My receptacles aren't working in my living room. Why?

Real Estate Broker/Owner with Cornerstone Business Group Inc 0225086119

My receptacles aren't working in my living room. Why?

My receptacles aren't working in my living room. Why? I get that call about a dozen times a year, and I always follow it with a question. Have you been using a space heater, or, do you have a window air conditioner plugged into the wall? Why would those questions be relevant? Because both of those pieces of equipment generate heat in order to fulfill their purpose.

Heat can cause wiring to breakdown. If a wire is not properly sized for the load it's under, there can be problems. Let me give you an example. A 1500 watt heater makes you feel warm and toasty on those cold Winter days, but there is a cost beyond the electric bill. Let's say you have a space heater plugged into a living room outlet, and that circuit is a 15 amp circuit. That would be common in a living room. 

A 1500 watt heater can require 12.5 amps to keep it operating at optimal level. Now, the safe operating amperage of a 15 amp residential circuit is 12 amps. That 12 amp load is 1440 watts. Can you see a conflict here? Let's assume the circuit is like most circuits in an average living room and let's add a few lights, a TV, DVD player, maybe a modem and an air cleaner. Just with the heater, you are above the safe max the circuit should carry. When you start adding other items, the circuit soon becomes overloaded. It would be unusual for a living room to be the only thing on a circuit, so there may be a bedroom, a hallway or another room with all of the above items and maybe another portable heater.

Let's add another issue to this scenario. What if the receptacles are back-stabbed? What does that mean? Backstabbing is a wiring technique where the wires are inserted into holes in the back of the device. The receptacles are designed to take this style wiring (on 15 amp circuits) and it is completely UL approved. The problem comes back to heat. 

When a portable heater or air conditioner (which generates heat in order to create cold) is plugged into one of these back-stabbed devices, the device heats up and cools down and heats up and cools down. Eventually, the wires no longer make a firm contact, and over time, they begin to have trouble providing power to the device. That environment generates heat on the wires which causes them to become brittle and it causes the insulation to melt away, and it can cause the device (receptacle or switch) to deteriorate. At some point, it will cause the device to breakdown and stop operating.

Backstabbing is one the most dangerous wiring techniques in any home. Inserting a portable heater or air conditioner into a receptacle that is on a 15 amp circuit is another. Combine those two, and at some point, you will have issues. The receptacles can breakdown and stop passing electricity on to devices down-line. 

Let me give you a rule of thumb. Never plug a space heater into any circuit that is below 20 amps. Check your receptacles to see if they are back-stabbed. If they are, have a qualified electrician take them out and put the wires directly on the screws provided with the receptacle. Both of those rules can save an electrical breakdown, a power outage in part of your home, and ultimately, it can save your life. 


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Kathy Streib
Room Service Home Staging - Delray Beach, FL
Home Stager - Palm Beach County,FL -561-914-6224

Mike- all of this information, while pertinent and good, went flying right over my head!!!  I'm passing this on to my husband/inhouse handyman!

May 12, 2018 02:20 PM #5
Margaret Goss
Baird & Warner Real Estate - Winnetka, IL
Chicago's North Shore & Winnetka Real Estate

Well, I have no idea what you're talking about except that it sounds very dangerous - and possibly too common.

May 12, 2018 02:33 PM #6
Dorie Dillard CRS GRI ABR
Coldwell Banker United Realtors® ~ 512.750.6899 - Austin, TX
Serving Buyers & Sellers in NW Austin Real Estate

Good evening Mike,

So glad to see your post featured! Great advise. Although I don't deal with these 2 issues when we lived in Pensacola when in the service it seemed it was more common to see these issues. Thank you!

May 12, 2018 04:19 PM #7
James Dray
Fathom Realty AR LLC - Bentonville, AR
Exceptional Agents, Outstanding Results

Morning Mike.

Congratulations on the feature.  I respect electricity, other than changing a light bulb, I don't mess with it.  I've always called a professional

May 13, 2018 02:24 AM #8
Richie Alan Naggar
people first...then business Ran Right Realty - Riverside, CA
agent & author

This could be the answer to the mystery problem I had with a tenant a few months ago. TENANT: The outlet on the porch just blew out and when I removed the cover, it was melted and shorted out another circuit he says. What did you have plugged in there says I? Nothing, it just blew. Hmmmm

May 13, 2018 06:41 AM #9
Susan Haughton
Long and Foster REALTORS (703) 470-4545 - Alexandria, VA
Susan & Mindy Team...Honesty. Integrity. Results.

Thanks for the great advice!  

May 13, 2018 01:33 PM #10
James Grant
Asheville, NC

Hello, Mike, Thanks for the advice! Have a Nice Day!

May 14, 2018 07:51 AM #12
Robin Wells
RAW Chimney Sweep and Inspections - Penetanguishene, ON
Giving Peace Of Mind One Chimney At A Time

Good article thanks.  The part that is as frightening is the quick connection devices being sold and used in place of the Marette connectors.  Are they going to follow the same path. are they prone to the same problems?  They are being used in a lot more connection points than simple back-stabbing and are much more difficult to find if and when used.  Push In Wire Connectors      One point though, I think you will find when quoting the 12A load, that comes form the restriction of no more than 80% continous load on a 15A circuit.  For non-continous use, it is permissable to exceed that 80% load.

May 14, 2018 04:23 PM #13
Lynn FISCHER Phoenix, AZ West Valley, Sun City, Active Adult, Sun City Grand
HomeSmart - Sun City, AZ

Interesting to know, especially the quick connect / backstabbing connections.

May 14, 2018 06:32 PM #14
Julie A. Black
KAUAI DREAMS REALTY Kauai Real Property Specialist - Kapaa, HI
CLHMS, CRS, GRI, Realtor, Broker

I never knew this and i have been a Realtor for over 30 years. But maybe that's because we don't have heaters in Hawaii. However air conditioners are becoming more common.

May 14, 2018 06:36 PM #15
Jeff Dowler, CRS
Solutions Real Estate - Carlsbad, CA
The Southern California Relocation Dude

Hi Mike

Good advice here, and I learned something new.  I can't recall the last time I saw someone using a space heater in a house in CA!


May 14, 2018 08:24 PM #16
Kimo Jarrett
WikiWiki Realty - Huntington Beach, CA
Pro Lifestyle Solutions

Great post, information, and illustrations that are concise and useful. I'm always learning something from the AR community, so, thanks for sharing. 

May 14, 2018 09:01 PM #17
Fred Sweezer Sr.
Hud Certified 203K Consultant - Long Beach, CA
Certified Home Inspector

That is a very good post on a afety issue that is very informative, thanks. 

May 15, 2018 02:06 AM #18
John Wiley
Right Move Real Estate Group- EXP Realty - Fort Myers, FL
Lee County, FL, ECO Broker, GRI, SRES,GREEN,PSA

We don't often see space heaters here in Florida.

But when I lived in Tennessee, they were very common.

This is great information that many would not be aware of until your post.


May 15, 2018 04:45 AM #19
Cathy Starkweather
La Rosa Realty, LLC. - Celebration, FL

Great information which I'm sure most people do not realize. Congrats on the feature. 

May 15, 2018 05:44 AM #20
Mary Hutchison, SRES, ABR
Better Homes and Gardens Real Estate-Kansas City Homes - Kansas City, MO
Experienced Agent in Kansas City Metro area

Never thought about that!  Wow--my daughter uses a space heater in the winter.  Thanks for the tip!

May 15, 2018 08:38 PM #21
M.C. Dwyer
Century 21 Showcase REALTORs - Felton, CA
Santa Cruz Mountains Property Specialist

Congrats on the feature Mike Cooper.      I'll bet there are a lot of homes with this problem.      

May 16, 2018 09:24 AM #22
Kat Palmiotti
Grand Lux Realty, Monroe NY, 914-419-0270, - Monroe, NY
The House Kat

This very good information - and can keep home owners/renters safe. Thanks for sharing.

May 16, 2018 10:23 AM #23
Georgie Hunter R(S) 58089
Hawai'i Life Real Estate Brokers - Haiku, HI
Maui Real Estate sales and lifestyle info

This is relevent as I'm visiting and staying in an old house with too many things plugged in and turned on all the time... how do people live like this?  Just now my brother plugged something in wrong, and blew the circuit, twice. Ugh.

May 17, 2018 10:17 PM #24
Brian DeYoung
Howard Hanna Real Estate Services - Ithaca, NY
Brian DeYoung

That was great! I never knew a lot of that, about the safe levels, the heaters, or the backstabbed outlets.

Thank you.

May 21, 2018 01:37 PM #25
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Mike Cooper, GRI

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