets until you find the open.

Response moderated (Off-Topic)
LuckyGuy's avatar

@alamo It sounds like you’ve done this before. Steerable drill bits. Huh Who knew? I will try this project myself when I get some time after the holiday. So far my quick and diirty jumper in the box is working fine and has not set the house on fire. I made sure the smoke detectors are working. ;-)

@Jabe73 We don’t have GFIs indoors. I’m pretty sure it is a chewed wire. The connections are tight to the outlets on either side of the break so that means there is a break in line. Damn mice. I guess that is the problem with living in the country.

Jabe73's avatar

Depending on local code GFCI outlets are usually required within 6 ft of any water/sink. I’m only going by what little you said, I have fixed these types of problems alot, I did try to explain in laymans terms the best way to find where the break is (without tearing the walls apart) if you want to save money and do this yourself. It is hard to explain over the internet however but I hoped this helped.

alamo's avatar

You mentioned that you live in an older house. Is there aluminum or copper wire? If it’s Al, there is a special“grease” to use at all connections. It is my understanding that aluminum and copper expand and contract at different rates and loosen themselves.
If the two outlets on either side of the suspect break are too far apart to test, use new wire to extend the reach of your tester. Turn off the power, disconnect both ends of the suspect section, then test for continuity. If the two ends are too far from each other for the tester to reach both ends, use a known good length of new wire to make the leads long enough. Try this before you go to the trouble of replacing the wire
Please also remember that electricity can be dangerous. It can be connected incorrectly, seem to work and be very dangerous. I once heard that if you’re not careful, you can wake up dead.

searaycuddy's avatar

This feed is 6 months old so I assume its been resolved by now. But no one mentioned the possibility that an in the run outlet may have been altered for two circuits at one time by breaking the tab between the two coper colored lugs that the hot black wire would attach to in order to continue the feed to the next outlet in line. By connecting the wires together in the box as was indicated, it seems he got power back to the non working outlets if I understand the problem right. Try replacing the last outlet that has the power in it and then try replacing the first non working outlet in the run. I hope this helps someone.

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