Why Is My Electrical Outlet Not Working?
A GFCI outlet shuts off every outlet past it on the circuit when it detects a problem. (Photo courtesy of Angie's List member Devan G. of Pittsburgh, Pa.)
We take electricity for granted, casually plugging in items and just expecting that they’ll work. When you find an electrical outlet not working, it's not only frustrating — it can also be an indicator of a more serious problem.
Angie’s List member George Umezawa chose to be safe rather than sorry when he hired highly rated Power Up Electric in Los Angeles to replace six two-prong electrical outlets in his 1957 home. “The job was not a difficult one, but a little tricky because I have an old house with old wiring,” Umezawa says. “So I was glad to have a real electrician do the work rather than risking a do-it-yourself job.”
If you have an electrical outlet that's not working, one of these common culprits might be the cause.
Tripped circuit breaker
It’s common for a single circuit to trip, causing the outlet you want to use to stop working. Check the panel and reset any breakers that are not on. When a circuit breaker trips, the knob doesn't always flip to the opposite side. Sometimes it sticks somewhere in the middle; sometimes it sticks so close to on that it's hard to see it's tripped.
If a circuit continues to shut down, you likely have a problem with overloading it. See if you can unplug some items, or call in an electrician to make the changes that are necessary.
Modern building codes require outlets near sinks to be either a ground fault circuit interrupter — GFCI — or protected by one. These outlets will shut down by themselves when they detect a short or overheat, rather than causing the breaker to flip off.
If you have an electrical outlet in your bathroom or kitchen stop working reset all GFCI outlets in that room. A GFCI that pops will also cause all outlets further down the line on the same circuit to stop working. Sometimes an outlet in another room is wired on the same circuit, especially in older homes, and a tripped GFCI in your bathroom is shutting it off.
Electrical outlets can go bad for no apparent reason. Their contacts can become loose, and the entire unit may simply need to be replaced.
Ask Angie: How Much Does It Cost to Rewire a House?
Because electrical work can be dangerous, it's recommended that you leave repairs to a professional electrician. Failure to shut down the right outlet at the panel can result in serious injury. Failure to properly install the new outlet can cause a fire down the road. It can also create a situation where people who are trying to use the outlet may get shocked.
Sometimes electrical outlets will literally burn out. A brief flare and fire can cause the outlet to stop working.
If an electrical outlet shows any sign of blackening around the outlet plugs, it should not be used. Even if one plug is working, the entire outlet should be replaced immediately to avoid the possibility of starting a fire.
To easily determine if your outlet problem results from a broken outlet or the appliance you are using, plug something else into the outlet.
RELATED: 5 Ways to Prevent Electrical Fires
Before calling the professionals, check all GFCI electrical outlets in the room and check the circuit breaker or fuse panel. If it’s not one of these simple fixes, check for a highly rated, licensed electrician on Angie's List.
Editor's note: This is an updated version of an article originally published on Sept. 1, 2011.