Power outages can put a serious damper on a vacation. If the lights suddenly go out in a vacation rental, most renters won’t know what steps to take other than to call the owner. However, almost anyone can take some simple diagnostic steps to help correct and prevent problems. This three-step approach will make things easier for both renters and owners to help get the lights back on quicker.

Determine the scope of the problem


When a light goes out, there can be several causes: The bulb may be burned out, the circuit that supports the light may have a problem, the main circuit breaker in the service panel may have “tripped” off, or the power may not be reaching the entire house or even the neighborhood. The first thing to do is figure out what is causing the power outage.

  • If just the bulb is burned out, everything else will be working properly. Replace the dead bulb with a new one and turn the light on. If it lights up, you’re all set.
  • If the new bulb doesn’t work, there may be a problem with the electrical circuit that serves the light fixture. Figuring out the issue will generally require a trip to the electrical service panel. (See Step 2 for details.) If the circuit breaker that controls the light circuit is off, turn it on. If it stays on, the light should work. If it doesn’t stay on, or if it does but the light still doesn’t work, call for professional help. (See Step 3 for more information on checking individual circuit breakers.)
  • If the power seems to be out in the whole house, check the main breaker in the service panel next. If it’s in the “ON” position and there’s no power, turn the breaker on and off a couple of times. If the power is still off, it’s time to call a professional, but first, see if any neighboring vacation rentals or buildings have power. If everybody’s lights are out, let the rental owner know, because this information will help the repair people know where to start work.

Locate the service panel

The service panel is the point of distribution for the electricity entering the vacation rental.

The panel is most often located in the basement. Grab a flashlight and try to locate it. If the house doesn’t have a basement, the panel is usually on the inside of an exterior wall near where the electrical meter is located. If you don’t see the panel right away, find the meter outside and look on the interior side of this wall. The panel may be located behind a cabinet or closet door.

Once you find the panel, look at the breakers. A large main breaker, labeled with the panel’s amperage rating (usually 100 or 200 amps) will be on the top of the box. If this breaker is off, turn it on and see if the power returns. If it does, you should still call the owner to alert him or her about the situation. Main breakers almost never switch off for no reason.

If the main breaker is on and there’s still no power in the unit, the problem is with the electric utility. Call the owner or rental office and let them handle things from this point. Power outages are often caused by bad weather. High winds, falling trees, and ice storms can bring down power lines. These events can affect large or small areas depending on how many lines are involved. Local outages caused by power poles broken in a traffic accident are also common.

Check individual breakers

If only one light goes out but everything else seems fine (and you’ve tested the lightbulb somewhere else to make sure it’s not the problem), the trouble is probably with a single circuit. Whenever a circuit starts to draw more power than it’s rated for, the breaker automatically turns off. See if the breaker switch that controls the light’s circuit is in the “OFF” position.

If so, turn the breaker switch to the “ON” position. If it stays on instead of turning off immediately (and the light works), you have probably diagnosed and fixed the problem. The breaker may have just accidentally turned off, which happens occasionally and is no cause for worry. It is, however, worth mentioning to the landlord so that he or she can have an electrician double-check the system.

NOTE: When turning breakers on and off by flipping their switch, you aren’t exposed to any live electricity unless you remove the cover panel from the box.

Fuse-based systems

Not every vacation house has circuit-breaker-based electrical service. Newer ones do, but years ago the default system was fuse-based, and many of these are still in service today. Both types work in a similar fashion.

A fuse panel is the distribution device for routing electrical power to various parts of the house, just like a circuit breaker panel does. The panel box is similar to (though usually smaller than) a breaker panel. And while each fuse protects a single circuit, they are very different devices. These fuses are round-shaped, glass devices that have screw threads around the base. Inside is a metal strip through which the current flows. If the circuit draws too much power, the strip melts and breaks the current flow. After a fuse is “blown,” it cannot be reused (unlike a breaker, which can simply be turned back on).

Replacement fuses come in different amperage ratings (as do breakers), and any blown fuses should be replaced with a new fuse of the same amperage. Alert the owner if a fuse is blown. He or she can call a professional to correct it.

This article was written by Steve Willson. Steve Willson owned a carpentry contracting business in Rochester, New York, before becoming the home improvement editor for Popular Mechanics magazine for 22 years. He has written extensively about home improvement and tools, including three books. He also writes for The Home Depot, which carries a large selection of circuit breakers and electrical supplies you can see here.

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