Common reasons for your circuit breaker tripping are because of either a circuit overload, short circuit or a ground fault. 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 Does a Circuit Breaker Work?
A circuit breaker is an important safety device that works by cutting off the flow of electricity through a circuit whenever it gets too high. Fires, shocks and other accidents would be much more common if modern homes weren’t fitted with circuit breakers and their alternative, fuses.
To understand how a circuit breaker works, you have to understand electricity. Electricity has three main qualities: resistance, voltage, and current.
Voltage acts like pressure to make the electric charge move through the conductor. Current is the rate at which it flows. And resistance occurs when the electric current interacts with the conductor — different kinds of conductors offer different levels of resistance, which is why some materials conduct electricity better than others.
Your home’s wiring should be made up of three different types of wires: a hot wire that conducts the electric current, a neutral wire and a ground wire. Normally, the hot and neutral wires never touch each other, and the current passes through an appliance, which applies a high level of resistance to the current to keep the voltage at safe levels.
If something causes the hot and neutral wires to come into contact, the current will suddenly encounter dramatically reduced resistance, and that can cause voltage and current levels to become high enough to cause a fire. When current and voltage levels are too high on a circuit, the circuit breaker trips, cutting off electricity to the circuit until the issue can be resolved.
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, or you have multiple outlets not working in a room, 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 (that’s how current is measured, in amps), 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, just in case any sparks come from the breaker when it’s moved, or to wear safety goggles.
It’s also smart to keep a flashlight and batteries near your electrical panel to help illuminate the area if the power is off. Reset 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.
Often, however, an overloaded circuit occurs simply because too many things are plugged into the circuit. For example, if your microwave keeps tripping the circuit breaker every time you turn it on, it could be because it’s plugged into the same circuit as one or more large appliances and the circuit simply doesn’t have the extra amperage a microwave needs. 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 has 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.
To prevent circuit overloads, put large appliances and home systems like your HVAC on their own, dedicated circuits.
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 damage 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 in 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.
The danger of a short circuit is in the potential for high levels of electricity to heat up the wiring or components of a fixture or appliance and cause a fire. But the danger of a ground fault is in the potential to give someone a nasty shock, especially if the person’s body offers a path of least resistance to the ground.
In areas like kitchens and bathrooms, or outdoors areas, where the floor is likely to be damp, the danger is much more pronounced. So, if you think you might have a ground fault, you should get it repaired immediately to prevent injury to you or your family.
This is no job for the casual home handyman, either. Electrical repairs can be dangerous if you don’t know what you’re doing. Larger jobs, like updating old wiring, installing a hardwired appliance, or replacing a circuit breaker that keeps tripping or that won’t reset, are usually too dangerous for the average home DIYer.
Why Does My Circuit Breaker Keep Tripping?
What causes a circuit breaker to trip repeatedly? If your circuit breaker keeps tripping, it’s usually a sign of something wrong with the circuit. There could be a short circuit in one of the appliances or somewhere in the wiring. There could be a ground fault causing the breaker to keep tripping. There could be a circuit overload. Or it could be a sign that your circuit breaker box itself is going bad — or that the breaker isn’t sized correctly for the amperage that’s actually going through it.
How Can You Tell If a Circuit Breaker Has Gone Bad?
Like anything else in your home, circuit breakers can go bad. Warning signs of a bad circuit breaker include:
A breaker that won’t stay reset
A burning smell in the electrical box
A circuit breaker that keeps tripping frequently
Signs of damage to a breaker, like scorch marks
If your circuit breakers are getting old or your electrical panel hasn’t been serviced in at least the last ten years, there’s a good chance that at least some of your breakers are reaching the end of their lifespan and need to be replaced with new ones.
If you have a circuit breaker that keeps tripping, it’s a good idea to call in a professional electrician. An electrician can test for short circuits and ground faults, and safely fix them. He or she will also be best equipped to service your electrical panel and replace any breakers that are undersized, damaged, aging or otherwise ready to fail.
While you can sometimes narrow down the cause of a short circuit or circuit overload to a specific appliance or fixture — especially if there’s some smoke coming out of it — you need the expertise of a professional to address the cause of your faulty circuit breaker, whether that’s a ground fault in your wiring, an undersized breaker or a circuit overload somewhere in the home.
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