Electric Breaker Dominos - Is my apartment about to burst in flames?

I recently moved into a 1bdrm apartment and I’ve been experiencing a strange cascade of electrical issues over the last 72 hours or so and I’m wondering to what extent they’re all related.

I believe the first issue was me plugging a vacuum into an outlet. I believe the vacuum worked very briefly then shutoff, and I was only able to use it by plugging it into a different outlet (I don’t recall if I checked the breaker box at that time).

The next morning, I turned on my plug-in kettle and a minute later I heard a funny sound (possibly saw a little spark inside the kettle?) and suddenly my kettle stopped working. It now seems dead no matter where I plug it into,

I believe that morning I also noticed the fridge had turned off. This was remedied by flipping the breaker in the box.

So the vacuum overloading the circuit seems simple enough to me, but I don’t get why that would kill my kettle the next day (or was that just a massive coincidence?) or why the fridge would be off the next day as well but definitely after a long delay from the vacuum incident.

Any insights into my unstable electrical situation would be most appreciated indeed!

You need to have an electrician look at this ASAP. You may have a busted neutral connection, which may have been on its last legs and the vacuum drew enough current to push it over the edge and break.

For typical U.S. wiring, what you typically have is called split phase service, where basically 240 volts comes into your home with a center tap on the transformer, so that you get 120 volts from the center tap to either outside connection on the transformer or you get 240 volts from one end of the transformer to the other. Half of your 120 volt circuits should be connected between one leg of the transformer and that center tap, and the other half of your circuits should be connected between the other leg of the transformer and that center tap. 240 volt appliances are connected to both ends of the transformer.

If you lose that center tap connection, then your entire house becomes a voltage divider. You are still going to have 240 volts from end to end, but the zero reference for your 120 volt circuits will be floating. For example, if the circuits on one side of the transformer go up to 160 volts, the circuits on the other side will go down to 80 volts. At the extreme side of things, one leg can go all the way up to 240 volts and the other basically down to zero. And of course the voltages can be anywhere in between. Anything plugged into outlets that happen to be on the high side of the transformer can fry if they can’t handle the higher voltage, which might explain how your kettle died.

It’s also possible that something weird is going on inside your breaker box.

If you are in a large enough apartment building, you also might have 3 phase service, which I won’t go into, but it’s possible that it’s basically dropping a phase, which could cause a lot of issues.

In any event, this is the type of thing that makes buildings burn down and kill people. GET THIS FIXED ASAP. This is not something to put off for later.

(FWIW I am an electrical engineer)

I couldn’t tell you as much detail as @engineer_comp_geek just did, but I can tell you that three breaker-flips in that short a time, from ordinary usage, is an indicator that there’s something going seriously wrong in your walls, and that you need to get a professional to look at it ASAP. And yes, “apartment bursting into flames” is, literally, one possible effect of this whatever-it-is.

Not sure about the others, but if you hear a funny noise (click or pop) and the outlet stops working, it may be a GFI outlet. But then, to make it work, you would have to push the little reset button on the outlet. Most kitchen outlets 9and bathroom) need GFI since they are around water. The reset button may not be on the outlet, since several outlets can be daisy-chained in parallel and only one can be the GFI outlet.

Sometimes GFI are just “bad”. I had one in my kitchen that seemed to pop regularly. I replaced it and the new one has never popped. The one in the basement bathroom (which is also power for the main floor bathroom) has been popping randomly every 2 months or so.

Fun fact, but harder to do now. If you have an AM transistor radio, you could hold it near each outlet in the house and see if it picks up a lot of static - if it gets noisier closer to to outlet. That would indicate a loose connection in the outlet box, which leads to heat and eventually fire or melt-down.

Oh, and to add on to what ECG and I have already said: There are some wiring jobs for which “My buddy Al the amateur handyman” is a perfectly good option. This isn’t one of them. You want a licensed professional, here.

I had a persistent problem that my main breaker - the 100Amp at the top of the panel - would pop; which meant no power in the house. I eventually tracked it to a loose connection to that breaker from the main electrical feed. Over 30 years, the one screw in the connection had come a bit loose. Loose connection = heat; heat expands copper, also pops the breaker during high loads. Each cycle, the hot copper being soft and expanding a bit, deformed more each time, loosening the connection still more. It went from flipping once every year or two over 10 years to the point where it flipped twice within two weeks. The fix was incredibly simple - tighten a screw firmly.

How did I find this? I called an electrician, who had the hydro company turn off the power at the pole before he messed with the panel. (He demonstrated that at that point, he could actually move the wire s quarter inch back and forth in the supposed to be tight connection)

SO it’s possible your problem is that the breaker panel wire terminals are loose on some breakers. However, if this is the case - Chronos is right. I’ve done my own amateur wiring for parts of my house, like replacing outlets or extending a circuit to a second light fixture (or providing a plug for the garage door opener). but when it gets to this level - Chronos is right. Some things are best left to the pros. The panel is for sure one. Unexplained breakers popping - which is essentially warning you there’s a problem with a circuit - is certainly one.

I recall one house where the owner thought he’d turned off the breaker when he was working on fixing an outdoor plug for his car’s heater. There was a flash, it also melted a semicircle in his pocket knife about a quarter inch in diameter. A year later, his tenant had an electrical fire while the outlet covers were off while painting a room. The fire department turned off the main house breaker, and he got a shock from one of the outlets afterwards. Turns out one of the live feed was hooked to the neutral. This is the sort of thing a pro will look for. If you don’t have the tools and expertise, this stuff is not for you.

Wow, had no idea this could be so serious. Thanks everyone! I will get this investigated asap and, of course, will report back in whatever is found.

Another AYE for what Engineer said. I’ve lived in a house with similar problems to what you describe. That’s scary stuff not to be messed with.

Surely this is a problem for your landlord or apt management company to fix? Who knows how many other apts have the same problem, especially since all of the wiring was probably done at the same time by the same electricians.

Sometimes amateurs will run two circuits into one octagonal box. (Because it’s there, I guess.) Check every wire before assuming there’s no power.

I had similar breaker issues a few years ago. I noted that my electric lights seemed brighter than usual and many of my appliances seemed to be getting too much power. The fix was to replace the transformer on the pole near my house. Does “busted neutral connection” imply that sort of issue with a faulty transformer, or is that an issue within the breaker box?

The fault can be anywhere from in the transformer itself to the wires going to the breaker box or even in the breaker box itself, or in the grounding rod or anything else along that entire path.

Since we’re telling horror stories…

I was recently replacing the socket in a light fixture. I verified my multimeter was working, switched poorly labeled breakers until nearby lights went out, verified the one I cared about was properly off at the breaker by making sure the switch was on and checking for voltage across the wires. There was none.

While I was working, I pushed the two wires near each other. There was a pop and a flash. I dropped everything I was holding. I was sure I had done everything right, how could this be?

Turns out, the breaker I had tripped was the street side to the generator panel. Only some parts of the house are supplied by the generator, and this fixture is. Some time after I had checked the power was out in the fixture the generator kicked on (because it thought the power was out), restoring power to the fixture.

The moral of the story is…you can easily kill yourself even when you think you know what you’re doing.

So, lots of possibilities where the problem could lie, coupled with danger, hence the need for professional repair. :grinning:

Get the super of the apartment to hire a licensed electrician to fix this. If they do not or if they bring in their “handyman”, hire your own licensed electrician.

IMHO, this is cheap insurance. I have been through a house fire, you do not want to go through that.

While I am an aircraft mechanic & work on some serious electrical systems, I would hire this done.

One more bit of advice, you may want to get some serious renters insurance. BTDT.

In the old Holmes on Homes TV show, where he went in to fix bad home renovations, finding weird and unsafe wiring was a common theme - and this was repairing contractor screw-ups, not amateur stuff. People do all sorts of unsafe things with electricity. the code is there for a reason. It was the number two worst mess after contractors who did structurally unsafe work. (and number 3 was bad plumbing).

I have no knowledge of electricity or wiring, but I’ve experienced problems with loose connections (mentioned upthread), and the resulting heat produced an odd smell (burning plastic). If you notice something like that, I think it’s a good idea to shut off any appliances that you can do without and to try to figure out where the smell is coming from, as it might provide an electrician with useful information.

I was going to bring this up. Renter’s insurance is DIRT CHEAP. Not even in the same universe with homeowner’s insurance, which costs an arm, a leg, and several other vital organs. My renter’s insurance is about $200 PER YEAR. And it also covers stuff stolen from my car, even if my car is away from home.

My father-in-law used to be an insurance broker, and has less-than-charitable comments about people in the news who are on TV complaining their apartment building burned and they are left with nothing, then appeal to the public to help them out. Rental insurance is an elementary, and as TL mentions, very cheap peace of mind. It is even more a good idea if you live in an older building with things like questionable wiring and not concrete construction. (Even in modern concrete hi-rises, a serious fire in one suite leaves a lot of the building with smoke damage and/or water damage.)