Why Is the Circuit Breaker Tripping? Troubleshooting Tips for your Breaker Box

By Shakir Williams on 08/03/2018

switching breaker box on and off

If you have ever turned your microwave on and the whole kitchen goes dark, more than likely your circuit breaker tripped.

While there are many reasons that may cause a circuit breaker to trip, it’s never caused by a simple nuisance trip. A circuit breaker is designed to trip and shut off power and in very rare cases, it means that the actual breaker box is broken and needs replacing. Often however, danger impends during three common hazardous situations:

Once you understand the root cause of a tripped breaker, you can begin assessing and working through our list of troubleshooting tips. You’ll become your own technician in no time.

What Types of Circuit Breakers are there?

There are several different types of circuit breakers commonly found in residential and commercial buildings. They can be classified by voltage, structure type, as well as their interrupting mechanism. This is a list of some of the most common circuit breaker types:

Image

Type

Description

Applications

low voltage circuit breaker

Low-voltage circuit breakers

 

Designed for direct current applications

 

Common in commercial and domestic locations

 

medium voltage circuit breaker

Medium-voltage circuit breaker

 

Uses electrical current sensors to trip the power

 

Common in commercial applications for indoor or outdoor use

 

high voltage circuit breaker

High-voltage circuit breaker

 

Uses sensors that operate through current transformers

 

Common in large commercial and industrial applications

 

magnetic circuit breaker

Magnetic circuit breakers

 

Equipped with an electromagnet that cuts off power when the electrical current gets too strong

 

Common type of low-voltage circuit breaker

 

thermal circuit breaker

Thermal circuit breaker

 

Equipped with metal strips that bend and cut off the power when they get too hot

 

Common type of low voltage circuit breaker

 

thermal magnetic circuit breaker

Thermal magnetic circuit breaker

 

Combines the interrupting function of both thermal and magnetic circuit breakers

 

Most common in distribution boards

 

GFCI circuit breaker

GFCI breaker

 

Features a “test” button along with the “on” and “off” switch to protect from ground faults

 

Common in areas susceptible to water and damp conditions (residential, commercial, and industrial areas)

electrical panel box

Circuit Overload

The first reason your circuit breaker could trip is because there are too many devices connected to the circuit. This is referred to as the “electrical load capacity.” Each breaker is designed with different amperage ratings (generally 15-amp or 20-amp) and are intended to trip when using over 80% of its load (2). This is to prevent the wires from overheating and causing an electrical fire.

  • 15-amp breaker = 12 amps
  • 20-amp breaker = 16 amps
  • 30-amp breaker = 24 amps

Since breakers are only designed to handle 80% of their rated load, it’s important to calculate the amount of amperage your devices draw from the circuit.

How to fix an overloaded circuit?

An overloaded circuit is a result of too many appliances drawing power from the same circuit. Once you’ve calculated your breaker’s load capacity and measured the total amperage drawing from your electrical devices, you can begin fixing the problem.

Short Circuit

Short circuit isn’t just a 1986 film about a fun-loving robot named “Johnny 5,” although that was a classic movie! The short circuit we’re referring to, however, is a short in an electrical connection. Shorts occur when the path of electricity has the least resistance. In simpler terms, this is when two or more wires that aren’t supposed to come in contact, touch each other (6). This is a common problem in appliances and household wiring and can result in electric shocks, burns, and fires. Here a few reasons your circuit could short:

  • Wire to Wire Contact: A short circuit could occur when the hot wire meets another hot wire or touches a neutral wire (4).
  • A Break in the Connection: A shorted circuit could also occur when there is a short in the electrical wiring in the building.
  • Damaged Electrical Devices: Another cause of a short circuit could be the wiring in the device that’s plugged into the outlet.

How to fix a shorted circuit?

Always make sure the power has been turned off from the main breaker box before inspecting. The first step in identifying the problem is to perform a thorough examination of all connections and electrical wiring (5).

Tripped circuit breaker

 
  • Inspect power cords for overheating and discoloration.
  • Check ALL outlets on the circuit for signs of burning or changing colors.
  • Check the insulation in and around the receptacle. It shouldn’t look damaged, cracked, or brittle.
  • Inspect all light switches and electrical outlets on the circuit.
  • Inspect the wiring inside ALL light fixtures connected on the circuit.
  • Use a receptacle tester to check if your outlets are working properly.

Ground Fault

A ground fault occurs when electricity leaks from its intended path on the current to the ground. When a ground fault occurs, large amounts of electricity is forced to flow through the circuit breaker causing it to trip. This can cause potential dangers of electric shock, burns, and electrical fires.

There are many reasons why a ground fault would occur, but here are a few:

  • Water leakage in in or around the breaker panel
  • The ground fault circuit interrupter is damaged or faulty 
  • Worn out and damaged electrical wiring

How to prevent ground faults?

Installing GFCI protected outlets or circuit breakers are a great way to stay safe from the dangers of ground faults. A GFCI breaker can be built in or added to the circuit panel in your building. Unlike a normal breaker panel, a GFCI breaker panel is normally larger and has its own test and reset buttons to protect against ground faults. All electrical receptacles that are installed to a GFCI breaker will have full ground fault circuit protection. 

GFCI outlets, on the other hand, are much easier to install. How to install a GFCI outlet?

Troubleshooting Tips

electrician fixing electrical circuit breaker box

  1. Identify the tripped breaker. The tripped breaker will be between “on” and “off” position.

 

  1. Turn off all appliances. Make sure all electrical devices connected to the tripped breaker are turned off. This will prevent power surges when you reset the breaker (1).

 

  1. Test your circuit breaker. Assess the “wear and tear” of your breaker by moving it from the “off” to “on” position. This will reset the breaker. If the breaker moves easily and feels loose, the breaker is defective and should be replaced before moving on to further troubleshooting tips (1).

 

  1. Switch the electrical devices off. Turn off all devices at once, again. If the breaker trips, continue troubleshooting (1).

 

  1. Check for loose electrical wiring. After cutting the power to the breaker panel, remove the screws and access panel. Check all wiring leading to the tripped breaker for damages, loose connections, corrosion, frayed wires, or other wiring issues (1). Any of the previous issues would indicate that you need a new circuit breaker. If the connection is just loose, however, tighten it with a screwdriver and reset the breaker.

 

  1. Inspect the Housing for weather damage, rust, etc.

These are just a few ways to troubleshoot a tripped breaker. Depending on the problem, some issues can be tackled at home while other problems will require the help of a certified electrician.

YOU SHOULD ALWAYS CONTACT AN ELECTRICIAN BEFORE ATTEMPTING ANY ELECTRICAL WORK!

Now that you have a little background knowledge on circuit breakers and how to troubleshoot trips, take your new knowledge and check out HomElectrical’s wide array of LED lights and HVAC units for your convenience.

 

Watts Next?

What other troubleshooting tips would you like to read? Share some topics with us in the comment section below!

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REFERENCES

1. https://www.everbluetraining.com/blog/tips-troubleshooting-your-circuit-breaker

2. https://electrical.knoji.com/how-to-troubleshooting-a-tripped-breaker/

3. https://www.thespruce.com/why-circuit-breakers-trip-1824676

4. https://www.achrnews.com/articles/134400-diagnosing-a-tripped-circuit-breaker

5. https://www.thespruce.com/short-circuit-vs-ground-fault-1152505

6. https://simple.wikipedia.org/wiki/Short_circuit

 

 

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