Your circuit breaker is a safety device that prevents electrical overloads from damaging your home and appliances. Here’s a look at why circuits trip and what you can do to avoid overloading your home’s electrical system.
Why Circuit Breakers Trip
Breakers trip when too much heat, or current, passes through your circuits. There are three common causes:
- Overloading. An overloaded circuit occurs when too much current flows through your breaker, causing it to disconnect. Using too many appliances at once can cause your circuit to overload.
- Short Circuiting. Short circuiting is a physical malfunction that is usually due to faulty or broken wiring. Have an electrician inspect your breaker box if it hasn’t been looked at in several years.
- Arcing. Arcs occur when electricity leaves its intended path and travels through faulty insulation. This can result in electric shock as well as damage to your appliances and home.
Types of Circuits
Understanding the kinds of circuits, or breakers, you have in your home will help you address a tripped breaker and make the correct repairs if necessary. Circuits break-down into three categories:
- Standard Circuit Breakers: These breakers monitor the flow of electricity to your home’s outlets and appliances and cut power in the event of an overload or short circuit. Most homes have single-pole breakers, which protect one energized wire and supply 120 volts to a circuit. Standard circuit breakers also come in double-pole models, which protect two energized wires and can handle up to 240 volts.
- Ground Fault Circuit Interrupter (GFCI): GFCI breakers cut power in the event of an overload, short circuit or a line-to-ground fault. Line-to-ground faults happen when electricity forms an unwanted path between a current and a grounded object. GFCI breakers are required in wet areas of your home like bathrooms, kitchens, basements and garages. It’s a good idea to also install GFCI breakers in places like shops and outdoor areas.
- Arc Fault Circuit Interrupters (AFCI): AFCI breakers detect a wide range of unwanted electrical arcs and help prevent fires. Arcs can occur due to faulty or worn wiring. Conventional breakers are designed to detect constant heat or current rather than quick surges or arcs. An AFCI breaker will disconnect in the event of an immediate surge.
Any home appliance can trip a breaker. But some are more trip-prone than others. Here’s a list of breaker-tripping appliances in your home:
- Hair Dryers. Hair dryers and curlers produce significant amounts of heat in a short period of time, requiring lots of electricity. Running other appliances with a hair dryer can overload your circuit, causing it to trip.
- Irons. Irons also generate lots of heat in a short amount of time. Most homeowners use irons in areas with circuits unfit to handle a heavy flow of electricity. Be sure to turn off other plugged-in appliances before using an iron.
- Older Appliances. Older appliances can also pull circuit-breaking amounts of electricity from your home. Dated refrigerators, ovens and AC units are common culprits. Have an electrician examine your breakers and recommend a solution.
- Power Strips. An overloaded power strip will trip a breaker. This is especially common in areas with lower-voltage breakers like living rooms and bedrooms. If you’re consistently tripping breakers in your home, call a pro to examine your breakers and provide an appropriate solution.
Addressing your breaker-related problems isn’t always easy. Here’s a list of possible solutions:
- Flip Your Breaker: Resetting your breaker is a simple solution for infrequent breaker problems. Open your breaker box, locate the tripped circuit and flip it to reconnect the circuit.
- Label Your Breakers: Labeling your breaker box won’t prevent overloading, but it will help you identify recurring problems and make the necessary power usage adjustments.
- Maintain Your Appliances: Faulty or dated appliances can overuse power and trip breakers. Ensure your major appliances are in good shape. It’s also important to space out larger appliances. If you can, have items like refrigerators, dishwashers and ovens wired to separate circuits.
- Hire an Electrician: Call a pro if you continue to experience frequent circuit interruptions. This is usually the sign of a more serious problem. Tackling an electrical problem without the help of a professional can result in personal injury and serious damage to your home.
Replacing a breaker is typically a low-cost investment. The amount you spend will depend on the type of breaker you’re replacing. Larger fixes like replacing your breaker box or installing new wiring will cost more. According to HomeAdvisor’s True Cost Guide, most homeowners paid between $574 and $1,574 to replace their breaker boxes.
When to Hire a Pro
Call a pro immediately if you notice a burning smell, charred breakers or other signs of fire. It’s also important to enlist the help of a pro if you’re unsure how to flip or replace a breaker.