For most homeowners, the residential electrical panel remains a mystery. It isn't until you discover your kitchen is completely without electricity while the rest of the house is fine that you'll open it up and peek inside.
At that point, many people realize that they don't actually know what residential circuit breakers are, what they do, or why they're important. This is especially true if power isn't returned to the kitchen immediately after tripping the appropriate breaker.
Your Home's Most Important Safety Asset
Wherever you have an electric load, you have the risk of overload. Your home's electrical wiring system was designed with a certain load in mind, but needs change over time. You might find that when you plug a space heater into the same power outlet as your microwave – pop – your whole kitchen goes dark.
This means that your kitchen wasn't wired to handle a load that large. As both those items began to draw power, they drew enough of it to overheat the physical wiring system conducting electricity. In order to prevent the system from causing a dangerous electrical fire, a circuit breaker tripped, temporarily cutting off the flow of electricity.
There are several major types of circuit breakers, but they all do the same basic thing – detect overload conditions and cut off power. Unlike fuses, you can trip the circuit breaker back again once the overload is addressed, making it a very convenient safety tool. Most homes' electrical systems are divided into sub-grids by room so that you isolate the problem easily.
Replacing Bad Circuit Breakers
In most cases, looking at your electrical panel immediately indicates which breaker needs to be tripped – the only one that isn't in the same position as the rest. But what happens when the breaker doesn't trip? Can circuit breakers break?
As with any mechanical device, the answer is yes – occasionally you'll need to replace a faulty circuit breaker. Although this is not hard to do, it does involve about 20 individual steps and obviously presents the risk of electric shock. For this reason it's recommended that you rely on a professional for the job.
Even if you're capable of doing it yourself, you might find that obtaining the right circuit breaker is challenging – especially if you live in an older home. Electrical panels are typically designed for a single, non-interchangeable circuit breaker type, and expert advice can go a long way towards making sure the replacement works as advertised.