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Getting to know your circuit breaker

We've all been there. Your wife is blow-drying her hair, your daughter is ironing a shirt and your son decides to fire up the Xbox for the few remaining minutes he has before leaving for school. And you decide you want a piece of toast.

You pop in the bread, push down the handle and then the undeniable silence that signifies all things in your home have come to a halt.

Sure, you blame the toaster and curse your house, but the tripped circuit that just shut down your power is just doing its job.

Dave Borowski, spokesperson for Direct Energy, says the circuit breaker's sole responsibility is to protect the electrical wiring in your house and to keep you safe. "Sure, it can be annoying, but it's designed to help protect you and your home," he says.

That protection occurs when the wires in your house — or the wires in a particular zone in your house — are overloaded with electrical current, causing them to heat up. Instead of transferring that heat to the appliances and electronic items plugged into your outlets, causing them to burn out and potentially resulting in a fire, the circuit breaker trips, shutting off the electricity to the entire house or to that select zone at its distribution point.


It's important to remember that it's not the number of appliances that cause your power to stop. Instead, it's the size of the wires in your walls.

"You might think that the amount of appliances themselves on that circuit cause the problem but its the wiring in the walls that overheats," says Borowski. "The only thing that keeps those wires from bursting into flames when they overload is that circuit breaker."

The occasional tripped circuit or blown fuse can be more than an annoyance, according to Borowski. In fact, it can be dangerous.

"When your circuit breaker trips, you should take it as a sign that there's something wrong," Borowski says. "You want to call a professional and find out why it tripped. Electricity is a great servant, but it can cause injury or death if you don't treat it with respect."

Borowski says it could be as simple as a bad breaker, but it could be something much more serious, which only a qualified electrician would be able to evaluate. "Whenever it happens, it's an indication that your entire electrical system needs an inspection," he says.

Inside each circuit breaker, a spring is hooked over a small piece of solder, a melt-able fusible alloy. Each breaker is connected to an electrical wire that runs through your house. The electricity that flows through your house runs through the solder. When the connected wiring is at risk of overheating, the solder melts, resulting in the spring extending through the solder, pulling the switch off and shutting down that particular circuit. When the alloy cools down, it can be reset. A fuse works on a similar premise, but instead of a spring, the melt-able metal is the bridge itself. When overheated, it melts and permanently opens. Fuses must be replaced while circuit breakers can be switched back to an "on" position.

And despite what you may think — yes, that circuit breaker box looks simple because you see it every day in your laundry room. No, it's not as easy to operate as your dryer — the numerous wires, breakers and voltage offerings in your breaker can cause real harm if you try to tinker around with them, especially if you're intent on creating a workaround for breakers that trip often.

"Some people think they can bypass or override their breakers by jerry-rigging up their own system," says Borowski. That s completely dangerous.

Borowski says breakers typically last 20 to 30 years, although heat, power surges, brown outs, corrosion, frequent lightning storms and other factors can take their toll, shortening their life expectancy, all the more reason to have the panel checked by a professional.

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