Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Electrical Troubleshooting: Tools

I have returned from my hiatus. Short answer to expected questions: my family is good and things are getting back to as normal as they ever are. Thanks to everyone who expressed concern about it.

During my absence, questions about basic home electrical maintenance came up among the staff, and I was asked to do a series on the topic since that's how I pay my bills and buy my toys. I'm more than happy to do this, both in the interest of helping folks be more self-sufficient, and also in the hopes that some of our bolder readers will have an eye towards doing this kind of work safely and properly.

Electrical work requires some tools that other tasks do not, and since these tools will help prevent accidents and injuries, this is a very good place to being my series. Basic variants of these tools can be obtained very economically, while fancier versions have almost no ceiling to their cost. For homeowner purposes, those basic devices will work just fine, without the added expense of features that rarely if ever will get used.

Non-Contact Voltage Detector
The non-contact voltage detector is the first line of protection from electrical shock. It detects the presence of voltage in a wire, switch, or outlet without requiring that bare metal be exposed. Every professional electrician I know carries one daily. Shocks hurt, and this is cheap insurance.

Outlet Tester
A huge number of the electrical issues that crop up in a home involve wall outlets. This device plugs into a standard outlet and diagnoses any wiring problems affecting it. It is a very quick way to find trouble points.

The multimeter is the ultimate diagnostic tool. Basic units test for the presence of AC and DC voltage, amperage, and electrical continuity; fancier ones can test electronic components, measure temperature, and a host of other things. An auto-ranging meter is far simpler, but adds a large amount to the cost. If possible, look for a meter that lists a feature of "audible continuity," meaning it will sound a tone when a circuit is electrically continuous. This is useful when trying to identify wires or locate a broken wire.

Amazon has three very affordable kits that have these tools for all your basic electrical diagnostic needs. You could purchase them separately, but with the pricing and quality of these kits, there isn't a reason to unless you're looking for a very specific feature.

All of them are quality brands, carry the same basic features, and cost less than a date to the movies. You could pick from the Klein, Amprobe, or Extech kits based solely on your favorite color (yellow, red, and green respectively) and not make a wrong choice.

Next week, I'll show you how to use these tools to perform a variety of common household electrical tasks.


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