Troubleshooting a Dead Outlet: 4 Reasons Outlets Have No Power

A dead outlet can be difficult to troubleshoot when you do not know why there is no power coming in. Not only is it inconvenient, but it is also frustrating. 

A dead outlet may be because of a tripped circuit breaker or a loose wire connection. In some cases, it may be because your outlet has a Ground Fault Circuit Interrupter (GFCI) that has tripped. Finally, the outlet may be dead because it is damaged or has old wiring.

To troubleshoot dead outlets, you need first to know the reasons outlets may not have power. 

Let’s explore why your outlet has no power and what you can do to restore it.

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Why Would An Outlet Suddenly Stop Working?

Some reasons that may contribute to why your outlet stopped working would be the following:

Due To A Tripped Circuit Breaker

The circuit breaker is an automatic device used as a safety measure to interrupt the flow of current when an overflow is detected in the outlet. If there is a dangerous overflow of electric current, the circuit breaker trips, shutting off the current to the outlet.

The circuit breaker would trip for the following reasons:

  • Circuit overload
  • Ground fault
  • Short circuit

Circuit overload occurs when the outlet receives more amperage than it was designed to receive. When you plug too many appliances or devices into the outlet, you may cause a circuit overload. In some cases, loose connections can result in a circuit overload.

A ground fault is when an active wire comes into contact with the ground wire. When the electrical current finds a path to the grounded part of the junction box or electrical appliance/tool, it causes an uncontrolled flow of power which trips the circuit breaker.

A ground fault can cause electrocution if you come into contact with the current’s path on the ground. 

A short circuit is a result of an active and neutral wire touching each other. When the wires touch, they cause a large influx of current, overloading the circuit quickly, causing a short circuit. The current flows through an unintended path, which is the neutral wire, causing the overload.

The typical signs of a short circuit include a popping sound, smoke, and sparks. You may also hear the fuse blow up. The active and neutral wires may touch pests like rats chewing on them or a loose connection and slipped wires. These causes are traceable to a faulty electrical switch, appliance, fixture, or plug.

A short circuit poses a fire hazard.

Due To A Bad Connection Or Damaged Wiring

A bad connection featuring loose screws and damaged wires can be the cause of the dead outlet. All the wiring and connections for an outlet are inside the junction box. This box is mandatory according to state and federal electrical codes. 

The junction box can be metal or plastic. Inside the box, loose wires or screws coming off could cause the connections to supply little to no power to the outlet. 

The electrical connections and wiring in a junction box are intricate. So when a problem occurs in the box, it is always best to call an electrician to diagnose the issue. 

Here is how to tell if the problem is in the junction box:

  • Hearing a buzzing sound coming from the box
  • Seeing flickering or dimming lights
  • Burn mark discoloration on the box due to excessive heat
  • The odor of something burning or hot metal
  • Extreme heat emanating from the box
  • Seeing frayed wiring or chewed on wires

The Outlet Is A Ground Fault Circuit Interrupter (GFCI)

A GFCI outlet features a circuit interrupter that reduces the chances of electrical shock. The GFCI outlet cuts off electricity when the flow of electric current follows an unintended path, like in a short circuit. 

A GFCI outlet will cut off the power directly at the outlet. These outlets feature in damp areas like the 

  • Bathroom
  • Kitchen 
  • Laundry room
  • Basement
  • Garage
  • Swimming pools

And other areas where water is likely to be in use or to pool. They are a favorite with electricians to mitigate ground faults. GFCI outlets are mandatory according to the National Electrical Code (NEC)

How Do I Find A Dead Electrical Outlet?

Finding a dead outlet requires troubleshooting, and the following tips should be the first things you do in this order.

Check The Appliance

If the appliance doesn’t work across multiple outlets, then the item is the problem.

The problem may not be with the outlet, but with the appliance, you are using. So, begin by plugging the appliance into the “dead” outlet. And then plug into another outlet in the house. If the device works, then your suspicions about the previous outlet being dead were correct.

Ensure The Switch Is On

Always check to see if the switch to the outlet is on or off. Electricians sometimes come to fix dead outlets only to find the switch is off. 

A lamp is always a good item to test the outlets with. Plug the lamp into the dead outlet and flip on the switches in the room one after another. Sometimes, the switch corresponding to the outlet may be placed in another section of the room.

Check The GFCI Outlets

As earlier mentioned, the GFCI outlets protect you from an electric shock by tripping and shutting off the power at the outlet. 

These outlets come with two buttons: Reset and Test.

If you are dealing with a tripped GFCI outlet, you will notice the RESET button protruding outward more. All you have to do is push the reset button back into place, and the outlet goes back to functioning as usual.

Some GFCI outlets do not come with the two buttons. However, they connect to another GFCI outlet that features the buttons. This connection is known as the daisy chain. It means that the GFCI outlets connect in a linear series. So it can affect others when on outlet trips. 

Look for the second outlet and push the reset button back into place.

Search For The Problem In The Circuit Panel

The circuit breakers are in the circuit panel in between the on and off buttons. A tripped breaker will be off. So to set it back to functioning, you need to flip it back to the on position. 

Test the outlet using the lamp to see if it will come on.

How Do You Fix Electrical Outlets Without Power

It is always advisable to know what to look for in case an outlet doesn’t work. But it is best to have an electrician come and check the situation if you can’t figure out where the problem lies.

If you identify where the problem is and can fix it, ensure you adhere to the following safety tips:

Turn Off The Electricity In Your House

To do this, go to the electrical panel and look for the service disconnect label. It may also appear as the “Main” label. 

Now flip the switch on the service disconnect/main to off. You are safe to work on the outlet because no electricity is flowing into the outlets. 

Disconnect The Outlet From The Junction Box

It is always best to remove the outlet and work on it outside the junction box. Working from within the junction box increases the possibility that you may loosen other wires or connections, leading to a more significant problem than you are facing.

To remove the outlet, you should remove the faceplate of the junction box. You will find a set of screws holding the outlet in place. Unscrew and remove the outlet.

You can proceed to check the outlet for issues like loose connections or damaged wires. 

Check All The Electrical Connections

Wires connect to the outlet in two ways:

  • On terminal screws found on the outlet’s side
  • In slots located in the back 

If you notice any frayed wires, do not touch them. If you need to tug on the wires, it is always best to put on insulated gloves like the National Safety Apparel Class 0 Black Rubber Insulating Glove Kit.

If you are lucky, the problem could be as simple as loose wires that you can put back into place.

Reset The Circuit Breaker

If the problem is a circuit breaker, reset it by switching it off and then on again. Sometimes, the circuit breaker may appear okay, but it has actually tripped. 

So, switch the breaker on and off even if it appears fine.

Having checked all the above, go to all the outlets in the house and unplug them before you switch the main/service disconnect back on. That ensures that your appliances are safe and do not bear the brunt of an electric current overload.

After that, you can plug in one appliance at a time, testing the troubled outlet to see if it is back to work. If it doesn’t, you need professional help.

It is essential to remember that should you notice burn marks around or chewed wires emanating from the outlet, call an electrician. That is the safest thing you can do.

Are Dead Electrical Outlets Dangerous?

A dead outlet is dangerous because it can pose a fire risk depending on what the trouble is. Do not ignore a dead outlet. 

When an outlet receives excess heat from the source, the insulation around the wiring begins to melt, exposing the wires. 

Exposed wires are highly likely to short circuit and cause a fire. All it takes is for the wires to make a connection, and sparks will fly.

Some people live with dead outlets for years, but they remain dangerous all the same. Think of ignored dead outlets like a dormant volcano bubbling deep in its bowels where no one knows what is happening.

According to the Electrical Safety Foundation International (EFSI), electrical fires make up around 51,000 fires annually. They are also responsible for more than 500 deaths and 1400 injuries, not to mention the billions of dollars in damaged property.

It is crucial to fix dead outlets as soon as you notice them.

How To Maintain Electrical Safety 

  • Ensure that your home/building is regularly inspected by a qualified electrician when installing the electrical system. That guarantees that your structure meets all the electrical safety provisions required by NEC (National Electrical Code).
  • Schedule an inspection regularly to ensure the outlets work well, and the electric system is sound.
  • Install smoke detectors inside all the rooms in the house, including the corridors.
  • Invest in safety devices that recognize dangerous conditions even before standard devices like smoke detectors detect them. Consider AFCI devices that protect you against fires by arcing the faults in your electrical system.
  • Utilize light bulbs that match the wattage stipulated on the fixtures
  • Always look out for signs of electrical issues like dim lights, scorched junction boxes, buzzing or sizzling sounds, and burning odors. 

Call the electrician in case of any dead outlets that you can’t figure out.

Consider Using AFCIs

Arc Fault Circuit Interrupters (AFCIs) are mandatory by the National Electrical Code. These circuit breakers mitigate an arc fault. An arc fault is an unintended electric arc because of current coursing through an unplanned path. 

Advanced electronic technology detects the dangerous arcing vis-a-vis normal arcing. For example, in the home, appliances like the vacuum cleaner create normal arcs as they run. 

An abnormal/dangerous arc will cause fire to break out in the electric panel. The AFCIs mitigate such arcs by using technology to sense the various arcing conditions. If the arc causes conditions that could lead to a fire, the AFCI circuit breaker trips.

The difference between a GFCI and an AFCI is that the former protects people from electric shock occurring from an energized ground. On the other hand, the latter protects the circuit wiring from igniting an electric fire from a dead outlet.

It is safer to install an AFCI breaker than to use a standard circuit breaker.

Take A Dead Outlet Seriously

Most people do not think about potential hazards when plugging devices into an outlet. And when they notice the outlet is not working, they view it more as a nuisance than a hazard.

A dead outlet can not only ignite a fire, but it can also cause electrocution. That is why it is best to leave it to professionals that know how to diagnose and rectify the problem.

You may figure out the problem. But if you don’t have the equipment or know-how to resolve it, it is best to avoid dealing with a dead outlet and let the professionals handle it.

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Hubert Miles

I've been conducting home inspections for 17 years. I'm a licensed Home Inspector, Certified Master Inspector (CMI), and FHA 203k Consultant. I started HomeInspectionInsider.com to help people better understand the home inspection process and answer questions about homeownership and home maintenance.

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