Here’s some information about the differences between a circuit overload, a short circuit and a ground fault to help you solve your circuit breaker and electrical systems issues.
You go to plug in something or reach to flip on a switch and . . .nothing. Your circuit breaker has tripped again. Sure, you can just reset the circuit breaker each time it trips. Or, you can figure out what’s causing the problem so you can fix it once and for all. Here’s some information about the differences between a circuit overload, a short circuit and a ground fault to help you solve your circuit breaker and electrical systems issues.
How Do You Know If a Circuit Breaker Has Tripped?
If power has gone off in a certain area of your home rather than all over the house, the problem may be a tripped circuit breaker. Electrical circuits of your home are protected by either circuit breakers or fuses. All homeowners should know the location of their electrical panel or fuse box, and the opening should be easily accessible and not blocked by shelving, boxes or furniture. If each circuit breaker or fuse isn’t already labeled, take the time to identify each switch or fuse and the particular area it controls. This will save you time and effort if a circuit or fuse trips/blows. If there are two breakers or fuses for one area, such as the kitchen, take care to detail which part of the kitchen each of the two switches controls. For example, you might label one switch “kitchen appliances” and the other switch “kitchen counter outlets” or other designations as appropriate.
If a circuit breaker trips because it has exceeded its maximum amperage, the switch handle will have moved between the on and off position and may show a red area alerting you that it has tripped. Depending on your electrical panel, sometimes the “trip” causes only a slight movement of the handle, and you’ll have to look closely at the switches to discern which one has tripped.
How Do You Reset a Tripped Circuit Breaker?
To reset a tripped circuit breaker, turn off the breaker by moving the switch or handle to the off position, and then turn it back on. For safety, it’s a good idea to stand back or to the side of the panel for safety, just in case any sparks come from the breaker when it’s moved, or to wear safety goggles when resetting a circuit breaker. It’s also smart to keep a flashlight and batteries near your electrical panel to help illuminate the area if the power is off. Rest the circuit breaker for a few minutes before unplugging and plugging items to determine what might have overloaded the circuit or caused the trip.
What Is a Circuit Overload?
A circuit can become overloaded when an electrical wire/circuit receives more amperage than it’s intended to handle, or may be caused by loose or corroded wires or connections. If a circuit trips because it has been overloaded, you can try disconnecting something from the circuit, and using another circuit for the electrical power instead.
To help determine what caused the problem, unplug all the items on the circuit before resetting the breaker. After it’s reset and rested for a few minutes, turn on or plug in items, one at a time, to determine what may have caused the overload. If circuit overloads continue to happen in your home on a regular basis, you may need to install a new dedicated circuit and outlet for the area to handle the amperage load.
What Is a Short Circuit
A short circuit happens when a hot or active, electrical wire and a neutral wire touch, causing a large amount of current to flow and overload the circuit. A short circuit should always cause a breaker to trip or a fuse to blow and may also cause sparks, popping sounds and possibly some smoke. It may also be caused by issues like loose connections, a slipped wire or even from damaged caused by animals chewing on wires. A short circuit can be caused by a faulty electrical switch, receptacle, fixture, appliance, plug or cord. You can try to trace the short circuit, yourself or call a qualified electrician for help. Short circuits can be dangerous due to the high temperatures from the current flow which can pose a fire hazard, so proceed with caution if you think your home has an issue and seek professional assistance, especially if you can’t find the source.
What Is a Ground Fault?
A ground fault can happen when a hot or active wire makes contact with the ground wire, a grounded portion of the junction box or a grounded area of an appliance (Hot wires are usually black, neutral wires are usually white, and ground wires are usually green). When contact is made between a hot and ground wire large amounts of current go through the circuit breaker which can cause it to trip. Many areas in the home are required by the National Electrical Code (NEC) to be protected by Ground Fault Circuit Interrupters (GFCI) to prevent electrical shocks and fires, including: kitchens, bathrooms, outdoor areas and other home areas. Ground faults usually happen when equipment is damaged or defective and can pose danger since live electrical parts may no longer be adequately protected from unintended contact.
Keep in mind that circuit breakers and fuses are actually safety devices for our protection when electrical malfunctions occur. Although, it may be frustrating when a circuit breaker trips or when a fuse blows, this action has actually served to protect us and our property. When troubleshooting or dealing with home electrical repairs, always take safety very seriously and never attempt to inspect or repair anything that you aren’t certain is safe. Always follow these electrical safety tips from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), including:
- Never repair electrical cords or equipment unless qualified and authorized.
- Have a qualified electrician inspect electrical equipment that has gotten wet before energizing it.
- If working in damp locations, inspect electric cords and equipment to ensure that they are in good condition and free of defects, and use a ground fault circuit interrupter (GFCI).
- Always use caution when working near electricity.