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Circuit Breakers

Circuit Breakers

Most homes today have circuit breakers in their main electrical panel.  You may also have a sub-panel located near the main panel, or elsewhere in the house.  Circuit breakers are designed to trip when there is too much electricity flowing on the wires.  If you overload the wires, they overheat and can melt causing a fire hazard. 

Helpful Hint: If you have power out in part of the house, it may be a wiring problem without tripping a breaker.  If so, you need an electrician.  If you have a tripped breaker, read on.

There are 3 reasons for a tripping circuit breaker:

  1. Overloaded circuit and wires - inconvenient and possible hazard

  2. Short circuit - a hazard needs to be found and fixed

  3. Defective breaker - easier to fix, but rarely happens.



Occasionally, a breaker will trip from a simple overload and merely needs to be reset.  The question is: Which breaker is it?  Some breakers will look a little different when they trip from an overload.  If you know which breaker it is, try resetting it.

Helpful Hint:  Most circuit breakers need to be clicked 'Off' and then back 'On' when they trip. If you don't first click it 'Off', you will not be resetting it.  Also, read the Safety note and Helpful Hint further down in this section.

Overloading the wires is often caused by using more appliances than the wire can handle.  If you have a 15 amp breaker (for a 15 amp wire), it will trip if you are trying to use 20 amps at the same time.  You can't simply change the 15 amp breaker to a 20 amp breaker since it is connected to a 15 amp wire.  The analogy would be using a water pipe designed for 15 pounds of pressure and deciding to use 20 pounds of pressure instead - not a good idea.

How do you know how much electricity you're using?   A 1800 watt hair dryer uses 15 amps (Watts=Volts x Amps) 1800 watts ---- divided by 120 volts---- equals 15 amps). 

Here's a simple chart.  Of course, your appliance may vary.

Appliance Typical wattage Amps
Coffee maker 200   2
Computer (desktop) 200   2
Dehumidifer 900   8
Electric Curlers/Straightener 300 3
Freezer 500   4
Hair dryer 1800-2000 16
Iron 1200 10
Microwave oven 1500 13
Refrigerator 850   7
Toaster 1200 10
Treadmill 2000 17
TV 300 3
Vacuum Cleaner 1800 15


Short circuit

If power goes out and the breaker cannot reset, you have an electrical problem that needs to be found and corrected.

Safety Note:  If a short circuit is the cause of the tripped breaker, you will probably hear a buzz and/or see a the light flicker when you turn the breaker on, and the the breaker will turn off again.  DO NOT RESET the breaker again.  It's time to call us to find the problem and fix it.

Helpful Hint:  If you don't know which breaker it is, you can go through all the circuit breakers one by one (except the main breaker).  Click each breaker 'Off' and then back 'On'.
Why not reset the main breaker?  The main breaker has probably not been moved in many years.  At best, it will be very stiff and hard to move, at worst, it may not turn back on again and you will be completely without power.  (We get this kind of call on a Sunday afternoon from the do-it-yourselfer.)  If you think you need to shut-off the main breaker, you probably don't know enough working electricity and should instead call a professional.

Defective breaker

Sometimes the problem is simply a bad breaker, perhaps less than 2% of the time.  On power problem calls, we check that right away to be sure it's not a simply issue.  Then we go on to locating the short circuit.

Helpful Hint:  If the above hints do not solve your problem, read up on GFI outlets (and GFI breakers) in this section.