A tripped electrical breaker can be an annoying occurrence when you turn on appliances like microwaves or blow dryers. A tripped breaker suddenly brings your activities to a halt. Fortunately, it's easy to reset a tripped breaker. In most cases, it takes just a few minutes to do. As long as there are no ongoing causes, an intermittent circuit breaker trip can be fixed in just a few minutes.
What a Tripped Breaker Is
Having the circuit running smoothly, with no interruption, is always the best thing. But if a circuit breaker trips off, it actually means that your electrical system’s safety net is working properly.
When an excessive amount of energy or temperature flows into a circuit breaker, sensitive components in the breaker cause it to shut off. The switch interrupts the flow of electricity: It breaks the circuit. It takes just milliseconds for the internal spring-loaded mechanism of a circuit breaker to sense the event and to shut off.
By shutting off, the circuit breaker prevents devices on the circuit from overheating or from receiving excessive power. A circuit breaker protects your home against damaging or harmful short circuits and overloads.
3 Conditions That Trip Breakers
When too many devices are operating on the same circuit and are attempting to pull a higher power load than the circuit can carry, the circuit breaker will trip. This is particularly true when high amp devices like microwaves, dryers, wall heaters, or A/Cs are turned on for sustained periods. Devices that demand a short burst of energy can trip breakers, too: blenders, coffee grinders, and hair dryers.
When a circuit is diverted from its intended pathway, it is called a short circuit. In a short circuit, a powered or hot wire makes contact with a neutral wire. Short circuits can happen when cables are pierced by nails or screws; when cable sheathing deteriorates; when water enters an electrical box; or when wires are loosened.
How to Locate a Tripped Breaker
If the service panel has an updated circuit directory, you can locate the tripped breaker by number. Circuit breaker directories are often found on the inside of the service panel door. Directories may not always be accurate, so use this as a tool to point you in the right general direction.
Run your hand down the centerline of the breakers, starting at the top. Gently grasp each pair of circuit breaker handles to verify that they are firmly pointing toward each other before moving down to the next row. When you reach a breaker that feels springy, that should be the tripped breaker.
Double pole breakers are double-wide breakers with wide handles. They are often used for dryer or oven circuits. Both sides of double pole breakers operate as one. Tandem breakers are two narrow breakers that share the space of one breaker. Each side operates individually.
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How to Identify a Tripped Breaker
In the electric service panel, the handles of the breakers will be in the on, off, or tripped position.
Breaker Handle On
When the handle is firmly pointing toward the service panel’s centerline, it is on and allowing power to pass through the circuit.
Breaker Handle Off
When the handle is firmly pointing toward the outer edge of the service panel, it is off and no power should be passing to the circuit.
Breaker Handle Tripped
When the handle is at mid position, this means that the circuit breaker is tripped. No power should be flowing to the circuit. A mid-position tripped handle should also have a spongy or springy feel. Note that breakers from certain manufacturers such as Cutler Hammer or Eaton Brown Handle trip to the fully off position, not the mid-position.
Watch Now: How to Safely Reset a Tripped Circuit Breaker
Working around an electric service panel or circuit breaker board can be dangerous. Your home’s entire electrical load is contained in that box, concentrated around the metal lugs where the service drop’s wires enter the box. Unscrewing and removing the inner dead-front cover within the service panel exposes the highly powered lugs.
Equipment / Tools
- Flashlight (if necessary)
- Circuit breaker directory (optional)
- Rubber-soled shoes
- Safety glasses
Turn off All Devices on Circuit
Turn off all devices on the electrical circuit. This includes the device that may have caused the breaker to trip, such as a microwave, hairdryer, or A/C, plus all other devices on the same circuit.
Find Electric Service Panel
The electric service panel, sometimes called a circuit breaker board, is a metal box with a door. The box may be inset in a wall, its face flush with the wall, or surface-mounted where the entire box is exposed.
Open the door to the service panel by sliding the plastic switch, then swinging the door open.
One clue to help you find the service panel is to first find the electric service drop from the main power lines. Usually, your home’s service panel is located below and nearby, on the inside of your home.
Locate Tripped Breaker
The handle of a tripped circuit breaker should be in the middle position—not left or right. Visually or by feel, locate any breaker handles that differ from the hard right or hard left positions.
Turn Circuit Breaker Handle to off Position
Flip the circuit breaker handle to its firm off position, toward the outer edge of the service panel (away from the centerline).
Turn Circuit Breaker Handle to on Position
Flip the circuit breaker handle to its firm on position, toward the centerline of the service panel. The handle should seat firmly in place and should make an audible click.
Turn the device such as the light or A/C back on. If you believe the breaker tripped due to an overload, it’s best to turn on only one device at this time, not multiple devices. Also, choose a device with a lower power draw such as a light fixture.
How to Avoid Tripped Breakers
- Remove some devices from the overloaded circuit and plug them into other circuits that aren’t drawing as much power.
- Avoid running many devices on the circuit at the same time. In a kitchen, for example, stage cooking activities that require power so that they happen in succession, not all at once.
- Install GFCI outlets so that the outlet shuts off before the entire circuit breaker shuts down in the case of a ground circuit. Just note that GFCI outlets are not circuit overload protection, but protection against dangerous ground faults.
- Replace old outlets, light fixtures, and switches which may create short circuits or trip breakers.
- Have an electrician separate hardwired devices that are drawing too much power from a single circuit. The electrician can move devices to another circuit or can set up an entirely new circuit to relieve the load.
- Replace the circuit breaker.
When to Call a Professional
A qualified, licensed electrician is trained to detect the cause of tripped breakers and to fix those causes. If your problem of tripped circuit breakers is more than just an overloaded circuit, you may want to seek the help of an electrician. Unless you are an advanced do-it-yourselfer, it’s best to hire an electrician to wire up a new circuit breaker.