How looking for a misplaced camera case saved my family…

It’s the holiday season for most of us – opportunities to spend some time with our families and give thanks for all that we enjoy in our lives. This will be an especially thankful Christmas for me and my family as we were spared almost certain disaster.

In the rush to get a million things done in only a short time, I was a bit miffed that I couldn’t find a vintage leather camera case for one of my Yashica cameras. I searched everywhere twice and then searched again in the usual hiding spots. Whenever something photographic goes missing, my studio (actually an unused guest bedroom but it sounds better saying “studio”) is the likely hiding place. I checked the open shelving unit that holds the boxes and bins of camera stuff (again) when I caught sight of something wedged behind it between the bottom shelf and the wall. Ah ha I thought, found it! It’s no easy task to move this beast of shelving so I would need to lighten the load if I ever hoped to slide it away from the wall. That’s when I saw it – a small discolored spot on the electrical outlet cover. Thinking that something dirty had stained it, I wedged myself behind the shelves for a better look. As I watched, the small spot became bigger and then the spot turned into something else –

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The first clue something was wrong. I saw the small discoloration on the cover – but it quickly became more!

I raced to the garage and ripped open the service panel box and found breaker number 10 – the bedrooms – and switched it off. Then I raced back inside to access the damage. There were no flames and only a small bit of smoke but the spot on the cover and outlet had grown larger. I put the back of my hand near the cover, it was warm but not hot. Convinced that it was no longer burning I dashed out again to find a screwdriver. I removed the cover and was completely shocked to see –

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In only a few seconds this is what happened to the outlet box and receptacle.

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By this stage of the meltdown the heat had scorched the wood stud that the box was nailed to and blackened the paper facing on the insulation. Seconds before flames I’m sure.

Seeing these images again as I write this has reawakened the panic that swept over me that day. The thoughts of “what if” I hadn’t been home or “what if” I hadn’t gone searching for that case at that very moment or the dozens of other “what ifs” that I can’t think of at this moment.

Sure we thought we were protected. Our home was built in late 1989 and is a modern home in good condition. We are the only owners of the house so that means we’ve lived here for over 25 years now. Our electrical service panel is rated at 200 amps and the wiring is code approved copper 12 gauge with ground. The bedroom is never used so nothing more than a lamp is plugged in at any time.

So what happened? Why didn’t the circuit breaker trip? Why did the short occur? How could this happen to me when I’m one of the most safety oriented guys I know?

The answer, it doesn’t matter how careful a person you are, it’s the unseen electrical dangers that almost destroyed our house. As I dissected  what had happened here’s what I’ve learned…

  1. My home is 25 years old… wiring and outlets don’t last forever.
  2. The outlet was unused and therefore uninspected.
  3. Uninspected outlets are potential trouble. I bet there were early warning signs that something was wrong.
  4. Trusting a circuit breaker to trip and shut off the power and save the home. Not so!
  5. Circuit breakers don’t trip for this type of short.
  6. I need to have an electrician install AFCI (Arc Fault Circuit Interrupters) in my service panel.
  7. I need to inspect all outlets in my home and feel if they or the plugs that are plugged into them are warm, hot or discolored.
  8. Replace faulty outlets as soon as possible.
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    This is the non melted side of the receptacle. Notice the two rusted screws – they were the early warning signs of trouble. The outlet box and receptacle are mounted on an outside wall behind a brick exterior. Although there’s a vapor barrier (I hope) behind the brick and wood sheathing it’s still an unheated space – moisture in the air condensed on the terminals and caused rust. The rust loosened (slightly) the connections and created resistance which led to heat which led to the short and meltdown.

    Now please understand that I am not an electrician and the points I make here are my unprofessional views of what happened. What I hope you can take away from this is that you need to do regular check-ups of your electrical service and if you see or feel something is wrong, call an electrician to check. You and your families health depend on it (the electrical system) in your house to be safe. Look into installing AFCIs in your home (in the United States). I understand that they are required in new home construction and in some restorations of existing homes and something like it is required overseas (Europe). If I had these AFCIs in my panel box then the power would have been shut off instantly an arc was detected and there would have been no meltdown. Have a blessed Holiday Season!

    Please share This story with your friends and discuss it with your family. ^.^ Chris