How to Avoid Breaker Trips

Manage your electricity usage wisely, and don't overload any circuits.

Posted by Cris Carl | May 25, 2010
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It happens to everyone: tripped electrical breakers. Learn how to avoid this common problem. If you have ever plugged in your hairdryer, toaster oven or space heater only to be engulfed in darkness, you know what it's like when your electrical breaker trips.

Sometimes having an electrical breaker trip is a minor inconvenience, readily repaired with the flick of a switch. However, frequent breaker trips are more than an inconvenience; they are the fail-safe that lets you know you have a bigger problem.

Let's start with an average electrical panel. When a breaker - one of the switches you see on the panel - "trips," you will often hear a popping noise as the switch pushes itself to an "off" position.

Why a Breaker Trips

There are a few reasons why a breaker will trip, but essentially, breakers trip when the current exceeds the amps your system can handle, i.e. your electrical system is overloaded.

Circuit breakers come in different amp ratings, so some systems can handle more than others. If you live in an older home or apartment that has few outlets, your system may have a lower amp rating, which will make breakers trip more easily.

Most important, when a breaker trips, it is keeping your electrical system from a literal meltdown, which can cause a fire.

Tips to Avoid Breaker Trips

  • Unplug electrical appliances that are not in use. Electrical current still runs to the appliance even if it is not turned on.
  • Be especially aware of how many appliances you have plugged in during very cold or hot weather. Air conditioners and space heaters, for example, are energy suckers. In the winter, you will more likely have more lamps burning.
  • If you have few outlets, try to spread your biggest energy users around.
  • Also, if you have few outlets, putting an extension plug or power strip will tax your system more. It is still only one outlet.
  • Make sure none of your appliance cords are damaged, frayed or melted.

Grounding Problems

Sometimes, especially in older homes, wiring can become loose, melt or may have been installed incorrectly. For example, you or a previous owner may have tried to repair your electrical wiring when it would have been preferable to have a professional do the job.

You have a grounding problem if you open the outlet panel and a black (hot) wire is touching a:

  • white (neutral) wire
  • bare copper wire
  • different black wire
  • outlet box

If you are inspecting your home's wiring, it's important to also check for any damaged or melted wires. Note if you smell any burning odors close to the outlet box.

Short Circuits

Breaker trips can arise when either your electrical system or one of the appliances you are using has a short. It can be painstaking in some homes, but you can track down where the short is. Again, make sure your appliance cords are in good shape.

Unplug and turn off every electrical light or appliance. Turn off the power at your service panel, reset all the switches, then turn the power back on; if the circuit trips immediately, then the short is in your house wiring.

To figure out if the short is in an appliance, turn the power on and plug each one in or turn them on one by one to figure it out by process of elimination.

Circuit breakers perform an important safety task. And don't forget to keep a flashlight handy - especially if your electrical panel is in the basement.

Tripped breakers can be a pain, but you can normally troubleshoot the problem on your own. If you find yourself with recurring electrical problems, you may be best off if you rewire the house and fix your breaker box.

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