Tips for troubleshooting breaker problems

July 28, 2015

If you're losing power every time you run the microwave and hair dryer at the same time, here are some tips to troubleshoot breaker and circuit power issues. 

Tips for troubleshooting breaker problems

Visual clues

  • Unlike a tripped circuit breaker, a blown fuse gives you a visual clue as to what caused the circuit to fail.
  • Take a look at the fuse's glass window. If the metal strip inside is broken but the window is clear, the circuit is overloaded.
  • If the window is discoloured, you probably have a short circuit.

Understanding amps, volts and watts

  • The rate at which electric current flows through a conductor such as copper wire is measured in amperes (amps).
  • The pressure that causes current to flow through a conductor is measured in volts.
  • Electricity's power, or ability to do work, is measured in watts.
  • What do they all have to do with each other? The basic formula tying the three together is simple: watts (power) = amps (current) x volts (pressure). For example, 1/2 amp of current at 120 volts will power a 60-watt lightbulb.
  • In Canada, electrical current is delivered to homes and offices at 120 volts (for lighting and small appliances) and 240 volts (for electric ranges and other heavy-duty appliances). Modern three-wire services are rated at 100 to 400 amps, with branch circuits typically rated at 15 or 20 amps.
  • If you don't know how many amps your electrical system delivers, check the service disconnect — the amps rating is usually stamped on there. A three-wire (120/240-volt) electrical service with a 60-amp fuse box, once the residential standard, is barely adequate for smaller homes with just one 240-volt appliance. The more modern electronic conveniences you have in your home, the more amps you'll need. If you have a 60-amp, three-wire service, consider upgrading to a three-wire service with a 100-amp or larger breaker panel. If you just have 30-amp, two-wire service, you should definitely upgrade.

Circuit failure

  • Circuit failure is usually due to one of two problems: Circuit overload or short circuiting.
  • Circuits can be overloaded, which is what happens when too many appliances are running on the same circuit.
  • When a worn hot wire touches a worn neutral (or another hot) wire, or the ground wire, or any metal that's grounded, creating a shortcut for a large current surge, this is what causes a short circuit.
  • Your circuit is probably overloaded if you've just plugged a high-wattage appliance into an outlet and everything just stops working. If you're overloaded, try moving smaller portable appliances to another circuit that's not being used as much. Switch off or unplug the high-watt load, then reset it. Not doing these things will cause the breaker to trip again almost immediately.
  • If you reset the breaker or replace the fuse and your circuit still isn't working, you probably have a short. Do a little sleuthing to figure out what's causing the short: First unplug all lamps and appliances on the circuit. Then check the plugs and cords for damage: If a fixture, switch or outlet is discoloured or has a faint burned smell, it's likely the culprit. Replace the damaged cord, switch or outlet if needed.
  • Before you plug anything back in, reset the breaker or replace the fuse. If the circuit still doesn't work, you'll need to call an electrician because the problem is likely interior wiring.
  • Now, start plugging a few things in again. If the circuit fails only when you turn on a specific lamp or appliance, you've found your short.
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