Designed to make your home safer by decreasing the risk of electrical fires, shocks and other potential accidents, circuit breakers prevent an excessive flow of electricity through individual circuits throughout your home’s electrical system. Often, a single electrical circuit includes all the power outlets in a single room, or sometimes a larger zone of multiple rooms. Circuit breakers “trip” for a reason: They limit each circuit of electricity that your home’s systems, appliances and devices rely on for a safe amount of power. Systems like heating, air conditioning, plumbing and electrical require consistent access to safely regulated amounts of uninterrupted power.
It’s not necessary to become an electrical apprentice or master all the finer points of voltage, resistance and current to understand how circuit breakers work. However, homeowners who take the time to familiarize themselves with common causes (and fixes) for tripping circuit breakers will feel better informed and have more options for correcting potential problems when a circuit breaker trips.
How to tell if it’s your circuit breaker
If you lose power in only one part of your home, your circuit breaker has likely tripped. Circuit breakers serve a useful function in most homes by letting you know when there’s a problem like a short circuit, a circuit overload or a ground fault, so tripping the circuit breaker alone isn’t a bad thing. It’s the natural function of the device and a heads-up for the homeowner that’s worth investigating. A circuit breaker tripping indicates that a breaker is functioning as intended, letting you know there could be an issue before it turns into a bigger problem — unless it happens repeatedly, which may mean the breaker itself is malfunctioning.
You may be wondering about “how to find what is tripping my circuit breaker,” and we’re here to help. Sometimes, the circuit breaker itself can go bad and needs to be replaced, but how can you tell? Luckily, a bad circuit breaker exhibits a few telltale signs that it’s malfunctioning. These signs include repeated tripping (even after verifying that a circuit’s capacity has not been exceeded), burning smells in the electrical box, a breaker that refuses to stay reset, and visible damages like scorch marks in or around the breaker itself.
It’s a good idea to have a professional electrician take a look at your breakers at least once every decade, especially if your breakers are tripping regularly. This expert will identify any breakers that need to be replaced as they reach the end of their natural life spans, testing for short circuits and ground faults, and fixing them safely. Your electrician will also be able to service your electrical panel and replace any breakers that appear to be aging, damaged, ill-fitting, or sending any other signals that could point to a possible failure.
How to reset a tripped circuit breaker
A simple way to define circuit breakers is as an automatic switch, like a light switch, but built to protect electrical circuits from potential damage from electrical voltage overloads and short circuits. Resetting a circuit breaker after it has tripped is easy: Simply turn it off and turn it back on again. It’s as easy as flipping a switch can be — but make sure you stand to the side of the electrical panel with eye protection and a flashlight! It’s possible for a damaged circuit to throw sparks, and nothing is more important than safety. If your electrical panel displays a sticker labeled something like “Circuit Breaker: How to Reset,” it likely mentions these same few standard precautions and directions.
After resetting the breaker in question, you may be wondering how to test circuit breakers. After waiting a few minutes, you can start by unplugging everything on the appropriate circuit and then plugging in various items — one at a time on the same isolated circuit — as you try to determine which electrical signal finally overloaded it. Circuit overloads happen when too many devices are plugged in and drawing power from a single circuit, such as too many appliances in a kitchen, creating an amperage demand that exceeds the amount the circuit can handle, which trips the breaker.
Three ways to prevent it from happening again
Preventing tripped circuit breakers begins with getting to know your circuits. Your home has many electrical circuits, and each runs to and from the electrical junction box that contains your breakers. Testing each circuit by plugging in as many of the various devices you expect you’ll need in that area of your home, one by one, circuit by circuit, can give you an idea of each circuit’s capacity. If you don’t trip a breaker, you’re probably in good shape. If you do, then you know you’ve reached the limit of amperage that can safely travel through this particular circuit. Take the time to label your panel with zones as you do this, so you have a more detailed, accurate view of which circuit each set of appliances and devices in a particular room or rooms draws from. These labels will make troubleshooting in the future both easier and less time-consuming.
In another possible scenario, if your living room has only a single circuit, and you find that your required devices in the room are creating an amperage demand that this single circuit cannot meet, then your next step is to have a professional install another circuit. Starting with a complete evaluation of your home’s electrical system by a professional electrician in the first place — whether you’re moving into a new home or an old one — is the best way to discover any issues before they become problems. This evaluation can also make you aware of additional options to expand your home’s electrical capacity for future electrical needs that you may not even anticipate today.
When it comes to your home’s electrical system, start by getting to know your circuits (by testing and labeling them yourself) and hiring a professional electrician to inspect your system of circuits and breakers more thoroughly. There's also a third option for creating a much greater sense of safety and reliability. The addition of a home warranty, like a home protection plan from Cinch Home Services, can offer a sense of relief, allowing you to be sure that you’re covered in the event of an appliance or system breakdown. Cinch makes it easy to cover all your major appliances and your home’s core systems with affordable, award-winning plans that deliver peace of mind and help keep your home running reliably and comfortably.
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The information in this article is intended to provide guidance on the proper maintenance and care of systems and appliances in the home. Not all of the topics mentioned are covered by our home warranty or maintenance plans. Please review your home warranty contract carefully to understand your coverage.