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What Causes a Circuit Breaker to Trip?

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We live in a modern era where electrical power is available everywhere. Although we have been creating power for 1000’s of a year using hydro, wind and other sources, it wasn’t until the 1800’s that electricity was harnessed for industrial and then residential use.

Electricity comes into our homes and is protected by a circuit breaker. This manual or automated switching device is a protective measure against an electrical overload. It interrupts the current to protect any devices or power systems connected to it. While it’s there for our safety, sometimes it can be annoying when it switches constantly, and we must reset the breaker.

What causes a circuit breaker to trip?

Cause #1: Overload

This is the main cause of your circuit breakers tripping, and it’s a good thing. Inside your home, electricity comes into a big circuit and then to several smaller circuits with a certain capacity connected to the wiring that goes to your plugs and lights.

When we plug in an appliance or other device, it creates a load, and if the demand exceeds what the circuit can produce, it will shut it off. This prevents overheating of the wires and damages anything plugged into the circuit.

If you have a plug constantly tripping the breaker, it is probably because you have too much connected to the outlet. You can easily fix this by redistributing your devices and lessoning the electrical load.

Cause #2: Short Circuit

A short circuit is another reason for the breaker tripping, but it is much more dangerous. A loose connection or faulty wiring causes this, and the live “hot wire” contacts the “neutral wire” in the outlet. It may also be in the appliance or its plug.

A large amount of current flows through the circuit, overriding the resistance and generating excessive heat as it becomes overloaded. This will cause the breaker to trip, but often you will smell something burning near the breaker, and there may be discolouration of brown or black around it.

The appliance or wiring to the outlet will need to be fixed to ensure no more contact between the wiring. Contact a residential electrician for help.

Cause #3: Ground Fault Surges

Ground fault surges are similar to a short circuit but involve the live wire touching the copper ground wire or the metal box to which the ground wire is connected. Excessive electricity flows through it and again causes an overload in the breaker, possibly leading to a fire.

Fortunately, the breaker will usually trip before this happens, but you may see the outlet has discolouration around it. This again requires fixing the loose wiring and possibly replacing the outlet itself.

Cause #4: Arc Fault

Breakers can also get tripped if you have an arc fault. This is created when an unintended path of current flows from a wire to another conductor. This high-power discharge creates heat that can ignite a fire on the surrounding material, like wood or insulation.

You often hear a buzzing or hissing sound, and this arc fault will trip the circuit breaker to prevent a fire.

Cause #5: Defective Circuit Breaker

Sometimes it isn’t an appliance malfunction or faulty wiring but the breaker itself. Everything has a life span, and some mass-produced items have defects. If you have an issue with the breaker constantly tripping and none of the other reasons above are the cause, you may need to replace the breaker.

Frequent tripping, inability to reset, and scorch marks on the breaker box are all signs of a defective circuit breaker.

How to Prevent a Circuit Breaker to Trip

These are the main causes of your breaker tripping, but what can you do to prevent it?

Don’t Overload The Circuits

Most homes and businesses have many plugins on the walls. While it may be inconvenient to move around your devices, plugging into multiple outlets will spread the demand over several circuits and prevent overload.

Replace Old Components

All electrical components wear out over time, and some homes have outdated electrical systems. When equipment is old, it can provide more resistance and require drawing more current. Have an electrician inspect your home to see the age of your components and the potential need to replace them.

Install GFCI Outlets

GFCIs are ground fault circuit interrupters that shut off the outlet when too much current flowing is detected. These are typically installed in higher-risk areas like bathrooms and kitchens and focus on just one outlet instead of the whole circuit.

This causes a circuit breaker to trip, and understanding them will empower you to recognize any issues when they happen. Ultimately, it may be time to have an electrical check-up from a qualified electrician to ensure your power is effective and safe in your home.

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