I fenced about 20 acres with a heavy-duty electric fence. I installed and have been troubleshooting this electric fence myself for about three years. These are my electric fence troubleshooting lessons.
Keeping an electric fence running is a constant struggle. Between falling trees, growing weeds, lightning and wearing out insulators, you can expect to keep it running for a few hours a month. The good news? This is a great excuse to walk your dogs (while carrying a bunch of tools).
See how my fence broke, how I fixed it, and how I try to avoid future problems.
First question: Was the charge okay when you originally installed the fence?
When I first put up my fence, it had almost no defects. My fence charger showed 14.1 which I think is 14,100 volts. To put things in perspective, these energizers are an effective deterrent against livestock up to a score of 2.0. Horses avoid the fence to 0.5 or less.
If you answered NO that you never had a good load on your fence, ask if your wires are properly insulated or if there is a serious design flaw. This may not be fixed without rebuilding part of your fence.Check out this document from Kencove that I used to build my own fence. He has great tips for designing a durable electric fence.
^^ Pay special attention to how you attach the reinforcing wire to the corner posts. If you are not careful when routing it, this wire will touch the fence wires (causing a short). Typically, you want reinforcing wire to be on the inside compared to other fence wire.
If you answered YES to it once with a good charge (like the fence charger photo above), but over time its voltage has dropped, then it should be operational. Keep reading!
Is your electric fence properly grounded?
Electric fence chargers must be connected to the ground with a long metal stake. Most manufacturers say you need three 8-foot (2.8 m) long ground rods driven into the ground several feet (2 m) apart. If your fence is less strong in dry weather, that's a sign your grounding system needs help.
This is not my video, but I recommend it. It shows you how to properly backfill your fence.
Tips for testing your electric fence
You can buy a voltage tester at your local agricultural store. Attach the top end to the electric fence, stick the bottom end into the ground and see if the lights flicker. This is a slow and tedious way to test your fence as you have to backfill it every time. More expensive testers show a digital display instead of lights.
No fence tester? No problem.
A word of caution: this advice comes from my own experience. I'm not an expert. Drive at your own risk. If you have a pacemaker or being touched would be very bad, don't do it.
Electric farm fences send very short "pulses" of electricity through the wire. Typically one pulse per second, with each pulse lasting a fraction of a second. This allows the animal (or human) to move away from the fence before being shocked again. If you have a charger nearby, you've probably heard it click like a metronome. Every click is an impulse.
Electric fences are not intended to cause permanent harm to animals (or humans). The voltage can be very high, but the current is low. Amplifiers do damage when we are shocked. Ideally, the amperage should be around 1. The voltage should be between 2000 and 15000.
I received several shocks at full power (over 10,000 volts). Not recommended!!! In fact, my most memorable crash left very few entry and exit marks (they looked like little circles of ash with a burnt spot in the middle). I had no long-term damage, but I don't want to repeat the experience!
The badass way to test electric fences
Ye Olde rubber boots, also known as "dirty boots". Available for $20 at your local farm shop. They offer significant impact protection.
Find some tall rubber boots and wear them. Assuming they don't have holes, the grass isn't taller than your boots, and you don't touch anything that could act as soil, you'll be protected from impact. This means you'll feel the zap on your finger, but it won't go all over your body. I've been known to deliver test hurdles directly while wearing rubber boots.
This method is very impressive for people who don't know that you are wearing rubber boots.
The Grass method for testing electric fences
Start with a long blade of grass (at least 6 inches long). Hold one end and attach the other to the electric fence. At full stretch, you probably won't be able to feel anything.
Slowly choking on the blade of grass. As you approach the fence, you will feel a slight snap in your fingers. This means the fence is on. Increasing tension and wearing (or not wearing) rubber boots will change the distance at which you can feel a zap.
Use the grass method to test your fence if you don't want to wear rubber boots or avoid pain. Choose a long green blade of grass (ideally 10 inches or longer) and hold it by one end. Hang the other end against the electric fence. Normally you won't feel anything at this point. Slowly slide the shaft into the guide so that there is less distance between your hand and the guide. Eventually you will start to feel a very weak zap. The closer you are before you feel the blow, the lower the voltage and/or the more conductive your blade of grass will be.
Troubleshooting your electric fence
Has your fence charger stopped clicking and seems to be off?
Lightning on electric fence destroys charger
If you had a storm last night, I have bad news for you. Lightning likely struck your fence and traveled the entire length of it, melting the charger. Your charger is dead.
What can you do to avoid this in the future?
- Get a good warranty on your fence loader and have the paperwork handy. Make sure your warranty protects you from lightning.*
- install alightning rodon your fence about 50 to 100 feet before connecting to the charger.
- Use a surge protector between the wall outlet and the fence charger.
I use oneZareba Lightning Stops🇧🇷 They connect one side to the power cord and the other to ground. When lightning strikes your electric fence, current flows to that point and then cuts an arc through the downconductor to the ground. As long as the fence charger is more than 50 feet from that location, it will prevent electricity.
In my case, my non-electric fence is buried in the ground so it acts as a ground rod for my lightning rod. If you don't have such a thing, you'll have to bury the ground wire or install a ground rod.
In my first year with electric fencing, two chargers were destroyed by lightning. I installed a lightning rod and had no problems for about 18 months.
*Don't be like me, waiting for a replacement charger to be shipped. Get a new fence loader now and install it. I had a cow that escaped my fence four days after the gatekeeper died. That stress was NOT worth saving a hundred bucks.
Blown fuse in fence charger
Most fence chargers have a fuse inside. This fuse limits current, which is an important safety precaution (it doesn't feel good to be electrocuted). All of my fence chargers use standard 1 amp fuses. These can usually be purchased down the aisle in the store as the charger. When in doubt, just replace.
Lightning strikes and blown fuses: When lightning strikes a charger at close range, the fuse usually blows. If you open the fuse and the broken glass falls out, it's not worth fixing. Warranty repair and/or purchase of a new charger. I once spent a couple of hours removing parts, cleaning the compartment, and putting in a new fuse. I think it didn't work because the charger melted inside.
If your fuse just blew (looks like you have smoke in the jar), try replacing it! This usually fixes the problem. Since I installed a lightning rod I started getting blown fuses instead of melted fence chargers. Great progress.
Your power supply has failed, so your fence charger is off.
If you are using AC power for the fence charger, make sure the outlet is working. You may have to flip the switch.
If you are using batteries (solar or DC) for your fence charger, make sure the battery is connected, the terminals are polished and the battery is charged. The battery could also be frozen or out of battery fluid, etc.
Random note: I tried the Solar and found that it lacked juice. Not good for the cows, they ignore small zaps. I've only seen solar energy used successfully on horses.
GFCI outlets and chargers for electric fence.
Were you amateur enough to power your charger from around a GFCI outlet? (I did this in the beginning). Housing regulations require that all outdoor exits be GFCI protected. Unfortunately, fixing a bug is exactly what triggers the GFCI. You can feel the current flow to the ground and the circuit turns off.
You need to unplug the GFCI charger or it keeps shutting down. Fortunately, this is pretty easy to do. Replace the GFCI socket with a non-GFCI socket. Then take steps to protect this outlet so that people are not electrocuted. For example, I have my plug in a box that is physically locked to prevent access. You are responsible for complying (or not complying) with local housing regulations.
Did your electric fence voltage suddenly drop to zero?
Anytime you have wires next to each other, there's a chance they could touch each other. Wires have an uncanny ability to penetrate anything that gets in their way (eg plastic insulation, electrical tape, wooden blocks, and cable ties). If the electric fence is connected to a ground wire, the charger reading will suddenly drop to 0.
Pro tip: I find it more effective to separate the wires from each other (like using cable ties or wires to bundle non-energized wires into a bundle) than putting an insulator between the wires that are touching.
If your voltage buzzed, say 4.7, then suddenly dropped to 0, you have a direct ground problem.
Look for cables that are dropping and touching the ground or cables that are not insulated.
This means you have an excellent conductor (like metal wire) connecting your electric fence directly to the ground. Or part of your electric fence has fallen to the ground. Or you are using T-posts and one of the insulators is broken so the fence is touching the T-post directly.
This T-Post was the cause of a fence breach. A branch fell on the fence just behind this T-post and broke the top insulation. Insulation fell off, wire came loose and rested against the T-post. Immediate ground fault.
Find your ground fault. Carry a variety of spare insulators with you.
This is a good solution for cables that want to touch each other. First I tried using electrical tape as insulation. The lumps melted through the tape after a few months. This insulation lasts a year or two before it wears out due to natural friction (caused by wind, storms, etc.).
A better solution would be to join the clamp wires in the middle with zip ties or flexible wire. This will keep the clamp wires from touching the fence wires and will last much longer. I switched to this method (pinning the strands in the middle) after a few years.
When installing a new fence, there is a way to tie the reinforcing wires crosswise so they don't touch live wires. I didn't know this when I put up the fence, so this year (2020) I finally re-tied the bad ones.
Does the fence voltage drop slowly over time?
Fix Electric Fence - Things are touching your wires!
If your voltage slowly drops, it means you have bad conductors touching your electric fence. A small part of its voltage travels through these conductors to ground and is lost.
- Long grass is more common. I spray my fences with a slow release herbicide to prevent this problem. It's difficult (and dangerous) to cut high voltage fences, so I avoid them.
- Trees or branches fallen through the fence. If you live in a wooded area, you will drop things over the fence.
- Spider webs on the other side of the fence??? I think I'm just being paranoid, but it makes me crazy when I see cobwebs building up between the electrified and non-electrified parts of my fence.
- water or ice. If you get enough rain or sleet, the ice can short out the insulators and cause the voltage to drop momentarily.
Solution: Are your electric fence insulators broken?
Insulators are the pieces of plastic that go between the wooden posts and the fence, the T-posts and the fence, the trees and the fence, or the fence and other wires.A well-constructed electric fence should have insulators between the fence wire and everything else it comes in contact with except air.Over the years, your insulators can fail. Metal staples used to secure insulators to wooden studs are the main reason for insulator failures.
Important: Wood is not a good insulator.
If I were redoing my fence I would be much more careful hammering in the studs. It is extremely important not to dent the insulators.
Metal brackets will break down electric fence insulators over time
You will need some type of plastic or ceramic insulator between the electric fence and the fence posts. Especially when wet, fence posts conduct electricity to other wires in the fence and/or to the ground.
This is a faulty insulator on my property (the black tube). It was stapled to the tree, the tree grew, the staple went through the plastic. With that, the fence began to lose strength in the tree. The yellow insulator is my solution. It's a 1x6" T-post insulator that I stapled into place. This should last a long time.
Find clamps that cause a ground fault
- Metal clips can puncture plastic insulators over time. When this happens, the clamp comes into contact with the wire of the electric fence and leads to the wooden post. This is a huge problem with my fence and is difficult to diagnose. I touch each metal clip with my finger (see the badass method above) and if I feel a crack, it means the clip has worn into the insulation. Instead, use a screw-on insulator for fastening.
Test to see if the clip has damaged the insulation. When the staple breaks through the plastic and comes into contact with the electric fence wire, you will feel a snap in your finger. Or you will get an electric shock if you don't wear rubber boots.
Testing another insulator on an end post. When I built the fence, I didn't realize that the struts would wear down the insulators over time. Try not to dent the plastic when hammering. End and corner post insulators should be held in place with loosely secured upper and lower clamps.
Your fence is attached to a tree that grows on it.
It turns out that the bark of the tree grows on objects attached to it. Usually, the extra pressure will cause the clip to break through the plastic insulation first, before the tree fully bends the wire. My lesson learned is to only use screw insulators when trying to keep my wire away from a tree.
This is a tree on my property that grows over the electric fence. When I installed the fence three years ago, it barely touched the tree on one side. The wave now touches about 3 inches below the length of the insulator. The lower cable is not under tension. I replaced the insulator and clips with Zareba screw-on insulators.
Electric Fence Troubleshooting - Replace tube insulators with screw insulators
These heavy duty screw insulators are my new best friend. I use them to replace pipe insulators on my high strength fence as I don't need to reroute the wire. They have an opening where you can slide the cable sideways. 🇧🇷
I originally used these yellow plastic insulators for the voltage-free parts of my fence (connecting the heavy-duty fence to my charger near the house). You are a giant PITA. If your posts are hard, the nails will bend when you drive them in and you'll have to start over. Light pressure over the years will cause the insulation to pull against the nail and eventually crack or bend in half.
My final compliment to these screw insulators: they don't use cheap nails. This fence segment is made of very hard wood. You can see a nail left over from a faulty plastic insulator. Sturdy screw insulators can handle hard or soft wood with ease.
Good luck with your electric fence!
If you have an electric fence troubleshooting tip, please leave a comment below. I would love to learn new techniques to fix my fence!
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