Troubleshooting a Power Outage

Photo: scottbb/flickrA power outage in your house or apartment is a major inconvenience -- that's one thing every homeowner will agree on. However, the reason behind the outage is not so clear-cut. You may be left without electricity due to a number of different factors. Here's how to troubleshoot an electrical outage, together with suggested solutions.

If the Power Outage Affects Your Neighbors Also

Investigate to see whether the power failure is limited to just a part of your home. If you're working in the kitchen, for example, try clicking on a light switch in the living room. If the electricity is not functional anywhere in your house, look outside. See whether lights are visible at your neighbors' or phone them to ask if they have power. In an apartment building, look to see whether the hallway lights are on.

When the power outage affects more than just your home, call your local utility company to report the problem and see if they can give you an estimate of how long it will take to repair. Turn off your light switches and unplug electrical devices to protect them from power surge damage when the service is restored.

If the Problem is Limited to Your Home

When the problem is limited to your home -- or only one part of your home -- grab a flashlight if necessary and take a look at the GFCI receptacle, circuit breaker, main breaker, or fuse box to troubleshoot the electrical failure. On a GFCI outlet, try pushing the reset button. Otherwise, see whether a breaker has tripped or a fuse has blown.

When the Main Breaker Trips or Branch Breakers Can't Be Reset

Turn off or unplug as many appliances and electronic devices as possible throughout your home. Go back to the circuit breaker and flip all the breakers off. Turn the main breaker switch on and off several times, finishing in the "on" position. Then reset each of the breakers, one at a time. If this causes the main breaker to trip or if you are unable to reset one of the branch breakers, you'll know that you have a problem with that circuit, which will need electrical repair.

If Reconnecting an Electrical Device Causes a Tripped Branch Breaker

If, on the other hand, you have no trouble resetting the branch breakers and the main breaker does not trip, the problem may be due to a faulty appliance or other piece of electrical equipment. Narrow down the possibilities by reconnecting all devices that were plugged in previously, one by one, to see whether any of them causes a tripped breaker. If so, repair or replace the item.

When the Main Breaker Trips Repeatedly

You may find that the main breaker trips repeatedly but there are no apparent electrical problems. Keep track of when this usually happens. It could be that running a large number of appliances at the same time is drawing current in excess of the main breaker's capacity and resulting in an overload of your electrical system. (Often the culprit can be a relatively small appliance that uses a great deal of current, such as a blow dryer or space heater.) There are 2 solutions to this problem: 1) reduce the load on your electrical system or 2) hire a licensed electrician to upgrade your home's electric panel.

Power Outage Safety Tips

1. When troubleshooting a power failure, never touch your breaker panel or fuse box with wet hands or while standing in water.

2. Do not use any tools to flip the breakers or replace fuses -- this can be easily done by hand.

3. Avoid touching your electric meter.

4. Consider installation of a surge suppressor to protect your valuable electronics and appliances against damage due to power surges.

5. Keep your local electric company's emergency contact information in an easily accessible place, together with your account number.

6. Make sure you always have a flashlight or battery-powered LED lamp close at hand.

Laura Firszt writes for

Updated December 24, 2017.

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