Circuit Breakers - Be Wary When They Trip!

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You reach for a light switch, flip it, but nothing happens. Or, you are in the kitchen, about to hit 'start' on the microwave, but the electronic display is blank. In these situations and countless others like it, you may suspect that a breaker has tripped; indeed, a quick flip of the switch confirms your suspicion. However, there can be a lot occurring when breaker switches are tripped, and some of what is happening can be dangerous. That's why you should understand more about circuit breakers and how to correctly handle potential trouble that might be brewing behind the panel:

Residential wiring circuits

When electrical current enters your home, it is routed to the main electrical panel. At that point, the current is divided into numerous circuits, which are simply loops of wiring that leave and return to the panel. Each circuit contains a certain number of electrical connections that distribute power to outlets, lighting, appliances and other devices. Typically, circuits are geographically-isolated so you will find circuits for each room in a house or other natural divisions within a home.

Causes for circuit breaker tripping

At the panel, circuit breakers serve as 'gatekeepers' between the home's main wiring and individual circuits. They constantly monitor the flow of current, measured in amps, that passes through the breaker into the circuit; the number of amps can ebb and flow depending on how much energy is being consumed. Since some devices are able to consume massive amounts of power, the breaker maintains control over the flow by switching itself off (trips) when amp limits are exceeded on a given circuit.

Resetting a circuit breaker when it trips

When a breaker trips, the natural instinct for most people is to flip the circuit breaker switch back to the 'on' position. While this is usually satisfactory, you should verify there is not an electrical fire on the verge of erupting in the area of your home protected by the breaker. Look, listen, smell and feel for signs of overheating electrical equipment.

Once you are satisfied there is not a problem, firmly push the switch back into its 'on' position. Don't allow the switch's internal spring mechanism to provide the force to turn itself back on; it may not be enough to reset the breaker even if it lies in the 'on' position.

After resetting the breaker switch, again make a quick check for potential electrical dangers in the vicinity of the circuit. Immediately turn off the breaker switch if any warning signs such as smoke, heat or hissing, humming or popping noises make their presence known.

Handling a circuit breaker that repeatedly trips

If you have a circuit breaker that continues to trip consistently, you should be especially cautious to handle the situation properly. Repeatedly needing to turn on a tripped breaker is a clear sign of one of three things:

  • Defective electrical device
  • Overloaded circuit
  • Malfunctioning breaker

Broken or failing devices that consistently draw too much power can repeatedly trip breakers. If you have a circuit breaker that trips often, you will need to examine each electrical device that has access to a circuit; with plug-in devices, it is a simple matter to isolate them from the circuit to check if they are the cause of the trouble. For other devices that are hardwired into a circuit, you may need the assistance of an electrician for a check-up of your home's electrical usage patterns.

As for malfunctioning breakers, they are capable of causing repeated switch-offs, but it is more likely they are simply doing their job. It won't hurt to replace a breaker that is suspected of causing 'false' trips, but a 'hit-and-miss' approach can be wasteful or costly. If you decide to replace a breaker, then be sure to use one with the exact same electrical ratings. Never install a breaker with a higher amps rating than the one already in-place. For example, installing a 30 amp breaker in a 15 amp slot can permit too much current to pass through the circuit in question; even if the breaker doesn't trip, damage is being done to the internal wiring as it overheats.

When to call an electrician

If a stubborn circuit breaker continues to provide grief, then it may be possible the circuit itself needs to reworked. Your electrical needs can change over time in a home; as an example, the garage circuits may need a lot more power capability than originally designed. That's why you should contact a qualified, licensed electrical contractor for help with analyzing your circuits. They may need to make wiring upgrades or other significant changes such as rerouting overused circuits. 

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24 March 2015

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