Troubleshooting Electrical Issues

Troubleshooting Electrical Issues

By Diane M. Calabrese / Published April 2020

Photo by iStockphoto.com/FactoryThn

There’s the simple problem to diagnose—disconnection from the power source—and there’s the more complex problem—a tiny insulation break that’s difficult to locate.

Troubleshooters must know and respect the limits of their knowledge. If they do, they can remedy simple issues without calling on a service center. That’s a time saver.

There are instances, though, when a contractor should shut down a machine and take it to a service center. Any contractor aiming to become an expert troubleshooter must know the signals.

“Electrical issues that would require immediate attention and require a machine to be immediately shut down would be such things as smoking wires or components, arcing or sparks, components that appear to be burnt or discolored, or chafed wires,” says Bryson Sharp, design engineering manager at Northern Tool + Equipment in Faribault, MN.

“If there is a circuit breaker on the machine and the breaker trips repeatedly, this could be an indicator of deeper, more involved issues with the machine,” explains Sharp. It’s another reason to seek immediate attention from an expert.

Sharp also gives prospective troubleshooters a recommendation and a reminder. They do well to take both to heart. “An essential tool needed to help resolve electrical issues would be a multimeter,” says Sharp. “A multimeter can measure voltage, resistance (continuity), current, and other electrical measurements.”

Multimeters can be purchased for less than $20 and range in price to more than $1,000. Those used only to get a quick reading on variables are less expensive than those that are used in calibration. In fact, the multi-
meter is a good tool for anyone who wants to get a fuller understanding of the flow of electricity.

“Of course, working with electricity can be very dangerous,” continues Sharp. “If you do not feel comfortable working around electricity, you should contact a professional.”

In the final section, we review some of the ground rules for safely working with electricity. The mention of ground, however, should remind readers that ground-fault circuit interrupters (GFCI) on pressure washers greatly improve safety.

Insulation breaks, for one, may be difficult to detect on electrical equipment. Even if the machine is plugged into a grounded receptacle, the breach could be significant enough to alter the normal path of electric current into the earth (via the ground). If that happens, the operator is at risk of electric shock and possibly electrocution.

Current follows the path of least resistance to the ground/earth unless the path is disrupted. A break in insulation is one example of a disruption. It creates a ground fault. If the new path of least resistance is through the body of the operator, the operator is in danger. With a GFCI in place, the detection of errant current and shutoff of power takes place in as little as 1/40 second.

[See the August 2016 article “Ground-Fault Circuit Interrupters (GFCIs)” for more about the GFCI (www.cleanertimes.com/magazine/cleaner-times-articles-2/ground-fault-circuit-interrupters-gfcis).]

DIY with Care

For contractors wanting a handy, quick-check guide to assessing what seems to be an electrical issue, there are many ways to find help. Nearby expert mentors and colleagues make good resources. But in this era, virtual help is always available.

Start with a useful tool. That would be the multimeter for checking voltage, amperage, and continuity, says Brad Van Otterloo, certification and regulation manager at Mi-T-M Corporation in Peosta, IA.

Then, seek help from the original equipment manufacturer. “The manufacturer’s website would be the first website to visit,” says Van Otterloo. “Most manufacturers should have manuals and parts lists available online. If not, the manufacturer’s phone number or help center page are available to get them. After that, Google can be used to find any manuals needed for individual parts.”

Next, says Van Otterloo, look for the good advice offered via online videos. “YouTube has videos demonstrating good electrical troubleshooting along with proper safety awareness,” he explains.

Still, troubleshooting should stop, and a trip to the nearest service center should ensue in the case of certain issues. Van Otterloo gives us three examples of when to shut down the machine and take it for service: when there’s a “strange noise coming from the motor, pump, or control box; burnt or discolored wires; or cut or damaged electrical cords/wires or boxes.”

All that is not to discourage troubleshooters. Consider, for example, when a unit will not start. Van Otterloo explains there are several simple assessments to make. “Check if the receptacle the unit is plugged into has voltage. If there is no voltage, check the breaker feeding the unit.

“If the cord is equipped with a GFCI, make sure the GFCI has not tripped. Reset if necessary.

“Check any internal fuses to make sure all fuses are good.

“Check any overloads that may be in the system. There may be one in the control box or built into the motor.”

Fuses deserve a note, and we make it here. OSHA (standard 1926.449) defines a fuse as “an overcurrent protective device with a circuit opening fusible part that is heated and severed by the passage of overcurrent through it”—tidy, but not entirely clarifying. The ambiguity stems from the way “fuse” has been adopted as a term for “all the  parts that form a unit capable of performing the prescribed functions”—which is clarifying in the sense that in colloquial settings fuse and circuit breaker may be used interchangeably.

OSHA also defines a circuit breaker in 1926.449. In contrast to a fuse, a circuit breaker opens automatically in response to a predetermined overcurrent “without injury to itself”—the no injury is key.

In the strictest sense, a fuse is a wire or strip of metal that melts (easily) when current becomes too strong (an overcurrent) and breaks the circuit. (The word fuse that interrupts flow when there is an overcurrent is only indirectly allied with the word fuse that describes joining by melting.)

A fuse and a circuit breaker achieve the same end by a different means. The “melt-down” means a fuse must be replaced. The circuit breaker can be reset.

Safety First

Troubleshooting a pressure washer or other piece of equipment demands attention to safety. For guidance and training tools on electrical safety, start at the OSHA.gov website. A good document to read and make available to employees is Electrical Safety at www.osha.gov/Publications/electrical_safety.html.

The document reminds readers that avoiding electrical hazards begins with understanding the danger of contact with power lines. Ladders, scaffolds, and long-handled brushes should be kept well clear of service lines (and overhead lines). If a contractor is working in an area with underground lines, follow all local regulations for having the lines marked before beginning work. In some localities, the lines must be marked even when digging is not expected to be part of the work.

The document emphasizes the importance of ground-fault protection. Know the integrity of any receptacles that will be used on the jobsite. GFCIs should be used on all 120-volt, single-phase, 15- and 20-ampere receptables. Or, an assured equipment grounding conductor program (AEGCP) should be in place.

OSHA also advises that the best way to avoid hazards is to scrupulously follow the testing procedure recommended by the manufacturer to ensure the GFCI works properly. In addition, it reminds users that tools and equipment should be double insulated and used only in accordance with instructions.

Finally, OSHA gives a reminder that applies well beyond electrical components. All electrical equipment should be inspected visually before use. Frayed cords, missing ground prongs, cracked tool casings—anything that’s not in original form—are indicators of a machine that should be taken out of service. And to avoid confusion, label the machine as defective.

One of the biggest causes of injury and death when working with electrical equipment is misuse of equipment. Using a circuit breaker or a fuse with the wrong rating is akin to using no protection, for example. Why? If a 30-amp breaker is used in a system with 15- or 20-amp receptacle, it will not trip when the load is exceeded because its overcurrent threshold for action (cutting the circuit) is 30 amps.

Contractors, distributors, and manufacturers in our industry know the dangers of misuse of equipment and promote safety at every juncture. The challenge that all have is to keep all employees focused on proper use and proper methods. Required and additional safety meetings do that.

Owners aiming to get across the importance of electrical safety, especially to new hires who may arrive with little understanding of basic principles, may consider developing an in-house tutorial on electricity and safety—and make it hands-on.

Give each attendee a multimeter and discuss voltage, flow, resistance, and circuits with the visual and tangible aid of batteries, easily constructed circuit boards (wood, wire, etc.), and so on. Let the employees “see” electricity—or the parameters that define its path and activity level.

Yes, it’s all the stuff many did in high school, but some did not. So, improve safety and establish a context for team members to learn more—and become adept at skill-level-appropriate troubleshooting. It could all make a more profound impression than citing OSHA accounts of death and injury.