Electrician Solves Shocking Deck Mystery

Paul Pogue
Written by Paul Pogue
Updated April 28, 2015
All outdoor outlets must be GFCI-protected, experts say. (Illustration by Bruce Snow)

“He told me in 40 years of electrical work, he’s never seen anything like that.” — Angie's List member Sondra Davis

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When Indianapolis electrician John Calhoun heard about member Sondra Davis’ unique electrical problem, he says he didn’t believe it at first. She told him that whenever she and her friends sat on the deck of her Meridian Hills home in Indianapolis, they received persistent electrical shocks.

“She told me she was even getting shocked from her wicker chairs, which I found rather hard to believe,” he says.

Davis says she and friends frequently felt shocks when their skin even touched a nail on the deck. “The first thing John asked me was, ‘Are you crazy? Has anyone else had this happen?’” she says. “But several other friends had felt the same thing.”

When Calhoun and an assistant arrived at her 1940s house, they checked the most likely culprit: an outdoor electrical outlet near the deck. “I sat on the deck, stuck my tester in the plug, placed one tester lead on the metal cover and touched the other with my finger,” he says. “I’ve done that for 35 years and never got a shock. But this time I got a good 120-volt shock!”

Sondra says that convinced Calhoun. “It actually knocked him back!” she says. “He told me in 40 years of electrical work, he’s never seen anything like that.”

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After cutting the circuit breaker and removing the receptacle, Calhoun says the interior told the story. “The terminals were oxidized, it wasn’t GFCI-protected, the ground was open, and the ungasketed weather-proof cover was making good contact with the aluminum siding,” he says.

Behind the receptacle, he discovered the source of the entire problem: when the outlet was installed, a mounting screw touched a hot wire in the wall, sending current into the outlet and electrifying the siding. The combination of poor installation, inadequate parts and the hot wire created the dangerous circumstance. “It looked like it was installed about 30 years ago,” he says.

MORE: How Much Does It Cost to Install an Outdoor Outlet?

He replaced the outlet with one more appropriate for outdoor use, including GFCI protection, which cuts the circuit and prevents electric shock when it detects a ground fault.

Calhoun frequently comes across unusual electrical situations, and he says all these factors combined with little-known facts about electricity to create the once-in-a-lifetime circumstance.

“Most wood will pass electricity if it’s moist,” Calhoun says. “It’s possible that the aluminum siding had been electrified for years without anyone noticing. And the deck probably wasn’t there when the outlet was put in. Even then, a deck is usually pretty dry.

“But with all the rain we’ve had for the past several months, the treated lumber never really dried out, allowing it to conduct the electricity to the nails,” he says. “I’m not sure about how people got shocked by the wicker furniture. My guess is that when they sat down, their feet were touching something that conducted electricity and they weren’t well insulated by rubber at the time.”

RELATED: Electricians shocked by DIY repairs

Davis says she paid Calhoun and his assistant $200 for the two-hour job. They identified other unorthodox wiring issues that probably go back several decades, and she says she’ll be hiring Calhoun again to fix them.

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