Circuit breakers help let our houses safely consume electricity to run several electrical appliances. Tripping is the first layer of defense that protects us from electrical accidents. But multiple tripping becomes a matter of concern.
Breakers trip due to ground faults, overloading, and short circuits. To find out what is tripping the breaker, reduce the load, check the wire faults and fix them, and reset the breaker after troubleshooting each problem. Use a multimeter to check the breaker’s effectiveness.
It is essential to learn why these reasons trip the breaker, how to identify the problem and fix the correct one to avoid misdiagnosing. Please read this article until the end as we thoroughly answer these doubts.
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Understanding circuit breakers
A circuit breaker is an electrical switch that protects the electrical circuit from damage caused by overcurrent.
The electrical panel distributes electrical power to various circuits protected by these breakers.
These circuits further provide power to run your house’s fans, lights, and other appliances.
Whenever there is an overflow of current in the circuit due to overloading, short circuits, ground faults, and others, the breaker will break the excess current flow and trip off.
Common causes of circuit breaker tripping
One day, I was working on my laptop, and suddenly, half the lights in my room went off.
So, I went to the breaker and saw it tripped off.
I turned it ON again, but again it tripped after some time.
It has happened several times, and there were different problems each time.
But after proper research and observation, I have figured out some common reasons:
A circuit gets overloaded when the amount of electricity is higher than the circuit can handle.
This occurs when you run too many high-powered appliances in outlets that get power from the same circuit or plug multiple appliances into one outlet.
When the appliances start drawing too much power than the circuit is rated for, the circuit will overload, and the breaker will trip off.
Tripping prevents the wires from getting too hot and starting a fire.
If the breaker trips multiple times, it can be a matter of concern as the breaker will no longer be able to stop the overheating and fire.
How do you identify that your circuit breaker is tripping due to the overloaded circuit?
I used to run too many appliances in a 15-amp circuit. But one day, it tripped off, and I was unsure whether it was overloading or something else.
Then I noticed some signs which helped me identify that the problem could be overloading. Here are those signs:
- Dimming lights
- Buzzing switches
- Switches and outlets get warm
- Smell of burns
- Lack of enough electricity in the running appliances
A short circuit occurs when two wires touch each other, which were not supposed to.
For example, a hot wire strays outside the wiring system and contacts the neutral or grounding pathway.
Excess electricity starts flowing when such wires come in contact with each other.
As a result, this excess electricity loses resistance and increases its amount.
The current exceeds the breaker’s rating that controls the circuit.
The breaker will trip to stop the flow and save you from fire and electrocution.
Another reason could be some animal chewing the wires and exposing the wires out of the insulation.
The insulation prevents the wires from touching each other. When the insulation breaks and the wires expose, they come in contact with each other and cause a short circuit.
Short circuits can occur in your house wiring or any appliance.
For example, a television or a grinder.
When you have inspected that there is the right amount of load in the circuit, but the breaker still trips, you have a short circuit issue.
Ground faults occur when the current accidentally gets diverted from the energized wire to the ground wire after the wire touches the grounding.
A ground wire is an extra wire connected to a circuit or a device for safety.
The circuit wires lose their resistance, and an excessive current starts flowing that causes the breaker to trip and prevent electrical accidents.
However, a standard breaker may not be fast enough to reach.
That is why people use GFCI breakers.
These breakers have a sensor that can sense the fault and immediately trip off within a fraction of a second to prevent accidents.
Ground faults can also cause fire and electric shocks, but thankfully the breaker can prevent these accidents by tripping.
Ground faults can also occur when water leaks into the outlets or devices or when the defective appliances cause the electricity to flow to the ground wire.
I have GFCIs for my kitchen, bathroom, and garage.
Whenever they trip, I get an idea that some ground fault has occurred.
I never try testing.
If the breaker or outlet trips more than 1-2 times, I turn them off and seek professional help.
An arc fault or sparking occurs when loose or corroded wire connections touch each other.
Sometimes, the screws can become loose and create sparks, causing arcing.
These situations can further create heat and pose a risk of fire.
Arcing is considered a precursor to the ground fault or short circuit.
An arc fault cannot itself trip a standard breaker or a GFCI breaker.
These breakers will only trip during overloading, short circuits, or ground faults.
But for the breaker to trip whenever an arcing occurs, you will need an AFCI (Arc Fault Circuit Interrupter) breaker.
An AFCI breaker can detect early wire issues and trip the breaker in advance to stop the excessive flow of electricity.
Sometimes, the loads will be delicate, but the circuit and outlet are in good shape, and there are no wire-related issues.
But the breaker still trips. When this happens, you have a bad or defective breaker that requires a replacement.
Sometimes, it is just old age. When a breaker gets too old, it loses the ability to carry enough current as it used to when new.
When the breaker trips even with a lesser or no load, recall the last time you changed it. If it has been years, replace the breaker.
How to find what is tripping your circuit breaker?
You have learned the common reasons behind a tripped breaker.
There are many reasons, but how will you find exactly what is tripping your breaker?
That is the main focus of this article, and this is what I will discuss in this section. Let’s begin with the diagnosis steps:
1. Check the circuit breaker
Whenever a breaker trips, your first job is to find out which breaker has tripped.
We have multiple circuit breakers to power different appliances, lights, and fans.
So, it is impossible to record which breaker powers which lights, fans, or outlets.
When a breaker trips, it does not necessarily flip the switch to OFF.
It can sometimes remain at the center, between the ON and OFF extremes.
The movement will be faint, so it becomes tough to find the tripped switch.
Identifying the breaker can be challenging if you do not know which switch is for the room that has lost power.
So study your circuit breakers and identify the right one to fix the power in the room.
2. Turn off the breaker
Once you have discovered the switch, please turn it off completely.
If the switch is stuck between the ON and OFF, trip it off ultimately.
Make sure you have an assistant with you while you are working.
Ask the assistant to turn on a light to ensure the breaker has properly tripped.
3. Unplug all the appliances
Unplug every appliance connected to the outlets of the tripped circuit.
Wait for a few minutes.
Flip to turn the circuit breaker ON and hold the switch until you hear the clicking sound.
Test and see if you have the correct circuit breaker switch, and ask your assistant to turn on the light.
4. Turn ON the appliances one by one
Now, plug in all the appliances.
After turning on the breaker, turn on the lights, fans, and every other appliance that receives power from the breaker.
Turn them all slowly, one by one.
Let each one run for a few minutes before you turn on the next one.
Ensure that your assistant stays near the circuit breaker to identify which breaker is tripping.
5. Identifying faulty wiring and short circuit: Uncovering hidden electrical problems
Begin with short circuits because if you do not have any overload, a short circuit is the reason the circuit breaker is tripping.
In overloading, the breaker trips when all the outlets in the circuit are running.
But in a short circuit, if an outlet or appliance is faulty, only that one will lead to tripping after you plug it in.
So, if the breaker trips while you still need to finish turning on all the appliances, the last running appliance or the outlet is the problem.
To confirm that, plug the appliance into another outlet of a different circuit.
If the breaker trips, it means you have a faulty appliance.
The appliance may have some short circuits or loose wire connections.
If you suspect the outlet is faulty, try running another good appliance in the outlet.
To check this, open the outlet with the breaker turned off and check the wire connections.
If you find any exposed, damaged, corroded, or frayed wires, it is confirmed that there was a short circuit.
To fix the wires, hire an electrician for the best fixation.
If the wires are loose, disconnect and reconnect them tightly.
As for the appliance, please take it to a repair shop or hire an expert to fix it.
6. Identifying overloaded circuits
If there is no short circuit, the appliances will keep running.
The circuit is overloaded when the breaker trips a few minutes after the last running appliance.
Reset the breaker and try to reduce the load or run a few appliances at a time.
Another way to check whether the problem is overloading is to find out and calculate the wattage of every appliance you run on the circuit.
When the value is more than the circuit’s maximum load, it is an overloading. However, it can be time-consuming.
If the problem is overloading, the breaker will not trip anymore after you reduce the load.
But if the breaker trips again, there is some other issue.
Try checking the outlet or the last plugged appliance. There may be a short circuit or a ground fault.
7. Identifying ground faults: Protecting against electrical hazards
Ground fault mainly occurs when moisture enters the outlets or when an energized wire touches a ground wire.
To determine whether the problem is a ground fault, determine when the breaker trip exactly.
If the breaker has tripped after rainfall, the outdoor outlets may have had moisture inside.
Turn off the breaker, open the outlet, and use a battery-powered hair dryer to dry out the outlet.
Also, check the wire connections, especially the grounding.
Make sure to hold the dryer a bit away from the outlet, and the force of the dryer should not be too much.
Hold the dryer 6 to 8 inches away and dry out the outlet.
After that, close the outlet cover, and turn on the breaker.
If the breaker trips again, avoid the outlet and call an electrician.
Now what if indoor outlets are the problem?
If you have a tripped GFCI, it is confirmed that the breaker has tripped due to a ground fault.
Identifying ground faults in the standard outlets is difficult.
A lot of people confuse it with a short circuit.
Remember that a short circuit will create sparks and scorch burn marks on the outlet, and the wires are physically damaged.
But a ground fault neither creates any burn marks or physical damage.
Only the outlet will feel warm, and the breaker keep tripping.
If unsure about the fault, avoid using the outlets or breaker and immediately hire an electrician.
8. Tripping and AFCI breakers: Addressing Arc faults
You can only identify an arc fault if you have AFCI breakers or Arc Fault Circuit Interrupters.
If you have standard or GFCI breakers, the breakers trip only after a short circuit, overloading, or a ground fault.
An arc fault occurs when loose or corroded wires touch each other.
An arc fault just before a short circuit or ground fault.
If you have an AFCI breaker, it will trip and prevent a short circuit or ground fault.
Then you can understand that there has been an arc fault.
Another way to identify an arc fault is using an arc fault detector.
That will be challenging as you must find exposed or corroded wires at the breaker, outlets, or appliances.
Gather an arc fault detector, test lead and probe set, circuit tester, and safety gear.
Disconnect the electrical circuit at the panel, and connect the test leads to both ends of the exposed wires.
Plug in the detection device and start the test.
The test results will be on the digital display or the analog meter gauge.
You can understand the amount of arcing by comparing it with the predetermined thresholds.
Remove the detector and reconnect the circuit.
Note down the results to identify the potential arc faults you must address.
You do not fix the problem but only test and confirm the problem.
For the solution, hire an expert to fix the wires.
Please provide them with the results to help them understand the amount of arc fault and what exactly they need to address the issue.
9. Identifying bad breaker
If you have a bad breaker, it will trip constantly despite everything being correct.
I had this problem once.
I did all the tests to determine what was tripping the breaker but couldn’t identify any problem.
I hired an electrician because I thought some severe issues, like ground faults or short circuits, may have occurred.
But he told me that I had a malfunctioning outlet.
It happens when your breaker is old or defective.
When breakers get old, they do not remain as effective as before and start malfunctioning.
If you have such a breaker, replace it.
10. Hire an electrician
This is the last resort.
Since the problems behind a tripped breaker are complicated, it is better to hire an electrician.
Explain to the electrician about the tests you have performed and the problem you have identified through the tests.
It will help the electrician narrow down the problem and solve it quickly.
Even if you cannot find the real problem, electricians will perform specific tests to confirm what is wrong with the breaker.
They know the right tools and ways to check and fix the problem.
So, hiring a professional for such electrical problems is always wise, especially for problems like short circuits and ground faults.
Professional Assistance: When to Call an Electrician for Circuit Breaker Tripping
If your circuit breaker trips due to overloading, you can fix the problem by reducing the load.
But you will require an electrician for problems like short circuits, arc, and ground faults.
These problems are much more dangerous than overloading.
Besides, these problems are all related to wires: loose wires, corroded wires, or wires touching each other that were not supposed to.
You can find out what exactly is tripping the breaker.
But after that, you will need an expert to address the problems.
Inform the experts about your tests and how you have confirmed the exact problem behind the tripping.
Whether you are testing to find the exact cause or doing nothing, it is always wise to seek professional help.
You are not an expert. So, there is no guarantee that your diagnosis is correct.
Calling an expert to fix the problem will prevent you from mistreating the problem.
Electricians use the right tools and equipment needed for the fixation, which you may not have.
So the experts will take less time to fix the problem.
Furthermore, professionals have liability insurance.
It will help you from financial loss and damage occurring during work.
Finally, you receive peace of mind knowing that an expert and not a novice are handling your problem.
Upgrading Your Electrical System: Preventing Frequent Tripping
Upgrading the electrical system to prevent frequent tripping is necessary when you face overloading.
The most common cause of tripping, if the wires, outlets, and breakers are in good condition, is overloading.
In that case, upgrading your electrical panel or the circuit breaker can prevent frequent tripping.
If your electrical panel has empty slots to add extra circuit breakers, add new breakers and run appliances that are causing overloading on the tripped breaker.
Here, you can run the appliances causing the overloading in this new circuit without any overloading.
Or, you can upgrade a circuit breaker, for example, from a 15-amp circuit to a 20-amp circuit.
I have upgraded some 10 and 15-amp breakers to 20 amps.
I did not jump to a significantly higher amperage as that can pose a threat.
Your electrical panel needs to have enough capacity to handle high-amperage circuit breakers.
If you need to add extra breakers or upgrade the recent one with high amperage, first upgrade the electrical service of your house.
Safety Measures: Tips for Avoiding Circuit Breaker Tripping and Ensuring Optimal Performance
To avoid tripping the breaker and ensure its optimal performance, follow the following tips:
- Before you install anything new, check the load requirements of the wire, circuit, and breaker panel to ensure it is enough to power the newly installed appliance.
- While you can replace the circuit breaker with a higher amperage, do not jump to a higher amp. For example, if you have a 15-amp breaker but need more, replace it with a 20-amp breaker and not a 30-amp breaker.
- Do not add extra circuit breakers to your electrical panel unless you have empty slots.
- If you are not using any particular appliance/s, unplug them from your outlet.
- Use fewer appliances at once.
- Replace the outlets and old circuitry whenever required. Old products do not have enough power to carry current like they used to when they were new.
- Use heavy gauge wires that can carry the amperage of the outlets and the breakers.
- Install GFCIs and AFCIs for safety purposes.
There are several reasons behind a tripped breaker. But you must find what problem is exactly tripping the breaker. Fortunately, there are ways to determine whether a particular problem is tripping the breaker. Common reasons are overloading, short circuits, ground faults, and arc faults. Turn off the breaker and unplug the appliances. Reset the breaker, plug in the appliances, turn them on one by one, and let them run for some time.
If the breaker trips, you have an overloaded circuit. If you have the correct load, but the breaker trips after you plug in one particular appliance, the appliance or the outlet has short circuit issues. If the above two problems are not the actual cause, you have an arc or ground fault. In an arc fault, the breaker will trip before the short circuit. Ground faults can be more dangerous than other issues. So, if you suspect this, do not even try to test.
Instead, hire an electrician. The breaker trips to save you from electrical accidents. But repeated tripping will weaken the breaker, and then it won’t be able to save you. So, finding the problem and fixing it soon is wise. Follow the safety tips I have shared to keep your breaker in good shape for a long time.
Is it dangerous if my breaker keeps tripping?
Breakers trip to stop the excess current flow caused by some faults and save you from fire and electrocution. However, it won’t save you all the time. Frequent tripping reduces the breaker’s efficiency. So, make sure to fix the problem behind the tripping soon.
Why is my tripped circuit breaker not resetting?
You may have faults in the wires, like loose or corroded wires. You will also face short circuits, ground and arc faults. Call a professional to get them fixed.
Reference: Breakers Wikipedia