Wednesday, August 20, 2014

How Does an Electrical Breaker Work?

How Does an Electrical Breaker Work?
You can call it a "Breaker Box", a "Service Panel", or "The Electrical Box", but whatever you call it, what it does and how it works is probably a bit of a mystery.

So here we go with a bit of information intended for the homeowner, as a homeowner, not an electrician

Before you read any further....DO NOT OPEN YOUR SERVICE PANEL or attempt to mess with your electrical system!!
1. What does the darn thing do?
Your Service Panel (that is what's is really called) is THE safety device for the electricity you use in your home. It is also the dividing up point for the electrical power coming into your house from your electric company. The amount of electricity coming into your home is really powerful, and actually comes with 2 large wires (also called conductors) that each have 120 volts of AC power. These are first attached to a Main breaker which separates them and passes the power thru the breakers on one side of the service panel and the other to the breakers on the other side of the panel.

2. Safety? How does it do that?Electrician
I'm so glad you asked. Electricity, for anyone who has touched it can tell you, will hurt. So that is why the Service Panel is so important. Inside the panel are several features you may not know about. First and foremost are what is called the ground and neutral buss bars. Without these your electricity wouldn't work. Like dancing, it takes two to Tango. Well in this case a hot conductor and a neutral conductor. The ground wire is the safety part of this. Just in case something goes wrong with an appliance or other electrical gadget in your house, the ground wire is where the electricity goes to safely discharge.

3. So just how does the breaker work?
A breaker in your service panel actually works by sensing heat build-up. Look at it this way, any incandescent light buld in your house is actually a heater. It operates by passing electricity thru the wire in the bulb, which in turn gets hot. It gets so hot that it also as a byproduct produces light. Well the breakers in your service panel are kind of like that, except they are set to shut down when the heat reaches a specific point.

4. So back to the dividing up point...
After the electricity passes thru the main breaker it then gets to pass thru the different breakers. Each breaker is matched up with either certain sections of your house or specific appliances, like your stove or refrigerator. It is important to have the correct size breaker along with the correct size wire (conductor) so that the safety feature of the breaker isn't compromised. If you just change out the existing breaker to a larger one then your wire may overheat before the breaker trips. Yep, this is one way to burn a house down.

5. Don't just keep resetting a breaker! 
When a breaker trips it is trying to tell you something. It's telling you SOMETHING IS WRONG! In houses built a few years ago the code electricians used to wire your house and do it safely wasn't as strict as it is today. In the 70's and 80's no one saw 1500 watt hair dryers coming, 15 amp vacuum cleaners, or entertainment centers that rival CNN. So putting 2 or 3 bathrooms on one circuit breaker wasn't unheard of. The problem is 2 bathrooms with a hair dryer going in both will tend to trip the breaker. Easy solution is reset the breaker and only one person gets to fix their hair at a time. If however you have a breaker that trips for no reason that you know of, it's telling you DANGER, DANGER. Have a properly trained person look into what is wrong as soon as you can.

An article by Steve Keel with a special thanks going out to Michael Turkington at Chattahoochee Technical College for passing along the knowledge that made this article possible.

And for assistance with all of your home repair needs, Pro-Fix Home Repair stands ready to help.  Give us a call at 770-575-2533.
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1 comment:

  1. I came home from work this morning and was going to take a shower when I realized that the water was freezing. I went to the water heater and saw it standing in a pool of water. What goes wrong inside the hot water heater to have it leak like this?