As we all know, electricity enters your home via a lightning bolt thrown by Zeus from Mount Olympus, and is routed conveniently to a circuit breaker box where it’s divided into a number of circuits. Or something like that. Each circuit is protected by a breaker or fuse. Bedrooms, living rooms and family rooms where only lights and small electrical items are usually used typically operate on 15-amp circuits. Kitchens, laundry rooms, bathrooms and dining rooms, otherwise known as places where you’re more likely to use toasters, irons, hair dryers and other big-watt items, are usually served by heavier-duty, 20-amp circuits. Major appliances like 5,000-watt electric water heaters and 10,000-watt electric ranges demand so much electricity that they take their own 30-to 50-amp dedicated circuit, protected by big, “double pole” breakers.
What is meant by a circuit breaker “tripping”? Is it getting high off some new designer drug made especially for machinery?
No, of course not. The circuit breaker system is designed so that when you try to pull too much current through a particular circuit, the breaker shuts off and stops the flow of electricity through it before a potentially hazardous situation develops. In the world of circuit breakers, this is what’s meant by “tripping”. By doing this, the circuit breaker protects the circuit and its wiring from overheating and causing damage or starting a fire.
So what happens when you go to the electrical panel, reset the circuit breaker and it trips again immediately after you flip the switch on? At this point you need to stop and identify the root cause of the problem that’s making the circuit breaker trip. Circuit breakers are designed to trip and turn off power when any of the following dangerous situations occur:
- Overloaded Circuit
- Short Circuit
- Ground Fault
Circuit breakers trip mainly because of an overloaded circuit, which means there’s more electrical load or current than there should be running through the circuit, so they break or stop functioning as a protection. As neat as it would be if more electrical current just caused your appliances to work extra powerfully, that’s not at all the case, and too much current overloading a circuit can blowout your outlets and cause fires.
As defined in the opening paragraph, circuit breakers come in different ratings that determine how much current they will allow to flow through the circuit. So, for example, if a 15 Amp circuit breaker is protecting a 15 Amp circuit, and 20 Amps of current start to flow through it because a hair dryer, TV and small personal heater were all connected to the same circuit and were on at the same time (even if they’re plugged into different outlets) then the circuit breaker may trip to prevent overheating of the circuit.
The solution to a tripped circuit is often to redistribute the power being used to more than one circuit. Which means you’ve got to move your more heavy power consuming devices (lamps, heaters, irons, hair dryers, etc.) to a different circuit that isn’t being utilized as much at the moment; or turn off some of the devices on the circuit to reduce the load. I mean, seriously, why would you need to be watching TV while drying your hair and ironing your shirt at the same time. While it might make you feel productive to multitask, putting your circuit through all that is asking for trouble. So ease up on it a little bit.
Loose connections are another possible, though less common, cause of overload. With the main power turned off at the fuse box, check outlets for loose wires, and make sure the electrical service panel hot wire connected to the circuit breaker hasn’t come loose. Retighten the connections if necessary. If these suggestions do not solve the problem, you may have a more serious problem such as a Short Circuit or Ground Fault.
Once you have ruled out a circuit overload, you need to assess what else might be causing the short or trip to occur. A short circuit is a more serious reason for a breaker to trip. This occurs when the hot wire (black) touches another hot wire or touches a neutral wire (white). It can also be caused if there is a break in a wire in the circuit. Shorts are a bit more difficult to diagnose because they can be caused by the wiring in your home or in something you have plugged into an outlet.
To correct a short circuit, confirm that power is off at the outlet into which your device is plugged. Inspect your power cords for damage or a melted appearance. Check your outlets and plugs for the smell of burning or brown or black discoloration. Check the insulation on the wires to make sure it is not cracked and touching a black and white wire together. If you do not find the problem, repeat the process for all the outlets in the circuit.
Once you have established you do not have short circuit or a circuit overload, your next option is to check for a ground fault. This occurs when the hot wire (black) touches the ground wire (bare copper) or the side of a metal outlet box (which is connected to the ground wire). The ground fault is a type of short circuit. To correct a ground fault, check that the hot wire (black) is not touching the side of the metal outlet box or the ground wire.
There are service providers and tools that will assist you in determining whether you have a short, a fault, or another problem if you are not able or comfortable diagnosing your power issues.
What should you be grabbing wires with, anyway? Hint: Not your hands. Check out our article on the different types of pliers and what to use them for.