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What Causes a Circuit Breaker to Trip?

By Carrie Dixon, Blog Editor

Reasons for tripped circuit breakerAnyone who has a home with a circuit breaker has likely been through a situation where the breaker is tripped, and the house is plunged into darkness. There are a few reasons that this can happen, but it usually boils down to three situations. So, if you are curious what causes these situations, we will explain exactly why they might have happened.

Circuit breakers are designed to trip when an emergency happens. The breakers flip to turn off power to avoid problems that might exacerbate and cause more trouble for you. Here are the three primary reasons that a breaker might flip and shut down the power in some portion of your home.

Ground Fault

The first cause of a breaker trip is a ground fault, which happens when a hot wire contacts a metal wall box or wood framing. This type of situation can be hazardous when it occurs somewhere with large amounts of moisture, like bathrooms or kitchens. There are ways to prevent these kinds of events, along with the means to fix them, but should only be undertaken after an understanding of the mechanics and risks involved.

These types of faults have a significant threat of electric shock, but fire and burns can also result from the electrical currents in conductive materials nearby. A good way to eliminate this problem occurring, to begin with, is by installing a GFCI outlet. This is relatively simple but can also be done by a professional if you are unsure about doing it on your own.

Short Circuit

A serious reason for breaker trips is a short circuit. Sometimes, in what is called a hard short, this happens when a hot wire touches another hot or neutral wire. Other times a short circuit occurs because of a device or appliance with a wiring problem that is then plugged into an outlet in a circuit. Because of the various reasons for a short circuit, it can be difficult to determine what is going wrong and how to fix it.

Some short circuits can be determined by looking for sparks or smoke. However, others are internal and harder to locate. Consider hiring a professional because this repair can result in both personal injury and damage to your home. If you believe you have a short, do not run power to that circuit until a professional has looked at it. This can cause fire and be very dangerous.

Overloaded Circuit

In most cases, a circuit breaker tripping occurs because of an overloaded circuit. What this means is that a circuit is trying to draw more power than it is designed to carry. This can happen when many lights or appliances are operating at the same time. The circuit wires will heat up due to the excess power that is being drawn. The circuit break realizes this and shuts off the flow of electricity, which breaks the circuit.

Some other signs of an overloaded circuit situation include melted plastic housing, corroded wires, burning smells, hot hardware, and loose wires. This is a situation where hiring a professional may be to your behest, although it can be done on your own without requiring work with electrical systems themselves.

While there are three primary reasons for circuit breakers to trip, each is a unique situation and must be handled differently. Understanding what each of these situation entails and what to do if they come up can keep you from ending up in a dangerous situation. If you aren’t sure about the reason behind the circuit breaker tripping, hiring a Five Star Rated electrician is your best bet.