What Is an Open Hot: Troubleshooting Dead Outlets

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Electric power has become a massive part of our everyday activities. And one of the most common issues that may hinder us from enjoying the gift that’s electricity is an open hot. But what is an open hot, and how do you troubleshoot and fix an open hot?

An open hot (aka as a dead outlet) means a hot wire that should be energized has lost power or has come loose. Troubleshooting an open hot involves:

  • Checking wall swithes to determine if the outlet is switch-operated
  • Checking for a tripped breaker inside the electrical panel box
  • Checking for tripped a GFCI outlet or circuit breaker
  • Checking for tripped AFCI circuit breakers or wall protectors
  • Checking for loose or broken wires

Whichever, the problem needs to be located and fixed. 

Read on as I walk you through everything you need to know about hot wires.

What is an Open Hot Wire?

An open hot is a live wire disconnected somewhere because it is loose or has ultimately come out.

A home supplied with electric power has wiring installed throughout the house, but these wires are just wires if they do not have electricity flowing through them.

A wire, preferably one that supplies electricity, is connected to a circuit for this to happen.

When it is connected, it is said to be closed, and when it is not connected, it is said to be open.

Hot, on the other hand, refers to a wire that is live and active; this hot wire is the one that receives power and circulates it for use throughout the house, e.g., in lighting, sockets, and other outlets in the home.

What Causes an Open Hot?

Overloads are the most common cause of an open hot.

When household appliances or devices draw more power than the voltage on the distribution service panel, the circuit breaker might trip, or the wire that supplies electricity could go loose because it can’t support that amount of voltage.

Some smaller electrical fixtures or appliances may also draw more power than they can handle. Still, because the supply box carries much more voltage than it should, the breaker circuit fails to go off automatically. As a result, it damages an appliance or melts a wire making the accident a classic example of an open hot.

Is an Open Hot Dangerous?

An open hot circuit can be dangerous, especially if it involves loose or damaged electrical wiring. If left unfixed, it could cause problems in the entire wiring system or pose a greater risk of an accidental electrical fire.

Thanks to our constant use of electricity around the home and the dependence of home appliances on electric power, it is easy to notice when the power goes out in the house immediately.

Locating the open hot disconnect source when it is apparent that there is power in the lines or other parts of the home and absent in others is the problem that needs quick fixing.

Electrical connections are supposed to stay tight to keep them developing resistance. Resistance is the measure of opposition in electric lines that makes it hard for electrons to flow easily.

When there is resistance, heat spreads along the hot wire, and if not fixed with speed, the heat can potentially burn up the connection plus any other wire in the vicinity, which makes it more dangerous.

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How To Troubleshoot And Fix An Open Hot

Calling an electrician immediately when presented with an open hot is always the best thing to do to troubleshoot or fix the issue.

But just in case a professional won’t be available anytime soon, here are the steps an electrician does when fixing an open hot:

An electrician must trace where the problem is located in the wiring system to fix an open hot disconnect. But since an open hot was not intended, locating the problem may involve disturbing every other available connection, outlet, and wire until the faulty one is found.

Typically, electric power flows from the utility line through the primary meter outside to the house’s service panel. The current is distributed everywhere else in the home, e.g., the kitchen, the living room, and the bathroom.

Each circuit has its separate circuit breaker. These circuit breakers sometimes hold different voltages according to the needs of that specified outlet.

The breakers automatically trip to cut off the power supply when too much power is drawn, which could otherwise cause damage to outlets or appliances.

On the other hand, existing buildings rarely experience this kind of problem because their electrical systems have been tried and tested. Not unless they do not have the proper circuit breakers.

New buildings with new electrical fixtures may have to worry less about this in the future, too, as they have to undergo the below tests to get a clean bill of safety:

  1. Earth loop test.
  2. Conductivity test.
  3. Resistance test.

Testing For Continuity in an Electric Conductor

By observing the breaker circuit from the service panel, an electrician can pretty much tell where the problem possibly lies, whether it is in the lighting, in the sockets, or other outlets.

And because most open hot disconnects are out of sight, it means a switch or an outlet has suffered internal damage.

After an electrician has identified the circuit with the problem from the service panel, he now has to perform what is called a continuity test to verify if that particular line is open or closed.

An electrician has always to have tools to help him successfully carry out the jobs. 

These tools usually include:

  1. Utility knife
  2. Wire stripper
  3. Multimeter
  4. Screwdriver
  5. Pliers
  6. Test light
  7. Tape measure
  8. Voltage tester
  9. Torch

With proper tools, a test is carried, and the source of the problem is identified. For example, it may be an appliance switch, a light, a socket, thermostats, or a fuse.

Unlike in current and voltage testing, where measuring is conducted while the power is on, a continuity test is performed with the power switched off.

When testing for continuity, an electrician is required to determine whether electric power flows between two separate points. It is done by checking for the presence of resistance, and resistance is measured through ohms.

For example, point 1 is where the service panel unit is located, and point 2 is at a randomly selected outlet within the house. In this example, continuity is determined if the circuit that begins from the service panel finds its way to the outlet that services house appliances.

To perform a continuity test requires the use of either one of these two;

  1. Multi-meter.
  2. A dedicated continuity tester.

1. Using a Multi-Meter to Test for Continuity

A multimeter is an electrical instrument often used when conducting a continuity test in an electrical circuit in a home to determine whether the wire is broken or continuous.

A multimeter which is also called a volt-ohm-milliammeter does just that. It also happens to be a standard measuring instrument that electricians mostly use to measure multiple electrical properties, which are:

  • Voltage (volts).
  • Resistance (ohms).
  • Current (amps).

There is an analog multimeter and a digital multimeter. 

An analog multimeter which is still very much in use today uses a microammeter with a moving pointer to display its readings. In contrast, a digital multimeter does the same job but with greater ease, efficiency, and accuracy.

2. Using a Dedicated Continuity Tester

A dedicated continuity tester is a cheaper measuring instrument with two leads, a battery, and a light bulb that goes on when it senses current flow.

In essence, the circuit is completed when you touch one lead to another, and the tester instrument should be able to register a zero when there is no resistance.

  • To perform this test, the multimeter should be set to measure ohms of resistance. Then switch off the breaker that supplies power to that particular circuit.
  • To ensure that the dedicated continuity tester is collaborating, touch the leads to each other while looking out for a light, a beep, or check the readings for ohms resistance.
  • If it works well, touch lead “1” to a hot wire which is identified by the color black or red.
  • While lead “1” is still in place, touch the second lead to any other wire from the ground wire in the color green. At this point, you should be able to hear a beep or see the light bulb come on. It is to alert that there is no resistance along that wire, therefore it’s not the source of the problem.

How To Fix An Open Hot Receptacle 

Fixing an open hot receptacle is best done by a professional. If you suspect an open hot in one of your receptors, contact an electrician immediately.

A receptor with an open hot is potentially dangerous, especially if the circuit breakers in the house are on. You might try opening the receptor with the thought that there is no active circuit and, in the process, get yourself shocked or harmed.

Though we will be providing you with the steps in fixing an open hot receptacle, it’s best to leave the matter to the experts as much as possible.

The first step is to test for continuity in the socket receptor. An outlet tester is usually plugged into the socket to see if there is power or not. If two green light indicators do not beep and come on, then it means that a particular socket or receptor is not wired correctly.

When the indicators on an outlet tester do not come on, it means the receptor box has either a loose or a broken hot wire in it.

And because of the danger it poses, this kind of repair requires a certified electrician. It is also best to turn off the entire circuit instead of the one circuit breaker. Again, an electrician has proper tools for this job, including a voltage detector that beeps to indicate and determine the amount of voltage on a circuit.  

Using an outlet tester, an electrician will remove the screws holding the wallplate of the receptor to get access to the wires inside the box. There is usually a black wire inside, which is also the hot wire, which could either be loose or have come out from the connection.

He will examine the wire by holding it using pliers. If it is in good condition, he will reconnect it back, but if it’s not, then he will cut and rip off a small part of its exposed end to make a new end that is easy to fix and is sure to stay in place.

The black hot wire belongs to the bronze terminals where he plugs it into space under the screw then tightens it up to make a firm.

Most electricians would also prudently check the rest of the neutral wires and ensure that grounding wires are firmly fixed. Finally, he will use black tape to wrap the receptacle for safety before dressing up the wires. 

Dressing up the wires means putting the appropriate bins in the cables and tightening down the box. When it is successfully done, the wall plate is put back, and electricity can now be switched back on.

As the last step to follow, the outlet tester should be plugged into the fixed receptor. This is to confirm if the job was successful. Two green light indicators mean the receptor is now adequately wired and safe to use.

How To Prevent Open Hots 

Accidents happen all the time, and it is difficult to predict when one will happen.

But it is possible to control electrical hazards and unfortunate incidents through safe practices. Here are a few examples:

  1. Do not overwork or overload your outlets. 

Every electrical outlet carries and delivers a certain amount of voltage. Plugging an appliance that draws too much power than what the outlet can hold causes fire, and wires may melt due to too much heat.

  1. Repair damaged and exposed wires.

It may be the cause of a major disaster. Electric power is nothing to joke around with, and any exposed wire should cover as soon as possible.

  1. Avoid placing extension cords where people pass.

People could accidentally trip on cords, hurting themselves and causing damage to the outlet, which will call for fixing.

  1. Keep electrical equipment and outlets away from water.

The kinetic energy of flowing water may generate electricity, but it does act well around water as a by-product. Thus, water conducts electricity, and for this reason, any contact could even be fatal.

  1. Involve a certified electrician where possible

It is the first rule of electrical work to practice safety. Electricians are trained personnel and are aware of the damage or safety hazard, which you as a layman are oblivious to. To keep your home safe and to prevent electrical accidents, enlist the help of a professional.

Final Thoughts

To recap, the open hot means a hot wire that should be connected to the power supply has come loose or is broken, and it needs urgent fixing.

It is crucial to understand that leaving an open hot wire could cause many problems in your wiring system.

Perhaps you may feel that a simple open hot is something you can try to fix on your own without the help of an electrician; the thing is, it may have occurred in several places. Tracing them all could be hectic, so it’s always best to leave them to the professionals.


Hubert Miles | Licensed Home Inspector, CMI, CPI

Hubert Miles is a licensed home inspector (RBI# 2556) with more than two decades of experience in inspection and construction. Since 2008, he has been serving South Carolina through his company, Patriot Home Inspections LLC. As a Certified Master Inspector, Hubert is dedicated to providing his expertise in home inspections, repairs, maintenance, and DIY projects.