Circuit Breaker Tripping: Troubleshooting Guide

breaker test

A circuit breaker tripping is a direct result of short circuits, circuit overload, and ground faults. In each of these cases, there is an unintended excessive flow of current that triggers the trip. To restore power, you have to reset the circuit breaker by flipping it back on physically.

Circuit breakers trip because they cannot handle the amount of current running through them. Tripping the circuit breaker interrupts the flow of electricity flowing through it and protects your devices or appliances from damage.

Without circuit breakers, the possibility of electrical fires would be much higher.  

This guide looks at why circuit breakers trip, what you can do, and how to identify a bad breaker.

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What Would Cause A Breaker To Keep Tripping

Mainly from circuit overload, ground faults, short circuits, and more that would cause your breaker to keep tripping. 

Below are factors that can bring your breaker to trip. 

Circuit Overload

A circuit overload happens when the flow of electric current running through the circuit exceeds the amperage of the devices it serves. 

For example, if your microwave is a 12.5 amp appliance, you can run it on a 15 amp circuit. That means that as long as the amperage running through the circuit is 15 amps, your microwave is safe.

However, if the circuit receives excessive current over 15 amps, it will automatically trip to protect your device from damage. If the circuit doesn’t trip, the excess current will fry the circuit in your microwave. 

Also, if you operate too many appliances and devices on one circuit, its internal mechanism heats up, causing the breaker to trip. 

Circuit overload is the most common reason for breakers tripping. 

Ground Faults

A ground fault occurs when the active wire comes into contact with a ground wire made of bare copper. Sometimes, this fault may happen when the hot wire touches the metal box connected to the ground wire.

Once the active wire touches the ground wire, excessive current flows, but it flows into the earth. Ground faults can cause shock and even electrocution if you step on the affected area. The uncontrolled flow of electricity will cause the circuit breaker to trip.

Short circuits

A short circuit occurs when an active wire touches a neutral wire, and the electric current takes an unintended path of least resistance. 

The common cause of short circuits is frayed wires coming into contact when the wires touch. The current’s flow increases significantly, causing the circuit breaker to trip to stop the electricity from damaging appliances.

It is known as a short circuit because the current bypasses the proper circuit wiring channels and flows through a shorter, unplanned pathway.

Short circuits occur 

  • When insulation melts and wires are exposed
  • Within appliances with damaged internal wiring
  • Due to damaged and frayed extension or appliance cords

Arc Faults 

An arc fault happens when exposed wiring touches, causing the electric current to arc at the meeting point. As a result, sparks occur, which can ignite an electric fire.

A corroded or loose connection is the main culprit when it comes to arc faults. Circuit overloads, ground faults, or short circuits will trip an AFCI (Arc Fault Circuit Interrupter) circuit breaker.

Arc faults are a result of damaged, loose or corroded terminals and wires. The arc fault builds up over time as the heat due to the damaged cables and terminals build up to the point of ignition.

How Do You Fix A Breaker That Keeps Tripping?

A circuit breaker tripping clearly indicates that there is too much current flowing through the wiring or connection to the outlet.

Here is a step by step guide to follow when you notice the first trip:

  1. Begin by turning off all the appliances, devices and unplug them from the outlet. Also, switch off the lighting fixtures and unplug those that you can. This prevents any appliances from damage when the breaker is reset, and a sudden surge of power comes through.
  1. Open the circuit panel or box and locate the on and off buttons of the circuit breaker. You may notice an orange or red color on the breaker when it is off. 
  1. Flip the switch from off to on to reset the circuit breaker. Once the breaker is reset, you can switch the appliances and test them to see if the power is flowing.
  1. Keep safe as you reset the breaker by working from the side of the electrical box instead of the front. That way, you will avoid any sparks (should there be any) when you switch the breaker back on.
  1. Some people prefer to switch the main power switch when working on the circuit breaker for added safety. 

Types of Circuit Breakers

Standard Circuit Breaker

Standard circuit breakers monitor the modulation of the electric current coming into your devices and appliances. 

This breaker stops the current from flowing when it detects the excessive flow of electricity. 

Standard circuit breakers come in two forms:

  • Single-pole circuit breakers
  • Double pole circuit breakers

Single-Pole Circuit Breakers

Single-pole circuit breakers are the most common breakers in homes and buildings. They monitor the electric current’s flow in one wire and trip if that wire experiences a very high influx of electricity.

These breakers deliver only 120 volts, and they work well for 15 to 30 amp circuits. Single-pole circuit breakers come with one switch in the back. 

Double-Pole Circuit Breakers

The double-pole circuit breakers monitor the current in two wires simultaneously. You will notice two switches on the back of these breakers.

The double-pole circuit breakers will trip even if only one of the wires receives too much current. They can accommodate between 15 to 200 amps while delivering 240 volts. 

Single-pole breakers are a good fit for lighting fixtures and other standard outlets in the house. On the other hand, double-pole breakers work for larger appliances like dryers and washing machines. 

Ground Fault Circuit Interrupter (GFCI)

The GFCI circuit breaker is designed to interrupt line to ground faults. They trip when the current starts to follow an uncharted path into the ground.

At the same time, they offer protection against circuit overloads and short circuits. 

GFCI circuit breakers come built into specialized outlets required for wet areas in the home, including

  • Bathrooms
  • Kitchens
  • Outdoor areas like the balcony, patio, porches, and decks
  • Laundry rooms
  • Swimming pools
  • Six feet from a sink
  • Six feet from the bathroom

These breakers help to prevent shock or electrocution should the outlet come into contact with water. 

Arc Fault Circuit Interrupter (AFCI) 

The AFCI circuit breaker is designed to detect normal and abnormal arc faults, so it will trip when it detects a dangerous arc fault that can cause a fire. 

The AFCI circuit breaker doesn’t work to protect devices and appliances plugged into an outlet. It works to prevent electrical fires due to faulty connections and wiring. The detection device in the circuit breaker senses the conditions of an electric arc and trips to avoid an electric fire.

AFCI circuit breakers are also built into an outlet. The National Electrical Code requires these types of breakers to feature in

  • Bedrooms
  • Common rooms
  • Basements
  • Laundry areas
  • Kitchens
  • Closets
  • Hallways

AFCI and GFCI circuit breakers can co-exist and complement each other for the best protection.

Will A Bad Breaker Keep Tripping

By definition, bad breaker malfunctions, so it will keep tripping until it is either replaced or rectified.

Electricians perform this simple test to see if a breaker will keep tripping and determine if it can be repaired or replaced in the following steps.

  1. The electrician will switch off all the fixtures and appliances in the house. Also, unplug everything.
  2. Find the malfunctioning circuit breaker. The electrician will go to the electrical box and locate the breaker lighting orange or red or the one with the switch off.
  3. They will ascertain that it is the correct circuit breaker. After that, the electrician puts the breaker off.
  4. With the switch on, the breaker is back on as well. The electrician will plug the appliances back into the outlet with the problem circuit breaker. Now, they will turn the devices and appliances on. 

If the breaker trips, the electrician will investigate the amount of current in the circuit. If the current is according to the appliance’s rating, then the breaker is bad.

How Do I Know If A Circuit Breaker Is Bad

Circuit breakers can go bad after a while. It has a problem if the breaker doesn’t stay in reset mode even after flipping the switch on.

Since the circuit breaker controls the electric flow in the house, it is essential to monitor it and catch signs that it has gone bad early.

Here are key signs that denote a bad circuit breaker:

It Frequently Trips

Frequent tripping could be because of a bad breaker. When you reset your circuit breaker after tripping, it should stay in reset mode unless it detects high current flow. 

To ensure that the issue is not the electricity but the circuit breaker, call an electrician to examine your electricity’s flow and determine whether it is the cause of the constant tripping.

If it is not, then the circuit breaker is the problem. 

The Junction Box Is Hot To Touch

The junction/electrical box will heat up when the breaker is not working as the excess current surges through the system unchecked. Not only is the junction box hot, but also the dimmer switch.

Call an electrician immediately if the electrical box becomes too hot.

There Are Scorch Marks

Scorch marks around receptacles, appliances, and the electrical box should tell you your circuit breaker has gone bad.

The burn marks indicate that wiring insulation has melted off and the wires are now sparking and emanating heat or fire. That means that the circuit breaker did not interrupt the excess current, and it reached the wires and burned them. 

The electrician will use thermal imaging using an infrared camera to locate the heat source. The infrared camera allows them through the walls and other construction material to pinpoint the problem area.

A Burning Smell

Sometimes you may smell the insulation burning, but no scorch marks are present to denote which outlet is the problem. 

An electrician, with the help of the infrared camera, can help locate the issue. 

If you encounter a burning odor, shut off the main power and call for emergency service from an electrician. 

The wires begin to burn because too much electricity surges through the circuit, melting them and the insulation.

What is Nuisance Tripping

Nuisance tripping is when the circuit breaker trips even without a fault to warrant the interruption to the electric current flow.

Nuisance tripping occurs due to several reasons:

  • Stringent Protection On Circuits 

Sometimes the circuit is protected by stringent conditions that detect any variance to be a fault and cause a trip. 

Such stringent conditions can be tuned to accommodate the electric needs of the home or building.

  • A Highly Sensitive Circuit Breaker

In some cases, the circuit breaker itself has been set to susceptible settings so that they can detect even the slightest fault, even a minor average variance.

For example, the manufacturer can set an AFCI circuit breaker to such sensitive standards to detect another circuit’s arc.  This issue may occur when a daisy chain where the circuit breakers connect in a linear series.

  • The Breaker Encounters Power Under Different Conditions

The variation in the current is normal, but the breaker responds to it by tripping because the flow is outside the breaker’s regular operation.

Your circuit breaker is tripping because the voltage it is encountering is not within the standard operation. You will need to adjust the circuit breaker or the voltage to eliminate the nuisance tripping.

Replacing A Bad Circuit Breaker

  • Check the electric panel to see the approved circuit breaker brands that are compatible. Also, make a note of the brand of the electric panel. This is to help you find out if there are upgrades they could recommend at the hardware.
  • Order online or go to the hardware store and purchase the breaker of the same voltage as the one you are replacing.
  • Go and open the electrical box and switch off the bad breaker. Using a pair of needle-nosed pliers, loosen the terminals and remove the wires. Ensure the pliers have rubber insulated handles to avoid shock or electrocution since you will use the pliers to grab the live wires from the terminal. That is a safety measure.
  • Remove the bad breaker. Replace it with the new breaker and slip its clips into place. Remember to switch off the replacement breaker.
  • Next, using the pliers, hold the wiring in place and tighten the screws on the terminal. It is crucial to ensure that the wires and screws in the terminals are in the right place.
  • Turn the breaker on and replace the panel cover.

Conclusion: 

Listen to your circuit breaker

In its language, the circuit breaker is alerting you of a problem when it trips. That communication could be a problem with the breaker itself, the circuit, or the amount of electric current coming into your home.

Do not ignore what your circuit breaker is saying.

Sources

Why Do Circuit Breakers Trip

Circuit Breakers Keep Tripping

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Hubert Miles

I've been conducting home inspections for 17 years. I'm a licensed Home Inspector, Certified Master Inspector (CMI), and FHA 203k Consultant. I started HomeInspectionInsider.com to help people better understand the home inspection process and answer questions about homeownership and home maintenance.

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