Help get the lights back on in my house - electricity questions

I wanted to see if a CFL bulb still worked, so I screwed it into a floor lamp in the living room. When I turned the switch, I immediately heard a buzz and a pop. My wife yelled from upstairs that the lights had gone out up there.

“No problem,” I thought, “I just tripped a breaker for some reason.” Indeed I had. I reset the breaker, but still the circuit was dead. I wanted to see if it was the socket, lamp or bulb that had the problem, so I put a known-safe bulb in the lamp and plugged it in in the kitchen. That sparked and blew that circuit, too.

The circuit in the breaker box didn’t trip, but a GFCI did. I reset a GFCI and the kitchen came back to life. So next, I hunted down GFCIs for the living room, but only found one upstairs (where the wife’s lights had gone out) and one in a bathroom (on the same wall as the living room), but neither of them will reset.

So what did the lamp do that’s causing the GFCIs to refuse to reset, and thus keeping my living room dark? How do I fix it?

Side question: Is the current at an outlet AC or DC? I thought AC, but my brand new AC detector doesn’t register any outlet in the house. Am I idiot for thinking it’s AC, or is my tester defective?

Household electricity (don’t say current, that’s going to get confusing in a hurry) is AC, if you post the make/model or even just a picture of your tester that would be helpful. I/We can show you how to use it properly.

As for the lamp, I’m guessing it has a short which may or may not have been caused by the CFL going bad and arcing. Depending on the type of meter you have (if it’s a multimeter) we can test it.

Every wall outlet in your house is AC. GFCI outlets will trip if the current on the hot side and the neutral side don’t match. CFLs have an electronic ballast so I can see how the inrush current might cause a CFL to trip.

I wish I had a multimeter. But alas, I just have a little thing comparable to this. I actually bought it because I have a switch that appears to do nothing on the opposite side of the wall from a light fixture that doesn’t work. I wanted to see if the switch was getting power. Perhaps I’m not using it correctly.

That’s a contactless voltage detector. It’s OK for telling you when voltage is present but I don’t trust it to tell me when there’s no voltage. That is, I sometimes use it when I’m troubleshooting, but I would never, ever touch a bare wire if it tells me it’s dead, ever.
Are you holding the button down when you use it? Is the battery good? Have you tried it on a known live wire? Try practicing with it on a lamp wire with a lamp that’s working and on. Just hold down the button and bring it near the wire and see what happens. Try sticking it an outlet that you know is hot and pushing the button and you should hear it go BEEPBEEPBEEPBEEPBEEPBEEP.

Turns out, I had a problem that reminded me of this post about challenging assumptions to solve problems. As I pondered my circuit problem, I kept coming back to the fact that the entire circuit was dead. It seemed like the circuit was broken somehow, even though I’d reset the breaker, visually triple-checked it, and even ran my fingers down the panel to make sure it was aligned like all the other working breakers.

I went back the breaker box, frustrated that my manhood was slipping away with every minute of darkness, and just flipped the breaker off and on one more time. Suddenly, the lights came on, the computer booted up, the bathroom outlet came alive, and my wife had renewed confidence in my ability to maintain a household.

Now that that’s settled…anyone want to walk me through fixing the outside light/switch?

Holding down a button? This one has three buttons- a clickable on/off button (like a pen), an up arrow and a down arrow to change the sensitivity. I’ve tested it on my computer wires, lamp wires, working outlets, and haven’t gotten anything. The only time I could get it to beep or turn red was when I set it on the table next to a screwdriver. Go figure.

Some breakers don’t visibly move when they trip. It’s always a good idea to reset them by turning them off, then back on like you did.

a static charge caused by rubbing against something will cause those devices to trigger.

with a low sensitive device you might have to be touching the insulation of a hot wire to trigger.

if you can’t get it to trigger (on most sensitive) when the tip is slid in the hot prong hole of a receptacle then it is not working well and not to be trusted.

Next time you’re at Home Depot pick up something like this. I think I have three of them. I have one in my tool bag, one at work and I think there’s one sitting in the cup holder in my car. I tend to get asked to fix random electrical issues or replace switches or whatever so they’re nice to have around and if I don’t have one I’ll just grab a new one at HD/Lowes while I’m there since they’re so cheap. These, I will trust with my life (well, I’ll grab a bare wire if it says it’s dead anyways).

You’ve officially seen why I won’t trust those non-contact meters to tell the truth. I was using one to troubleshoot a circuit a few months ago in a freezer that was part of a bank of freezers like you would see in a supermarket. That stupid thing was going off when it shouldn’t and giving me all kinds of goofy readings. The next day I was going over to the freezer to give it another shot and I happened to have my hand on the button and it started beeping when I was about 6 feet from the freezer. My only guess is that all the door heaters were setting it off. Door heaters are big loops of heater wire around each door*. I’m guessing they must throwing enough EM radiation out into the aisle to trip it.

There’s a place and time to use them, but you have to have a feel for what the electricity should be doing before you should use/trust one. Otherwise it’s like using a calculator and not understanding the theory. The teacher knows you cheated when you write down that 7 times 8 is -2.3e12.

*you can feel this next time you’re at the grocery store by putting your hand on the surface that where the door meets the freezer, this keeps it from freezing shut.

You could have gotten a cheap but decent multimeter for the price of that thing. At any hardware store where I’ve ever looked at them.