13 Dec

Power Outages: What To Do

GFCI outlet to prevent power outagesPower outages in your home can be a big nuisance. As an electrical contractor, we get calls all the time about an appliance, a fixture or just an electric outlet with no power. Many of these are situations where a Ground Fault Circuit Interrupter, or GFCI, has tripped. The reason it doesn’t have power could be because someone had something plugged in, such as a power tool, that demanded too much power, or water may have come in to contact with the plug.
In most cases, the problem is simple and doesn’t require an electrician to solve it.

Power Outages: What To Do

If you find yourself dealing with nuisance power outages when you go to plug something into an outlet, the first thing to do is to check your GFCI outlets. You can tell if you have GFCI outlets by the buttons on them that read ‘reset’ and ‘test.’ See if the small red (sometimes black), button is protruding away from the face of the outlet. If it is, simply press it back into place and check your power again.
Be aware that sometimes one or more outlets are connected to a single GFCI outlet, which means they are sharing the same circuit for power. In other words, if the GFCI outlet trips, creating a power outage, any outlet connected to it will also be without power. So, you may find yourself with power outages in multiple locations in your house.
Finally, it’s a good idea to check, at least annually, if your GFCI outlets are working properly. They are normally installed in rooms such as bathrooms, kitchens, or outdoors. These are areas where the presence of water could create a dangerous situation. Remember: water, humans and electricity together don’t mix! Should the GFCI ever get wet, it automatically turns the power off to that circuit. Once the area is dry and safe, the outlet can be reset. Testing these outlets regularly will increase yours and your family’s safety and decrease your annoyance with plugs that don’t work.
A complete description of GFCI outlets is posted below, courtesy of How Stuff Works“. 
The outlet pictured above is called a ground-fault circuit interrupter (GFCI). It’s there to protect people from electrical shock, so it is completely different from a fuse

The question on appliance plugs talks about fuses. The idea behind a fuse is to protect a house from an electrical fire. If the hot wire were to accidentally touch the neutral wire for some reason (say, because a mouse chews through the insulation, or someone drives a­ nail through the wire while hanging a picture, or the vacuum cleanersucks up an outlet cord and cuts it), an incredible amount of current will flow through the circuit and start heating it up like one of the coils in a toaster. The fuse heats up faster than the wire and burns out before the wire can start a fire.

 A GFCI is much more subtle. When you look at a normal 120-volt outlet in the United States, there are two vertical slots and then a round hole centered below them. The left slot is slightly larger than the right. The left slot is called “neutral,” the right slot is called “hot” and the hole below them is called “ground.” If an appliance is working properly, all electricity that the appliance uses will flow from hot to neutral. A GFCI monitors the amount of current flowing from hot to neutral. If there is any imbalance, it trips the circuit. It is able to sense a mismatch as small as 4 or 5 milliamps, and it can react as quickly as one-thirtieth of a second.

So let’s say you are outside with your power drill and it is raining. You are standing on the ground, and since the drill is wet there is a path from the hot wire inside the drill through you to ground. 

 If electricity flows from hot to ground through you, it could be fatal. The GFCI can sense the current flowing through you because not all of the current is flowing from hot to neutral as it expects — some of it is flowing through you to ground. As soon as the GFCI senses that, it trips the circuit and cuts off the electricity.

If you have an older home and would like to have GFCI’s installed in areas where your electrical appliances may come into contact with water, we would be happy to provide this service for you. We’ll help you prevent those annoying power outages that take up time you don’t have.  Call us today at 503-252-4700. We service your electrical needs on the West Side, including Beaverton, Lake Oswego and Tigard, and on the East Side, including West Linn, Gresham, and Troutdale.

About Karen Mares

A Portlander born and raised, Karen lives in Southwest Portland with her husband and children. Karen has kept journals throughout her life, and she began her personal blog, Random Thoughts From A Suburban Mom in 2007. She hasn't stopped writing since, channeling her passion for words and information into writing and communicating through social media and blogging.