If you consider yourself a good handyperson, then you can probably manage to solve usual problems around the house like poor drainage, leaks, clogged garbage disposal, and more. But you will probably agree with us that one of the grey areas in homes is the electrical system.
Not only are electric repairs complex, but they are absolutely dangerous, especially if you’re an amateur. If you notice any electrical issues, we highly recommend that you schedule a visit with an electrician near you.
Although you should definitely rely on professional electricians to fix the issues you’re experiencing, it’s helpful to learn about common electrical problems, like tripping circuit breakers.
In this article, we’ll cover how a circuit breaker works, what’s causing it to trip and what you can do when it does.
What is a circuit breaker?
To help you understand the issues with your circuit breaker, let’s take a look at how it works.
Every home that is powered by electricity has a system of electrical circuits that are protected and controlled by a device, which can switch off the power supply. This device (either fuse or circuit breaker) is located in an electrical panel.
Older homes with fuse boxes, use fuses that burn out if they are overloaded. For newer homes, circuit breakers are used to interrupt the flow of electricity and protect the circuits from overheating. A circuit breaker is basically a switching device that automatically cuts off the electric supply when the load is too strong or high. Power surges can be caused by the electric utility company switching power grids or lightning, while appliances like ACs or refrigerators can also cause power surges when they are turned on.
Important Note: Consider getting your electric panel upgraded if it still uses fuses. While fuses have the same function as circuit breakers, fuses are outdated and may no longer be designed for modern devices.
How do you know if your circuit breaker has tripped?
You go to get a glass of milk and you heat it in the microwave. But after you switched it on, the lights in the kitchen went off and your microwave also lost power. You look around and everything seems to be working fine except for the switches and outlets in the kitchen — you might have a tripped circuit breaker.
As mentioned above, your home’s electrical circuit is protected by circuit breakers. A circuit breaker will trip if there is an excess of current, there is a power surge, or there is a faulty component in your system (we will discuss that further later). You will know if a circuit breaker has tripped by looking inside your electrical panel.
Every homeowner should know where their main panel is. Most likely, this metal box will be found in a utility room, basement, or garage. When you open this box, you will know what circuit breaker tripped by looking at the switch handle. A tripped breaker will have a handle that is positioned between the on and off.
Tip: To make it easier for you to spot which switch controls a particular area in your home, make sure to allocate time to label each switch so that it’s faster to troubleshoot next time you encounter an issue.
What causes a circuit breaker to trip?
When a circuit breaker trips, there are usually three reasons why:
• Overloaded circuits
• Short circuit
• Ground fault
Circuit Overload – A circuit can be overloaded when it receives more amperage than it can produce. (Merriam-Webster defines amperage as “the strength of a current electricity expressed in amperes.”)
For example, a circuit can be overloaded when there are too many appliances that are plugged into it at the same time. The circuit breaker will trip because it simply cannot handle the amperage that these appliances require. If the circuit breaker will not trip, overloading can cause the circuit to overheat, fry the appliances, or worst, start an electrical fire.
If your circuit breaker tripped because of an overload, you can determine what caused the issue by disconnecting all the items from the circuit before you reset the breaker. (Continue reading to learn how to safely reset a breaker.)
When you have reset the breaker, plug in the devices one at a time and turn them on to identify what caused the overload. If the issue persists, and you experience circuit overloads frequently, it is recommended that you have an additional circuit and outlet installed by a licensed electrician so your system can safely handle the load.
Short Circuits – This is another common reason for a tripped circuit breaker. Short circuits occur when a live wire comes in contact with a neutral wire, which causes a breaker to trip.
Note: Standard electrical wiring in the US usually have three conductors, which consists of 1) hot/live wire that carries the current to the outlet, 2) neutral wire that provides the return path for the current from the hot wire, and 3) ground wire that services as an alternate path for the current to flow to the earth.
Other causes of a short circuit are loose connections, frayed wires, faulty switches/outlets, or appliances. Some indications of a short circuit are a burning smell or burn marks around the breaker or when you hear buzzing sounds coming from an outlet.
It is important to note that short circuits are a huge electrical hazard and could cause major damages to your electrical system. Seek help from a qualified electrician if you notice these red flags.
Ground Fault – A ground fault happens when a live or hot wire comes in contact with a ground wire, a grounded area of an appliance, or a grounded portion of the panel box. When this contact happens, a large amount of current will go through the circuit breaker, causing it to trip.
How do you reset a circuit breaker?
When your circuit breaker trips, you only need to reset it to restore the flow of electricity. Technically, when you reset a tripped breaker, you don’t necessarily need the assistance of an electrician. But of course, you need to observe some safety measures such as:
1. Make sure that the floor you’re going to stand on when opening the panel box is completely dry (even a damp floor can be very dangerous)
2. Your hands should also be completely dry
3. Have a flashlight on hand in case you need it
4. You can also opt to wear gloves and safety glasses for added protection
To reset your circuit breaker, follow these steps:
1. Locate your main panel/break box and open the metal door. Inside the breaker box, you will see switches arranged in rows.
2. The next step is to identify the breaker that tripped. You will know which one when you see a handle that is positioned differently from the other breakers. Most breakers will also have a red or orange marker indicating that it has tripped.
3. When you identify which breaker tripped, the next step is to turn off all fixtures, appliances, and switches that are connected to the circuit. Although this step is not mandatory, it’s a good safety practice.
4. When you have disconnected all appliances from the switch, the next step is to turn the circuit on to restore the electricity supply. Note that with some breakers, you may need to push the handle fully to off before you can turn it back on. You will hear a click sound as you turn on the breaker.
5. The last step is to switch the lights on, as well as the appliances connected to the circuit. Do this one at a time and have someone monitor the breaker box to see if it will trip again.
When should you call an electrician?
If you were able to reset the circuit and it trips again, or if you frequently experience this issue, this is a clear sign that you have a more serious problem at hand. Besides the reasons above, another thing that can cause your circuit breaker to frequently trip is when your breaker box itself has gone bad.
You can also look out of these signs to tell if you have a bad circuit breaker:
• There is a burning smell coming from the circuit box
• The breaker is tripping frequently
• The breaker does not stay in reset mode
• The circuit breaker or the panel box itself is hot to touch
• You can see visible scorch marks or damage to the box
The warning signs above are clear signs that you need the help of an expert to get to the root of the issue. These symptoms may even warrant an emergency visit from a local electrician.
Make sure that you don’t ignore these signs as these can make your loved ones and your property susceptible to serious accidents like lethal electric shocks or electrical fires.
And again, we would like to stress that electrical repairs should only be done by licensed professionals. Yes, you can reset your breaker or change bulbs, but other than that electrical DIYs are dangerous and illegal.
Do you need to find reliable electricians near you? We can help! Click here and we’ll help you locate same-day contractors working in your neighborhood.