It’s a normal weeknight – you are brushing your teeth for bed, and notice when turning your sink off that the tap has left a tingling sensation or zapping impression behind in your fingertips. Maybe your evening shower including a shocking experience – that high-frequency humming up and down your spine that grips you and won’t let you cry out. Terrifying! Going up the stairs to bed, as you switch off the hall chandelier the light dims and flickers before going out completely; on the other hand, your bedroom light is dim when you turn it on, then brightens. Moments later, it repeats this cycle a couple more times. Signs of a paranormal presence? Indications that your home is occupied by something beyond the mortal ken?
While this may or may not be possible, odds are highly against it being probable. There can be a technical, logical explanation for your home behaving this way. Always troubleshoot your appliances, lights, and bulbs for trouble when you notice such behavior. Check light bulbs to make sure they are tightly fitted into their sockets, and that you are using the right kind of bulb – and size – for the lamp. Unplug wall lamps and check the cords and fitting to see if they are damaged, broken, or loose – especially the plug, as loose plugs can cause all kinds of interesting electrical issues. If you are dealing with a faulty outlet, testing something like a radio or hair dryer is a quick way to test if it is working correctly. Fluorescent tube lights do also flicker when the contacts are dirty, the ballasts are failing, or the lights themselves are nearing the end of their life span.
If this still doesn’t seem to resolve issues, then look at your appliances during usage. Are the lights flickering and the microwave making funny noises at the same time? Or your coffeemaker perking oddly while your recessed lighting makes you feel like you are in a nightclub? Sometimes, this can be an indication of a more serious problem in the wiring for your home. One of the ways this can happen is through what is called a ‘neutral fail’ or ‘float’. The most common symptoms a household can experience when their neutral conductor isn’t working is for the different appliances and lighting to make the various wiring circuits push and pull their current sporadically, and not provide the right voltage. This voltage inequality can burn out light bulbs and fry your expensive appliances and electronics.
The worst part is that if the neutral is not there to provide a path of least resistance for electricity, it will flow through what it can, where it can. A common path is a buildings water service, because it is metal, offers less resistance than building materials, and is buried in the ground. When a return neutral current does run through building materials such as wood, electrifying those materials can desiccate the moisture within and leave a huge fire hazard in those dried out, electrified pieces. Another common path can be through a coax or cable system that is bonded to a neutral conductor. This can result in poor television and internet service and even melting cables. There is an interesting ‘forensic electrical story’ about just such an incident here. This problem can also be encountered in campgrounds service pedestals where RVs are dependant on systems which tend to take a lot of high-traffic use and not be maintained as carefully as one might wish.
Why does this happen to an electrical system where there is no neutral return path of low or least resistance? The best explanation I’ve read so far comes from this now-defunct section of Amazon, askville.amazon.com. Below is an excerpt; the whole article can be found here.
Perhaps the illustration that will be relevant for you is a seesaw. you have load “a” on one side of the seesaw. this represents about half of the 120V appliances, lights, etc, and half of all the 240V appliances. load “b” is on the other side of the seesaw, and has the other half of the 240V appliances, and the remainder of the 120V stuff. as they go up and down, parts of the load will be getting on and off of the seesaw, and it will never be perfectly in balance. Now visualize a person, who stands in the middle of the seesaw and lifts on one side or the other of the center point to keep the seesaw in balance. This is an illustration of the function of the neutral wire.
In an electrical system, the neutral wire connects to the midpoint of the transformer that reduces the transmission voltage to your household voltage. in a 120/240V system, the voltage from either end of the transformer to the center is 110-120V. the voltage from end to end is 240V. a load that is “in balance” carries the voltage from one end of the transformer to the other. This could be a 240V appliance like a water heater, or it could be two matching light bulbs on opposite phases. a load that is not “in balance” has different current flows at the midpoint connection, and the amount of current that is not “in balance” flows out of the neutral wire to the midpoint of the transformer.
The result of a failed neutral wire is frequently dramatic. If you return to the seesaw illustration, imagine that you have the half of the house that is on the “a” side all on, while very little of the “b” side is on. the “neutral” balancer slips and falls. The “a” side will come crashing down to the ground, while the “b” side flings upward, possibly even falling off the seesaw.
In an electrical system without a neutral, the voltage used will be divided across the midpoint of the circuit. the further out of balance the circuit is, the larger the voltage difference. I have measured fault voltages as far off balance as 180-190V on one side, and 50-60 volts on the other. This will quickly and efficiently fry most household appliances, and will (on the high side) rapidly burn out light bulbs.
If you experience any symptoms like this in your home, it is kind of neat to think you are haunted – but most likely, you just need an electrician.
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This is an original article written by Mai Bjorklund for Swartz Electric. This article may not be copied whole or in part without the express permission of Swartz Electric, LLC.
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