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Circuit Breakers 101: What You Need to Know

Electrical safety saves lives. Many of the electrical hazards and accidents in people’s homes could be prevented with just a little education about electricity and how it works. The circuit breaker is a very important part of the electrical wiring of your home, so let’s take a closer look at what it does, how it works, and what (if anything) you need to do with it.

Electrical safety saves lives. Many of the electrical hazards and accidents in people’s homes could be prevented with just a little education about electricity and how it works. The circuit breaker is a very important part of the electrical wiring of your home, so let’s take a closer look at what it does, how it works, and what (if anything) you need to do with it.

The Basics of Electricity in Your Home

Before we get into what the circuit breaker does, we need to learn just the basics about electricity. Current, voltage, and resistance are the three major characteristics of electricity, and they are related mathematically. In other words, changing one of them changes the other two. Briefly defined, current is the rate electricity moves through a circuit, voltage can be considered the pressure behind the moving current, and resistors in home circuits are all your appliances, lights, and items that use electricity.

Overheating wires can cause electrical fires. If the current gets too high running through household appliances, the wires can heat up. To combat this, household appliances are graded to limit the current to a specified level, and this varies per appliance and by country.

How Does a Circuit Breaker Fit In?

If the current in a house goes above a pre-determined level, the circuit breaker steps in to cut off the power to that circuit. A few things can cause this to happen. Maybe you accidentally hit a wire while nailing into a wall, or maybe you plugged in one appliance too many.

In the circuit breaker, there are wires called “hot wires,” and those called “neutral wires.” Current from the power plant goes through the circuit breaker through the hot wires, and back through the neutral wires. If you ever learned in school that for electricity to flow you need to “complete the circuit,” that’s what those wires do! There are also “ground wires,” which connect directly to the ground to prevent your appliances from shocking you in the event of a surge.

The most common reason for triggering a circuit breaker is a circuit overload. Every circuit breaker is configured differently, but many are organized by the amps in that circuit. 15-amp, 20-amp, 30-amp, and 50-amp circuits all power different appliances based on their need. For example, water heaters and cooking appliances are typically on the 50-amp circuit, while lights will typically be on a 15-amp circuit. Going above the capacity of that circuit will trigger the breaker.

When Should You Interact with Your Circuit Breaker?

If a section of your power goes out – perhaps the lights, or just the appliances in the living room, for example, head over to your circuit breaker. When you open it, you will see all the switches, and if just one has been tripped, one switch will be in the “off” (red) position. If that’s the case, simply flip it back on, and you’re done.

Another time when you should interact with the circuit breaker is following a natural disaster such as a flood that involves water. If it is safe to do so, you can use the breaker to turn off all the power in your home. If it isn’t safe, do not take the risk. Sometimes, people consider saving money by using the circuit breaker to turn off their house’s power while on vacation. This isn’t great for either the circuit breaker itself or for your appliances, and is not an example of when you should turn off your home’s power.

When is it Time to Call an Expert?

While most of the time resolving a circuit breaker issue involves simply flipping the switch, there are scenarios when it’s time to call in the experts. These situations include:

  • The circuit breaker is being frequently triggered or with increasing regularity. This could either be a sign of a circuit breaker in need or replacement, a faulty appliance overloading the circuit, or evidence of a short circuit in the wiring of your home.
  • You believe there is an issue with the circuit breaker itself. On rare occasions, the circuit breaker may need replacement. Faulty or worn out breakers can trip without reason, but the only way to know is to bring in an expert. Similarly, upgrading a fuse box to a circuit breaker is a job for the experts.
  • Outlets or light switches are warm or discolored. If you see these telltale signs of electrical trouble, you have a problem. This could be an issue with the outlet itself, the insulation around the outlet, or with an appliance you’re using at the outlet.
  • You want more amps in a current circuit or to add a new circuit. Why would you want this? If you notice that the configuration of your home demands more power in a place with an outlet that’s part of perhaps a 15-amp circuit, you can call in the experts to allow for that configuration as a long-term solution.

It’s important never to try to do any advanced work on a circuit breaker by yourself. If you can’t fix an issue by flipping a switch, call an electrician. It’s always best to err on the side of caution when dealing with these issues, as electrical incidents can lead to injury or worse.

Our modern electrical technology is built to keep us safe and help us enjoy the power we need to live our lives, and understanding the basics of how that electricity powers our homes is a great way to support overall safety while we enjoy that power.


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