Understanding Your Panel
By Victoria Figueiredo
Whether you call it a breaker box, a panel, or an enigma, we totally understand if you like to keep your distance from your home’s electrical control center. The thought of all those currents flowing to one spot can be scary, and you’d be right to think it can be dangerous to mess around in there if you don’t know what you’re doing. Luckily, we’re here to do away with the mystery surrounding your panel, starting with talking a little about breakers. What are they, how do they work, and how should you deal with them? Let’s dive in!
The word “breaker” refers to those chunky black switches you see lined up in neat rows in your service panel. If you have a large home, you’ll have a bunch of them, and if your home is on the smaller side, you’ll have fewer to worry about. Breakers essentially cut off power to defective circuits at the service panel. When the flow of current to a breaker exceeds its predetermined maximum amperage, the breaker “trips,” or turns off. This is helpful and necessary because when the breaker trips, it prevents the flow of excessive current and reduces the risk of overheated wires causing a fire. All your breakers should be labelled so you know what you need to touch when something happens.
Breakers can trip for a whole bunch of reasons! Some of the most common are:
- Overloaded circuits, which means exactly what it sounds like. There’s too much electrical load on one circuit in your home.
- Short circuits, which is when there is excess current being pulled in the wrong direction due to bad wiring in an appliance.
- Ground faults, which is an accidental contact between an energized source (like a hot wire inside a panel or appliance) and ground, or an equipment frame.
Let’s go one by one:
Overloaded circuits are generally easy to deal with. Identify which area of your home the tripped breaker controls (see why you should label?) and, with the breaker still in the off position, unplug every appliance in that area. Reset the breaker and start plugging things back in one by one to see how much the breaker can handle. If your home is older with a panel of under 200 amps, you may want to upgrade to avoid future overloads. We use way more appliances today than they did back in the day, which means you need more electrical capacity to live your life! Malfunctioning appliances are also a common cause of overloaded circuits, so make sure to keep all your gadgets in good health.
To deal with a short circuit, turn off and/or unplug everything from the troubled circuit and reset the breaker, just like you would do for an overloaded circuit. This time, as you turn everything back on, pay attention to whether the breaker trips right away. If it does, you’re probably dealing with a charred wire or a defective device somewhere in the circuit that needs to be replaced. If it doesn’t trip right as you power up all your appliances, you probably just overloaded the circuit. If you reset the breaker, plug something in, and the appliance doesn’t turn on, you likely have a loose wire that needs to be looked at. Don’t try to DIY this fix! For any kind of circuit work, we recommend calling a licensed electrician. Trust us when we say you don’t want to be on the receiving end of any electrocution. At best, you’ll be zapped and annoyed, at worst you’ll be dead – not the best options!
If you suspect you’re dealing with a ground fault in your panel, don’t even go near it. Any metal parts in there (so, like, basically the whole thing) might be energized and touching it could literally kill you. Call an electrician and tell them it’s an emergency! Luckily, all homes these days are required to have GFCI outlets near all water sources or humid areas, which is where ground faults typically occur. If you don’t have GFCI outlets, give yourself some peace of mind and have them put in!
Last, but certainly not least, if your breaker does not reset the first time you try it, do not force it into the on position or keep trying to reset it. A breaker that won’t reset is overloaded and a definite fire hazard. Give us a call and we’ll take care of it for you.
That’s it! That’s all you really need to know about breakers. Of course, there’s a ton about them that we didn’t cover here, but this is really the limit of what the average homeowner needs to know. All you overachievers have the internet at your fingertips. Google away!
Do you have questions about your service panel? What should we explain next? Let us know in the comments!