Circuit breakers are designed to do two things. 1. They limit the amount of amperage flowing from the main circuit board to the outlets in your house. 2. They provide a fail-safe solution in case more amperage than what they're designed to allow is drawn. If a circuit breaker is failing in either of its intended purposes then it is a safety hazard and should be replaced immediately.
How They Work
There are essentially two types of modern breakers. The basic circuit breaker is a switch usually connected to a powerful electromagnet. When the switch is in the "on" position, electricity flows through the switch through the electromagnet and out through the wires to the various outlets in your house. When the amount of current flowing through the electromagnet gets too powerful the magnet will attract the switch back to the "off" position, disrupting the flow of electricity.
Another popular type of breaker is called the ground fault circuit interrupter (GFCI), which is designed to protect people from electrical shock, rather than to prevent damage to a building's wiring. The GFCI constantly monitors the electric current flowing through the neutral and hot wires. When everything is normal, the current in both wires should be exactly the same. As soon as there is a variation in the current levels (for example, if somebody accidentally touches the hot wire), the GFCI detects the imbalance in the wires and breaks the circuit, preventing electrocution. Since it doesn't have to wait for current to climb to unsafe levels like in the basic design, the GFCI reacts much more quickly than a conventional breaker.
Finding the Root Cause
If you have a circuit breaker than is continually turning off (also referred to as "tripping"), then there are a few steps you can take to discover the root cause.
First, determine which outlets in your house the trippy circuit breaker is powering. Go to your main circuit board (usually located in the basement or utility room) and open the panel, which will typically contain a diagram on the side with labels explaining which breaker powers what components in your house. If your panel is unlabeled then you can get a rough approximation by turning each switch off one at a time and noting which light fixtures/electrical outlets appear to be deactivated.
Second, find the circuit breaker that is continually shutting off. After you've determined what fixtures and outlets it powers, add up the number of amps being drawn on that circuit. For example, a 15-amp breaker that is powering your home stereo system, several lights and two 13-amp miter saws is obviously tasked with drawing too much power, and that's what is causing the breaker to trip repeatedly.
If you are certain that you are not drawing too much power from the breaker then it is possible that your breaker is defective. You should consult an electrical expert to correctly assess whether this is indeed the situation.
Fixing the Root Cause
If you've determined that your appliances are trying to draw too much power from that particular circuit breaker then you have two options to fix the problem. You can try to reduce the amount of draw you are placing on the circuit by plugging some electrical items into outlets that are on a different breaker. Or, if that is not an option then you can increase the size of the breaker so that it allows more current through. Again, it's advisable to consult an electrical expert before replacing your breaker. Most household breakers are 15 amps, although a couple of the circuits might be up to 30 amps (such as the ones powering heavy plugs in the garage or to the air-conditioning unit). If you find that your 15-amp circuit is not enough, either replace it with a 30-amp breaker yourself, or have it replaced.
If you feel that your breaker is defective then you will need to replace it. Usually you should replace a breaker with one of the same size unless you are confident that you need the increased amperage.
Deciding What Type of Breaker to Buy
As mentioned earlier, there are two types of circuit breakers. The basic or simple design and the newer GFCI breaker design. The GFCI is safer and less likely to allow somebody to be electrocuted but typically is quite a bit more expensive than the basic circuit breaker design. You will need to evaluate your particular situation to decide which type of breaker is right for your needs.
Having decided upon your circuit breaker replacement, it's now time to install your new selection. Installing a new circuit breaker can be very dangerous and extreme caution should be exercised at all times. Since you are replacing an existing circuit, it won't be quite as difficult as installing a new breaker but it can still be just as dangerous. You should first turn off the power to the board. It's highly recommended that you use a voltmeter kit to determine whether the power is shut off. Even with the power to the board shut off, there are still live wires present. The big lines that enter and feed the breaker are always live and carry tremendous amounts of current because they are coming from the transformer outside your house. Avoid all contact with these wires.
Once you've confirmed the power is off (except for the aforementioned wires), disconnect the hot (black) wire and the neutral (white) wire from the breaker you are replacing and then pop the breaker out of its socket. Carefully insert the new breaker in its place and then connect the hot and neutral wires to the breaker. Once you've confirmed everything is securely connected, restore the main power back to the board. Your circuit breaker tripping problem should now be resolved.
- Photo Credit switch image by Clark Duffy from Fotolia.com
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