Demystifying Your Circuit Breaker
Do you know where your circuit breaker panel is located in your house? It always amazes me how many people don’t. My friends and family know that I’m pretty handy around the house, so I often get tasked with small repairs during visits and holidays. When needing to shut the power off to a particular room, I’ve been aghast to find circuit breaker panels hidden behind heavy furniture and completely inaccessible.
Your circuit breaker should be easy to get to. Imagine that one day you start to smell smoke and discover that it’s emanating from an overloaded wall socket you had recently plugged your entire outdoor holiday light display into (not smart!). The first and immediate course of action should be to cut off the power to that room.
Whether you’re replacing a light switch, solving an isolated power outage, or keeping your family and home safe, a basic understanding of home circuitry is an important knowledge set for every adult member of your household. Fortunately, what you need to know is not all that complicated.
Powering Our Lives
Electricity leaving a power plant travels a network of buried or raised lines to reach your home, where a ‘hot wire’ transfers energy into your home. It’s accompanied by a ground wire that connects, as one might expect, to the ground, completing the power’s circuit in the natural neutral conductor of the earth.
While the electricity passes through our homes, we can measure it with four variables: Voltage is electrical pressure. Current (measured in amps), is the flow of electricity being used. Resistance (measured in ohms), is the opposition or friction to electrical flow. Power is the total energy being used.
Resistance is how we keep all that free-wheeling electricity under control. When energy passes through our dishwasher, wireless router, or a light bulb, we don’t want our home’s full electric potential charging right through that device. The ability of resistors within our appliances to reduce energy flow determines how much power is used as the current passes through.
Here’s your only math of this lesson: Voltage divided by resistance equals current. It’s that simple formula that determines and measures the current flowing through every electric appliance you use, including the computer you’re currently reading this on.
Throughout your home’s electrical circuits, the positive ‘hot’ wires and the ground ‘neutral’ wires never touch. If this occurs, the resistance would drop away and the current would thus jump. Voltage divided by zero means a lot of current!
Even if you never intend to attempt electrical work on your own, any homeowner could run into this situation: A motor inside a dishwasher could overheat, fusing the hot and neutral wires together. Likewise, something as simple as a tack to hang a picture on a wall could break a wire behind the plaster and disrupt the circuit.
This is where the circuit breaker naturally comes in. Some homes still use fuses, a concept that’s easy to understand. A fuse is inserted along a circuit, and electricity passes normally through it, just as it would a wire. If, however, the current becomes too strong, it will burn the fuse and the entire circuit will be stopped. That’s an important safety mechanism, and it’s the reason that metal or foil should never be used to jump a fuse connection, in your home or in your car. Figure out why the circuit is burning the fuse!
Fuses, however, only work once, and then they have to be changed. For that reason, most homes today use a conventional circuit breaker panel. The switches you’ve probably seen on a circuit breaker panel each control a different room or part of the home. Instead of utilizing a fuse, each switch contains an electromagnet. If the current spikes, the magnet becomes strong enough to flip toward another magnet and pull a small lever that breaks the connection. These switches can be reset.
Let’s imagine this scenario: You’ve purchased and installed a new clothes dryer. When you plug it in, the electricity shuts off to that power outlet. You find your circuit breaker panel and see that the switch has jumped to ‘off’, so you turn it back on. When you plug your dryer back in, the same thing happens again.
Chances are, there’s a ground wire in your dryer or in the wiring that reaches that outlet that’s touching the hot wire or not properly connected. Unless you’ve got some electrical background, it’s time to call an electrician. But at least you’ve identified the problem!
Utilizing Your Circuit Breaker
For electrical problem-solving, tackling simple tasks like changing out a light switch, or simply having the ability to shut off power to your house during an emergency, knowing what each switch on your breaker panel controls is highly important.
On the inside door of most panels, a handwritten list will identify the room or section of the house that each switch corresponds to. If these are faded, unclear, or your definition of the rooms has changed (what was once ‘upstairs bedroom’ may now be ‘Dad’s office’, an important distinction to any family member trying to identify a switch), get some blank white address label stickers and update the descriptions.
If you’re panel is simply blank or illegible, start from scratch. Make it a fun family scavenger hunt to flip off one switch at a time and then explore the house to discover what room lights and outlets are no longer receiving power. Just remember you have outdoor outlets, as well. At the bottom or top of your panel, there’s likely a big master switch. That will cut off power to the entire house, in the event that you’re ever not completely certain that a switch connects to the room you’re trying to turn off.
There you have it! With this information, anyone without prior electrical knowledge should now be empowered to understand and utilize their circuit breaker panel, at least in the case of an emergency.
Chris Long is a store associate at a Home Depot in the Chicago suburbs, where he has been helping customers since 2000. Chris has interests in household electrical topics ranging from smoke detectors to solar panels.
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