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Neutral line interruption! Beware!

Thomas Jentzsch


Last Wednesday morning I smelled some burned rubber in the kitchen. But I was unable to detect the origin. A few minutes later, my whole flat lost power. Since all my fuses where on, I thought about a power loss in the building. But the light outside my building was OK. So I informed my landlord who send an electrician pretty immediately.

Meanwhile my power had come back (and the smell too). The electrician checked my fuse box and electric meter and found... nothing! But he identified the origin of the smell: the ceramic stove top was broken. And then he left.

Literally only a few minutes later the smell was back, now in my living room. And seconds later I heard a crack from my wireless LAN modem. I followed the smell and the power supply was very hot. Obviously too hot. I went to the fuse box again, and when I switched on the light in the floor, an LED spotlight cracked! Shortly after, all power went away again. With all fuses intact again. I had the idea to check more power supplies and they all were extremely hot. So I disconnected everything, shut down my computer and switched of all electricity. Then I informed the local energy provider about my problem, who showed up within an hour or so.

Those guys finally knew what they were doing. They measured the voltage of my electrical outlets and instead of 230 volt they only got 200 volt. Then they told me, that I obviously had a neutral line interruption, which is very critical and dangerous to devices and humans too. They told me, that I had to call an electrician (icon_rolleyes.gif) to fix that and forbid me to use any electricity meanwhile.

Meanwhile it was afternoon... and the landlord's electrician doesn't work on Wednesday afternoons! So I spent a pretty dark evening with candle light (we had a rainstorm outside). I only got my smartphone to get in contact with others and for the internet. Fortunately there is an electrical outlet in the floor outside my flat, which I used to load my smartphone and notebook. And later to cook water for tea and toast bread. I must have looked funny to my neighbors. icon_smile.gif

Next day after noon, the (same) electrician showed up again. With the new information I had, he found the error immediately: In my fuse box box the neutral line cable was not secured by a screw on one side. So over the last 15 years or so, it must have slowly moved until it finally lost connection. He fixed the bug and I had power with 230 volt again. Hurrah!

Or not? I started to plugin my power supplies again. The first one was from my fixed net phone and caused a short fuse (combined with a loud flash)! So it was obviously broken too. Then I went on hunting for other broken devices and power supplies. Here is the list so far:

  1. ceramic stove top
  2. LED spotlight
  3. power supply for my wireless LAN router
  4. power supply for my fixed net phone
  5. original(!) power supply for my Atari 2600
  6. power supply for my Logitech Squeezebox Radio
  7. active PC speakers

Also I was told that other devices used at that time might fail in the near future. How cool is that?
If the electrician would have done his job the first time, that would have saved my a lot of trouble! icon_mad.gif

Besides a replacement supply for my wireless LAN I still have to recover from the losses.

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Wow, interesting. Be sure your data is backed up on something that's totally off-line. Be sure it fits in a box under the bed.

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We had some very-nearly-catastrophic issues with the power at work. Most wiring had been done (or modified) in-house without permits by some very unqualified facilities workers. In our computer labs, we kept having ground loop hum issues and tripping circuit breakers, but the last straw was when someone touched the conduit running into the room (1/2" conduit for 30 computers!!) because they'd heard it actually buzzing, and found it was hot to the touch. We found similar problems in our other labs and classrooms, and eventually had everything rewired by a licensed contractor. Since two of our labs have all-metal raised floors with outlets in them, that sort of electrical problem would have been - what they call in the trade - "bad".


Oh, and our server room caught fire too, and had to be rewired. Twice. But it was a tiny fire just in one junction box. Still, no fun having to disassemble servers to blow all of the fire extinguishing chemicals out of them.

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Yuck! Glad nothing worse happened, Thomas. I have a 40-ish-year-old-house with "floating ground" issues (lots of hum in audio equipment unless I use plugs without grounding prongs), and one outlet in particular would pop the circuit breaker rather frequently before we finally replaced it. Also, a previous owner did something odd with the phone system that left exactly one phone outlet working, at least until I dropped landline altogether. Sometimes I wonder if I'm going to come home to a fresh pile of ashes.

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Update: About 2.5 years later my PC suddenly stopped working. After some weeks I finally found that a dying power supply was the cause. Probably it got hit by the neutral line interruption too, which shortened its lifetime.

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The last three places I lived, the power has slightly flicked on and off here and there or totally gone off because of storms or a circuit breaker flipping off because I used a vacuum cleaner. If I didn't have an uninterruptible power supply, I'd probably have to buy a new computer every 3 months.

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Depending on where you live, the power grid in the U.S. can be notoriously unreliable. Some of the infrastructure is quite old and hasn't kept pace with population growth. I live just north of Los Angeles, and when I first moved here our power went out laughably frequently. It's much better now. Also, regional weather can be a huge factor. 

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