Knowing the basics when it comes to electricity can go a long way in helping keep your family and home safe. One often misunderstood aspect of home electricity is circuit breakers and what to do when they ‘trip’. Here’s a quick, informative overview to help keep you safe.
The Fundamental Role of a Circuit Breaker
The home circuit breaker was invented nearly a century ago. However, it wasn’t until the 1960s that they began to be broadly adopted instead of traditional fuses. The number of circuits in a home can vary greatly, depending on the year built and the size of the home. When a circuit breaker senses that a circuit is drawing too much power, it ‘trips,’ automatically shutting off power to the circuit.
Importantly, faults that result in a tripped circuit breaker are NOT typically what cause electrical fires since the breaker did its job and stopped the flow of electricity before a fire could start. However, electrical fires (nearly 50,000 each year in the U.S. alone) most often start from faults that do NOT trip traditional circuit breakers – and this is why Ting was created.
Each breaker has a rating that determines how much current it can safely carry and interrupt. Circuit breakers that feed receptacles (outlets) are rated at 15 or 20 amps, and will automatically trip if current exceeds these ratings. Lighting circuits are typically on circuits protected by 15 amp breakers. In addition to these, your electrical panel will also contain a limited number of larger “double-pole” breakers that have higher amp ratings for big appliances like air conditioners, water heaters, stoves and clothes dryers.
Does Ting generate an alert when a breaker trips?
When a breaker trips, it fulfills its role of keeping your home safe. Ting does not alert on the actual ‘tripping’ of the circuit breaker. However, depending on the root cause, Ting may alert on underlying conditions that led the circuit breaker to trip. We’ll cover those situations below.
What Causes a Circuit Breaker to Trip
Breakers can trip for a few reasons but with the same purpose in mind – to keep you safe. So be mindful if you’re planning to reset the breaker. Here’s how to know when it is safe or not.
(1) Overloaded Circuit
The most common cause of a circuit breaker tripping is too much current being drawn by lighting, devices or appliances on a given circuit, overloading it. Overloading wiring in a circuit generates immense heat, which can cause a fire.
Is it safe to reset the breaker when it tripped from an overloaded circuit? Depending on the age and design of your home, overloads can be somewhat common but normally easy to pinpoint. If a breaker tripped when on the initial use of an appliance or light, it is possible that is what overloaded it. In this situation, unplug some items to reduce the load on the circuit – then reset the circuit breaker. If it trips immediately or soon thereafter, this means you are likely facing with a more serious problem than an overload.
Does Ting alert on overloaded circuits?
Ting does not detect that a circuit is “overloaded.” However, Ting does notify and warn of low voltage conditions that can occur from an overload.
(2) Short Circuit
The wiring in your home consists of three different types of wires: a live or hot wire, a neutral wire, and a ground wire. When a live wire comes into contact with the neutral wire, a ‘short’ occurs, allowing a lot of current to flow and overload the circuit. Short circuits are generally a much bigger problem than a circuit overload, as they can potentially create a risk of both fires and electrocution. A specific type of short circuit, a ground fault surge, occurs when the hot wire touches either the ground wire or a metal electrical box that the ground wire is connected to. Ground fault surges can potentially be even more dangerous than short circuits and cause electrocution. GFCI protection of certain outlets in the home has been required by code since the 1970s.
Is it safe to repeatedly reset the breaker if it keeps tripping from a short circuit? The short answer, excuse the pun, is no. Repeatedly resetting a breaker could result in an arc flash or a fire (see the recent news story below). If the circuit is not overloaded and the breaker trips after one attempt at resetting it, leave it in the tripped state. It is essential that you contact a professional electrician to determine the source of the problem.
News Story – House Fire
On 2/23/2023 in Kennewick, WA a home experienced an electrical fire in the attic. The homeowner reported to the fire department that the circuit breaker tripped multiple times and was reset each time before they smelled smoke in the home.
Repeatedly resetting a tripped circuit breaker is NEVER safe. Thankfully there were no injuries from this fire.
Does Ting alert on short circuits?
If a short circuit trips a circuit breaker, Ting would likely sense the very brief arc associated with the short but would not alert on this fault.
By design, a short circuit should always cause a breaker to trip. It is important to remember that while it is a very brief event, a short circuit might also cause sparks, popping sounds, and possibly some smoke, despite the breaker safely tripping to shut off electricity for the circuit.
(3) Old or Faulty Circuit Breakers
Though not nearly as common as the above causes, a circuit breaker might trip – not due to a problem with the circuit – but with the breaker itself. If your breaker or your electrical panel is old, faulty, or not wired properly, it can also cause the breakers to trip. Remember, repeatedly resetting a breaker could result in an arc flash or a fire. If the circuit is not overloaded and the breaker trips after one attempt at resetting it, leave it in the tripped state. It is essential that you contact a professional electrician to determine the source of the problem.
On the other hand, outdated breaker boxes can have worn connectors, and a breaker may not trip when it should, which can cause a circuit to overload and start an electrical fire.
Trust Your Instincts
When in doubt, call a pro. Don’t try and reset a breaker if it trips again after resetting it once. It is essential that you contact a professional electrician to determine the source of the problem.