Why Do My Circuit Breakers Keep Tripping?
Circuit breakers are meant to protect homes, offices, and other buildings from electrical issues. They work by cutting off the flow of electricity through the circuit if it becomes too high or unsafe. Most of the time, the electrical current flows through the circuit without any trouble. You might experience the occasional circuit breaker trip or two, but that’s little more than an annoyance. What if your circuit breakers keep tripping, though? What are some reasons why that might be happening?
Sometimes a circuit breaker trips repeatedly because the circuit has become overloaded. That means that you’re trying to use more electricity than the circuit is designed to handle. Loose or corroded wires and connections can also result in a circuit overload–typically, however, it’s because there are too many things plugged into the circuit.
When an active electrical wire touches a neutral wire, a large amount of electrical current floods the circuit, causing it to overload. The result is a short circuit. A short circuit can cause things like sparks, a popping sound, and smoke. It may also cause a breaker to trip or a fuse to blow. Short circuits can be especially dangerous because of the high temperatures that result from the increased amount of electrical current. Common causes of short circuits include damage done by animals (especially rodents that like to gnaw on wires), slipped wires, loose connections, and a faulty electrical switch, fixture, cord, plug, appliance, or receptacle.
A ground fault is the result of an active wire contacting the ground wire, which is the grounded portion of a junction box or appliance. This connection causes a significantly large amount of current to flow through the circuit, commonly resulting in a tripped breaker. It’s pretty similar to how short circuits happen, but with different wires. Due to the exposure of live electrical parts, ground faults can be especially dangerous. They can result in accidental contact and nasty shocks, especially in areas where the floor may be wet, like kitchens, bathrooms, and laundry rooms. That’s because shocks are most common when you come into contact with the active wire while wet.
Identifying the Tripped Breaker
One of the first things you probably do when a circuit breaker trips is to try to reset the tripped breaker. That can be easier said than done, especially if you aren’t sure which breaker has tripped. Locate your electrical panel or fuse box and open it to expose the breakers. If your breakers are already labeled, figuring out which one to reset should be easy. If your breakers aren’t labeled, finding the right breaker to reset may be a bit more difficult. Sometimes, the movement of the circuit breaker handle is quite minimal. You may have to closely examine each circuit breaker to identify which one needs to be reset. Once you know which circuit breaker has tripped, turn it fully to the off position and then turn it back on.
What to Do about It
Now that you know you have a circuit breaker problem and which breaker is tripping, what can you do about it? The answer depends on the problem that is causing the circuit breaker to trip:
To fix a circuit overload, it’s best to make sure that power-hungry appliances, like your HVAC system, washing machine, dryer, and dishwasher, each have their own circuits. Installing a new dedicated circuit and outlet for an area that frequently experiences tripping breakers can provide additional amperage that reduces tripping incidents.
The proper fix for a short circuit depends on why it’s happening. Regardless, whatever damage exists must be repaired by a licensed electrician. After all, repairing a short circuit can be very dangerous, particularly if you don’t know what you’re doing.
To address a ground fault, start by keeping appliances away from water and addressing any water issues before they are used. It’s also important to have a ground fault circuit interrupter (GFCI) outlet in areas where water is present. These outlets monitor the circuit load and interrupt the current’s flow if a ground fault is detected. Additionally, only high-quality wiring should be used to reduce the risk of poor insulation and malfunction. Outlets and boxes should also be checked for damaged wires, debris, and loose connections. Any such problems should be addressed when identified. It doesn’t hurt to have an extra ground wire–just in case–either.
Don’t make the mistake of ignoring circuit breakers that trip repeatedly. Frequently tripped breakers are a sign that something is wrong and needs to be fixed. For safety reasons, electrical problems should only be dealt with by a licensed electrician. Electricity is immensely useful, but it’s also immensely dangerous and should be treated with care.