Circuit Breaker Trips: Troubleshooting Your Breaker Box

If you've ever turned on your microwave and caused a power outage in your kitchen, it is likely that your circuit breaker tripped.

A circuit breaker might trip for several different reasons. In some cases, the breaker box simply needs replacing. But most of the time, a circuit breaker cuts off power for one of three reasons:

  • Circuit Overload
  • Short Circuit
  • Ground Fault

Once you understand the type of circuit breaker you have and the potential causes for a trip, you can work through our troubleshooting tips.

What are the different types of circuit breakers?

The three main types of circuit breaker voltages are low, medium, and high. Low voltage circuit breakers mostly operate in domestic and commercial environments. Medium and high voltage electrical circuits are better for large, industrial applications.

Different circuit breakers have different fault interrupters, or mediums that trigger the breaker to cut power. Depending on the voltage, the way the circuit interrupts the flow of electricity varies. The most common types of breakers you will encounter in homes and businesses are low voltage circuits, such as:

  • Magnetic: Uses an electromagnet to cut off power when the electrical current gets too strong
  • Thermal: Equipped with metal strips that bend and cut off the power when they get too hot
  • Thermal-magnetic: Combines the interrupting functions of both thermal and magnetic circuit breakers
  • GFCI: Features a “test” button along with an “on” and “off” switch that protects your home against ground faults

Circuit Overload

Circuit Breaker

The first reason your circuit breaker could trip is if there are too many devices running on the circuit. The electrical load capacity is the maximum limit a circuit can hold.

All breakers have an amperage rating, typically 15-amp or 20-amp. Most circuit breakers trip whenever the amperage surpasses 80% of the full load capacity. This means that a 15-amp breaker can support up to 12 amps, a 20-amp breaker can support up to 16 amps, and so on.

To avoid overloading your electrical system, make sure you’re not placing too many appliances on one circuit. An appliance that has a higher amperage than the circuit it’s on can also cause it to overload.

How to fix an overloaded circuit?

Once you’ve determined your breaker’s load capacity and the total amperage drawing from it, there are a few ways to solve the issue.

  • Move high load, or high amperage, devices to different circuits
  • Turn off electrical devices you’re not using to lessen the load
  • Make sure there are no damaged outlets, cords, or plugs running on the circuit
  • Upgrade your circuit to one that has a greater load capacity

For more information about load capacity, read our other blog How to Determine the Load Capacity of Your Circuit Breaker.

Short Circuit

Tripped Breaker

Electricity wants to flow along the path of least resistance. Whenever two or more wires that shouldn't touch come into contact with one another, it can cause a short. Here are a few reasons this phenomenon could occur:

  • Wire to Wire Contact: A hot wire meets another hot wire or touches a neutral wire.
  • Break in Connection: A wire splits because of erosion, water damage, or contact with a sharp object.
  • Damaged Electrical Appliance: The wiring in an appliance or receptacle on the circuit is faulty.

Short circuits are a common wiring problem that can cause electric shocks, burns, and fires if left unrepaired.

How to fix a short circuit?

First, do a thorough examination of all electrical connections and wiring on the circuit. Always make sure to turn the power off to the main breaker before inspecting.

The main things to look for are discoloration or burning on any wiring. Outlet panels and the insulation around them can also show signs of a short, like cracking or brittleness. If nothing is visible on the surface, you can use a receptacle tester to check if your outlets are working properly.

After you’ve determined where the short is occurring, you can get new wires and solder them in yourself. But we suggest hiring a licensed electrician to ensure a safe and proper installation.

Ground Fault

A ground fault happens when electricity leaves its intended path and enters the ground. This causes a surge of electricity to flow through the circuit breaker, triggering it to shut off. Ground faults risk damage such as electrical fires and shocks.

Ground faults occur for many reasons, but the top three are:

  • Water leakage in or around the breaker panel
  • The circuit box has a damaged or faulty ground fault circuit interrupter (GFCI) device
  • Worn out and damaged electrical wiring

How to prevent ground faults?

Installing GFCI breakers is a great way to protect against ground faults. GFCI breakers cut power to a circuit as soon as they detect a ground fault. They can be complex to install, so make sure to consult an electrician if you’re planning to upgrade to GFCI.

Troubleshooting Tips

Fixing a Circuit Breaker

Once you’ve identified the reason your circuit breaker tripped, you can begin the process of fixing it. Resetting a tripped circuit breaker is simple with a few easy steps:

  • Identify the tripped breaker. On the circuit breaker box, the tripped breaker will be between the “on” and “off” positions.

  • Turn off all appliances. Make sure to unplug or turn off any device connected to the tripped breaker. This will prevent power surges when you reset the breaker.

  • Test your circuit breaker. Move the breaker from the “off” to the “on” position to reset the power. If the breaker moves easily and feels loose, it is likely defective and needs replacing.

  • Check for loose electrical wiring. If the breaker still trips when you turn it off and on, remove the screws and the access electrical panel to inspect the wiring. If there are any corroded, frayed, discolored, or burned wires then you probably need a new circuit breaker. However, if it is just a loose connection, then you can tighten it with a screwdriver.

Ideally, the problem is a minor one that you can fix yourself at home. However, we still recommend contacting an electrician before performing any electrical service you don’t have experience with. While circuit breaker trips are tedious, they are common and rarely difficult to fix. With our troubleshooting tips, you'll keep your circuit breaker operating the best it possibly can.

Recommended Reading

AFCIs and GFCIs are both NEC requirements to increase the safety and reduce the risk of injury within buildings. Read to learn more about the differences between the two and the NEC requirements for installation.

Circuits and outlets come in either 15-amp or 20-amp options, and the amperage of the outlet must never exceed the amperage of the circuit. Follow NEC requirements to make sure you have the correct voltage, and never overload your circuits.

GFCI breakers and receptacles keep you safe from electric shocks and fires. Use a GFCI outlet in areas with a high chance of water coming into contact with the electrical current, such as a bathroom or kitchen.

Ground fault circuit interrupter devices protect against ground faults in the home. GFCI receptacles and GFCI circuit breakers have similar functions, but different benefits depending on your electrical safety needs.

Shakir Williams
Shakir Williams

A true creative with a penchant for the spiritual and natural order. She loves the Earth, almost as much as she loves writing about it.

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