- Home Improvement
Home Circuit Breakers
BY Joan Whetzel
Circuit breakers are vital safety devices for running electricity throughout your home. Excessive current coming into the house, electrical shorts, equipment failures and other electrical problems can lead to fires. That's where the circuit breakers come in, they cut the power allowing the homeowner time to get the problem fixed. These modern marvels have only been around since around the turn of the 29th century. Tesla, Edison and Westinghouse all recognized early on that short circuits were the cause of many fires, blown lights and malfunctioning equipment due to power surges. Thus the invention of the fuse and later the circuit breaker to prevent these problems.
How Circuit Breakers Work
Circuit breakers act as sort of a shield, protecting your home from fires caused by electrical problems. Whenever an overloaded circuit, a short circuit, or a ground fault is detected in your home's electrical system, the circuit breakers automatically trip the power off, as opposed to fuses which are designed to blow or burn out. As a result uses need to be replaced, whereas circuit breakers only need to be flipped back on; once the problem has been fixed, that is. Today's circuit breaker panels are set up to trip only certain portions of the home's electricity, not the electricity to the whole house.
Types of Circuit Breakers
The first oil-filled circuit breakers used to explode whenever electrical shorts occurred, which wasn't a very cost effective system. Nor was the system safe enough for home use. Later, replaceable fuses came along. When the home's electrical circuits became overloaded, the fuses would melt, requiring replacement fuses. The problem was that even if only one fuse blew, the electricity to the entire house went out, leaving the homeowner to change find the fuse box and replace the fuse entirely in the dark. Today's circuit breakers, work like light switches, flipping on and off. They can be flipped off individually to make electrical repairs to only one portion of the house. Under certain circumstances, a master switch can be flipped off to cut the power to the whole house. Sometimes, electrical storms have been known to flip the master switch to the off position. When the storm is over, the homeowner needs only turn on the master switch, followed by each of the individual circuit breakers. If any problems occur afterward, however, it's best to flip the master switch back off until an electrician can be called to check out the home's electrical system.
Testing Home Circuit Breakers
Ifproblems with the circuit breakers or circuit breaker panel are suspected, one way the homeowner can do a preliminary check is with the use of a voltmeter, which will show whether each circuit breaker is getting power. Faulty breakers will need replacing. A word of warning, here: The only way to test the circuit breakers in the panel is with the power on, so extreme caution must be taken. 1) Wear rubber soled shoes. 2) Make sure the ground your standing on is dry. 3) Wear safety goggles just in case any electrical sparking occurs.
To use the voltmeter (rated up to 500 volte is preferable):
1. 1. Remove the cover from the circuit breaker panel.
2. 2. Place one of the voltmeter's probes on a circuit breaker terminal screw. Place the other probe to "ground." (Note that one of the probes will be red in color and the other will be black). "Ground" could be any metal part of the circuit panel casing. Warning: Don't touch the voltmeter probes to exposed wire, but instead place them on the plastic or rubber outer casing surrounding the wire. Any exposed wire will send out a jolt of electricity.
3. 3. Check the voltmeter screen to obtain the reading.
Labeling the Circuit Breaker Panel
An important note about circuit breaker panels should be given. If your circuit breaker panel isn't labeled, there is no way of knowing what light switches and outlets are powered by each circuit breaker. The best way to find out is to go through and test each circuit breaker. This works best with two people, one to control the circuit breakers, and the other to go around the house testing light switches (by turning them on and off) and outlets (by plugging in a nightlight). Using a wide point permanent marker, either write the circuit breaker's locations directly on the metal panel next to the circuit breaker or write it on a piece of masking tape and apply the tape to the metal panel next to the circuit breaker.
Whenever you have problems testing the circuit breakers or turning them back on, always call an electrician. Yes, a good electrician will cost some money, but the money you spend on an electrician is nothing compared to the money you spend if you accidentally cause major electrical problems, or worse, your house burns down because you were trying to save a little money. The best advice: when in doubt, call an electrician.