Home Electrical Wiring, Experts Advice Please

I know this forum isn’t for discussing personal home electric problems, but I couldn’t find the answer on google and I wasn’t sure myself.

Today, an outlet in our kitchen, the light above our kitchen sink, and our dishwasher died, but the GFCI outlet they were connected to was working. My first assumption was that a wire fell off because that’s exactly how it seemed until we opened the box. We shut off the breaker, pulled out the outlet, and found a rather scary charred mess. There were wires melted behind the GFCI outlet on, which came out of the load side and it was the hot wire. Whoever wired our house put some small stranded 16AWG jumper wire that went to a wire cap that fed the dishwasher and the other outlet. The GFCI Outlet was rated for 15AMPS and the circuit breaker in the panel is 20AMPS. So my question… My dad wants to reuse the 16AWG wire that is connected to the white wires (since it is not burned), but I’m a bit worried that the same problem may occur with the white wires if we replace the hot black wire with something more hefty (like the solid wire that should have been there). I’m also oblivious to what caused this because the outlet, dishwasher, and light were working earlier today. Also, the wire seems to have been melted for some time, but I’m not sure. There are some signs of corrosion, but not very much, and the remnants of magic smoke still lingered. The only thing connected to the outlet was a coffee maker that has been off all day.

So if you could please answer the question, and if someone could explain why the wire melted, but neither the GFCI outlet nor the circuit breaker tripped. This is a complete mystery to me to how, when, and why this happened as there were not symptoms of a fire in the box.

First off I would strongly suggest having a professional electrician that works to ‘code’ repair the damage.

From your description this does not meet building code or professional practice.

I’m quoting from memory but if I remember correctly to meet code in your statea a 20 amp breaker requires a 3 wire 12 gauge circuit. Black is hot, White is neutral, and green is ground.

16 gauge wire should not be in this mess.

I don’t really understand how this circuit is wired but commonly a dishwasher is on its own circuit breaker, and maybe it’s own GFCI breaker.

You need GFCI on any circuit where you could come into contact between an appliance on the circuit and a ground, like a sink.

And just to file a couple of personal complaints against the US building code I’ll keep on yakking.

a - I don’t like those outlets where you strip the wire and stick it in a hole in the outlet instead of screwing it down. I’ve seen too many failures of that.

b - I don’t like the standard plug and socket arrangement in North America. If electricty was invented today that would NEVER get past regulatory compliance. A much better arrangement is the IEC connector. Look at the cord that plugs into the back of your computer or monitor. It is impossible to get your fingers wedged between conductors of the IEC whereas the other end of the cable is very dangerous.

I’ll second the last post. Sounds like your kitchen wiring is kludged. This may just be the tip of the ice berg. Hire a licensed electrician to examine and correct the deficiencies.

I’m pretty comfortable with doing the work myself. The wires were screwed to the posts, but they used the crimp on connectors with the 16AWG wire. Yea, we had some trouble about 2 months ago with an outlet dying outside that was connected to the GFCI in my mother’s bathroom, and we have a wire hanging out of a box in our attic that was never wired. I agree with the electrical plugs as unsafe. I have had a few encounters with those ugly copper beasts when plugging stuff in and my fingers sliding into the prongs. I would say that the wires aren’t overloaded (except for the 16AWG stuff) since the breaker never tripped. Overall, I’d say the wiring in our house was done pretty trashy (we have two rooms on the same circuit breaker). My dad is the hard headed type that thinks “Well I’m older, which definitely means I’m smarter than my 18 year old son, so I want to put a new small wire into the outlet.” I’ll show him what you said, and hopefully can get him to change his mind. I’m really glad to see “Fire Proof” on the inside of the box, because it would have been a fire if it did not say that.

Oh, I have another reason I don’t think this happened today. The GFCI outlet had developed rust on the top (where the extreme heat escaped). I know rust takes a while to develop, and this is why I think this was a long term problem.

Also to add, the house was built about 20 years ago, so this house was supposed to be built to the codes 20 years ago… Personally, I think it is safe to run a whole house on one wire and one 20 AMP circuit breaker as long as you assume the breaker will trip at 20 AMPs. The only reason to have more than one breaker is so you can run more stuff off of electricity. We’ve never had a breaker trip except once in my room when I plugged something in that shorted out. Hopefully this makes sense. I don’t say it is right to run a house off of one breaker, I’m just saying that it is safe in regard that it won’t make a fire as long as the circuit breaker works.

I thought the breakers were there to protect the wires…???

If there is 12 gage wire from the breaker to the outlet, then I would replace the GFCI outlet with a new 20 amp GFCI outlet, connected (line side) to the wires from the breaker box, and connect all the loads to the load side of the outlet.

This assumes also that the wires in the box are all ok still.

Your assumptions are wrong. If you want to mess with it, it’s your families house and your life. Do what you want. If you want a professional opinion of your problem, I strongly recommend you get a qualified professional in there.

I tried to get my dad to call someone, but all he said was “It has been working fine for 20 years…” I also found out that our bathroom is connected to the same circuit as the GFCI outlet, although I’m not sure if it connected to the load side. I’m going to ask one of our engineers at Fusion if they can come by and check it out. I’m scared of electrical fires, and I would hate for our house to burn down. I asked my mom about it, and she doesn’t know of any electricians, and that my dad is the one that knows some. I’ll try to get something worked out. Hopefully my dad will realized that if our house burns down, that we are probably under-insured and that he will loose over $30,000 worth of American oak antiques. We’re leaving that circuit off until we (I) decide what we’re going to do about this. My dad says to just wire it back up without thinking of what caused this to happen in the first place (my guess is that over the 20 years, the dishwasher and the coffee maker have slowly burned the wire out until today, where the wire completely failed). Thanks for all the help, and if you have any more ideas, please tell me, as I’m always open to opinions.

First you have to understand what a GFCI breaker does: it trips and breaks the circuit when the current thru the hot wire differs from the current thru the neutral wire (this indicates that the circuit is grounding thru a person…not good!). The GFCI outlet is NOT a circuit breaker! so it should not trip if the 16 gage wire melted. It should not trip if the load on the circuit exceeds 15 amps. It should not trip if the 20 amp breaker trips.

The problem is that someone used too small of wire, as ebarker said, “16 gauge wire should not be in this mess.” The breaker is rated at 20 amps, so you should have no wire in the circuit smaller than 12 gage.

This is how it was done, except there was a weak spot on the load side. From the breaker is the standard 3 wire solid core going to the outlet box, then connected directly to the GFCI outlet. From the load side is one of the blue ring connectors that is crimped on the 16AWG wire that then goes to a wire cap that supplies the rest of the load. The 16AWG wire is a major weak spot as it is the smallest wire on the circuit and it takes most of the load of the circuit subtracting the GFCI outlet’s load.

Ryan,

As an electrician by lisence and someone who works retail sales hearing this numerous times I can give you better advice and more correct information.

I would HIGHLY reccamend that you get an electrician (look in a phone book there are likely dozens).

That small wire was probably from some other home owner that hadn’t a clue as to what they were doing for someone in the future. A 16 gauge wire can only handle about 13 amps, definately less than the rated circuit breaker. The smallest wire should have been 12 gauge. The likely reason there was a small piece of wire different than the rest is due to splicing. I have had numerous people that want to add an outlet but dont want to spend the money on the right size wire. A piece of 16 may only cost 5 cents per foot vs. a piece of 12 could cost 40 cents per foot. This shows how cheap some people really are.

If you look at the GFCI it will say either on the face behind the faceplate or on the back, 15AMP 20AMP feed through, you can put ANY 15AMP outlet on a 20AMP circuit (The NEC (National Electrical Code) allows this but some local codes may make a difference)

In many houses I have worked in this is what happens and no one knows until it fails. The wire could last for years, being that the wire was on the load size that meant that it was feeding everything from the GFCI (Ground Fault Circuit Interrupter), which is why it melted. The wire may have actually melted years ago but just failed now from a truck passing by or the wind blowing, I kid you not something as simple as that can cause something bad to get worse. As that wire heated and cooled the screws and connectors also expanded and became loose which did the damage.

DO NOT reuse the 16 guage wire no matter what your dad thinks. The next thing you know your house could burn down.

-Mike

Ryan,

This is not a DIY problem that a trip to Home Depot and reading up on a few articles online will solve. This is something that needs a licensed professional electrician who knows the code to evaluate in person, and figure out how much of it will need to be replaced. Just because “something worked for 20 years” does not mean that it was safe.

And judging from your descriptions, it sounds like there are egregious errors from proper electrical code, which points out that whoever did the electrical in your house either did not know the electrical code (very scary thought) or had a “screw the code, this is faster/cheaper” attitude, which is just as hazardous.

We are the original owners of the house, so I believe it was the electrician’s fault in the first place, and I wonder what else in our house could be like this… I think there are entirely too many things being run off of this one wire
(I’ve counted the 2 outlets in the bathroom, 2 outlets in the kitchen, a light, and a dishwasher). I know the light, dishwasher, and the outlet was being run from the small wire. Now that I think of it, what kind of idiot wired our house?!? Who would ever think that such a large dishwasher could even run off of a 16AWG wire?!? Anyone with common sense can look at the small wire, and look at the dishwasher and say “Hmm… this doesn’t look like it will power it very well.” I’ve emailed one of our very trusted electrical engineers on Fusion and hopefully he will come to our house and tell us what he thinks.

I own a Electrical Contracting business. You are taking your life in your own hands and anybody that gives out “free advice” in helping fix the problems really and truly aren’t helping in the long run. Not unless you are a licensed electrican. Even as a licensed offical I can’t tell you how to fix your problem. I may tell you correctly and then you do it backwards from what I tell you. Then your house burns down Tell your Dad to stop and think about it, he needs to hire a licensed electrican. When something like this is happening it is happening for a reason. It is giving you a warning that something serious is going on. I just had a job where the people thought they could run an extension cord from there garage into there house and on Christmas Eve they lost everything due to a fire. Thank God they were awake and were able to get out. I don’t mean to scare you but… maybe you should show this to your Dad. I hope your smoke detectors are working properly.

Ryan,
I have to agree with the other posters here, an electrician is the only way to go. Although electrical codes vary across the country, it is unlikely that your local code would allow a GFCI outlet to protect outlets in other areas of your house even if they share a common wall. The burn damage may not be due to over current, but 16 AWG stranded wire has a nasty habit of breaking the strands when put under a screw terminal. In all likelyhood, the #16 steadily became overheated as strands in the cable broke down or loosened. Since the insulation on most #16 wire is not meant for higher temperature, it failed. That is why the neutral of the same guage looks fine.
#16 wire is not code for any house wiring that I am aware of other than inside lighting products (lamps, single bulb fixtures, etc.) So, although you are the original owners, the building electrician took some shortcuts or the person who installed the GFCI took some shortcuts using the #16. The fact that you have some other suspect wiring would indicate the original electrician. You need to find someone who can do a fair job of checking for other problems. This may be one of the lesser of the failures that are waiting to happen. Your dad needs to know that the house wiring is safe and a bonded and licensed electrician will be able to tell what needs to be corrected. If your parents ever want to think about selling the house, this will become an issue with building inspectors so it is better to take care of it now. It is possible that the wiring to GFCI outlets are the only things that need to be fixed, but you need to get them fixed.

As a former licensed electrician I can tell you how how to fix it right.
Call a licensed electrician to review the problem and repair it for you. If you are truly the first owner of the house, and this was original, make sure NOT to call the same guy back(unless you have a home warranty, and ask them for someone else)
Additionally, I would give him an extra $25-50 to do a complete go through of the house. Taking out outlets to verify wiring.

In the 10years I wired and ran crews it was amazing the stuff we were called to repair for other contractors. The big thing here was to wire everything possible with the min wire (at that time 14G). We refused to do that and did lose our fair share of work for doing what we knew was right. I have been back on the side to several of those “other” houses just to replace wiring that has gone bad, or done dangerously wrong.

We lost a family friend and his daughter to a house fire…caused by a back wired outlet that overheated.

Most certainly, if the breaker is 20Amp, you should be using 12GA wire. No questions asked.

Also (I know, probably a really dumb question), but make sure there are no aluminum wires in your walls. My dryer plug burnt up recently, and when i opened the box (thank god it was metal), it was charred up, and the wires were aluminum, while the plug was copper.

If you do have aluminum wires, either replace them, or use the anti-oxidizing paste on all the connections.

Jacob

I’m wondering if the recommendations to call a licensed electrician are really gonna be that helpful? seems you admit that a lot of them don’t do the job properly…

At least Ryan is getting a better idea now of what happened and what needs to be done to fix the problem. Hopefully he’ll get qualified help. There’s no guarantee of that, though.

20Amp breaker, no wire is permitted to be less than 12 gauge, anywhere. Period.

Today, a dishwasher needs it’s own dedicated circuit, as does the bathroom, but we’re not trying to bring the house up to code. (which isn’t a bad idea though)

A charred wire and rusted GFCI is your house’s warning to you that there is something horribly wrong here, and it’s giving you a chance to get it repaired correctly. Usually, you get only one chance.

**Don’t be foolish. ** If it was just a simple repair, or rewire something, I’d say go for it. Here we have symptoms that are downright scary and are never supposed to be seen - you need a pro to diagnose exactly what is going on so it doesn’t burn down the house.

Don

We got it fixed today. Here’s the whole story, and how the wires were run… The bathroom was on it’s own circuit breaker, but my dad shut off about 5 breakers that I was unaware of (although there was not GFCI outlet in the bathroom. I fixed that today without trouble). So here is how the circuit WAS run:
Main Wire to the house -> Main Breaker Outside Under Meter -> Breaker Panel inside house -> 20AMP Circuit Breaker -> 12AWG Wire to GFCI Outlet -> 16AWG Jumper -> 2 12AWG Wires that go to the dishwasher and the other electrical box with the light switch and the other outlet

Here is what happened… The 16AWG wire was a weak spot (obviously). Over 20 years, it supplied power to the dishwasher and a coffee pot, was well as a fluorescent light. It obviously heated up on a regular basis, based on the fact that the top of the GFCI outlet was rusted, where the heat escaped the box. Yesterday, the dishwasher finally killed the poor wire causing it to completely fail .

Here is what I did today:
I called a retired electrical engineer for Team Fusion that recently rewired his house due to Hurricane Katrina. He is a very bright man. He came over this afternoon and looked at it, and concluded the same thing as I did. We bought two new GFCI outlets today. The new ones have two holes in the back for each terminal that tighten with the screws (much better design than the ones from 20 years ago apparently) so we did not run a jumper at all. Now the wires are directly wired to the outlet without wire nuts. We tested it and everything worked as normal.

I checked the only other GFCI outlet in the house, and thankfully, it was wired correctly, no work done here…

I checked other outlets in the house, and they seemed to be wired correctly (although they were really cramped).

In our main bathroom, I tested each wire and found the main wire going back to the circuit breaker panel, attached it to the line in part of the new GFCI outlet, and attached the other wires to the Load side of the GFCI outlet. Everything works here as well, although we have a few mystery wires that I have no idea where they’re going, but they do not supply electricity at all. (I have a feeling that it may go to the electrical box in the attic for the light).

What I have learned:
I learned how GFCI outlets work and how to wire them correctly.
I learned that even licensed electricians can be lazy.
In the kitchen, there are about two outlets per circuit breaker (for the higher loads of microwaves, toasters, coffee makers, refrigerator, etc…
Every room’s ceiling lights have their own breaker (so you can have light when you’re working :D)

Thank you everyone for the help and hopefully this is the last trouble we have with the electrical.