Circuit Breaker Panel 101

Written by  //  December 7, 2012  //  Electrical Wiring  //  Comments Off on Circuit Breaker Panel 101

In the last twenty years, the majority of new homes have moved from fuses to electromagnetic switches in their circuit breakers, easing the life of future occupants faced with circuits that seem to continuously blow. Troubleshooting is much easier when resetting the circuit involves flipping a switch instead of replacing fuses that immediately blow.

Still, not every builder is as diligent as they should be about properly labeling a circuit breaker panel, and connecting and ordering the switches in the most logical, simple progression. Whether you’re remodeling an old home or moving into a new construction, there’s a chance that the switches on your circuit breaker panel may be incorrectly labeled (or not labeled at all).

It’s important to know which switches go where in your home. Any sort of electrical problems or small projects (installing a ceiling fan, replacing a thermostat) will require accurate control of the power supply for installation, troubleshooting and for safety.

Before getting into our switch labeling project, however, let’s take a minute to understand how home electricity works. Remember this simple formula:

Voltage ÷ Resistance = Current

Voltage (electrical pressure) flows into your home from the hot wire outside that’s connected to buried or aerial power lines. Once it’s inside your house, resistance within wiring and electrical devices reduces the pressure.

The effect of resistance on voltage is to slow the flow of the electrical current (measured in amps). As that current passes through an appliance, the amount of electrical energy it utilizes is referred to as ‘power.’ Measured in watts, power equals voltage x amps.

Before traveling to individual rooms and wall sockets, the electricity in our house passes through the circuit breaker. It’s here that we can flip a switch and stop the power from reaching a particular room.

Think of the inner workings of the switch as a more intelligent fuse. Current passes through an electromagnet that’s pulled towards a second magnet, but not enough to disconnect the switch. If the current spikes, the electromagnet is strengthened and snaps toward the other magnet, breaking the connection and stopping the current flow.

Many things could cause a spike in current. Appliances often contain motors, which can overheat. Too much heat could melt connections, fusing hot and neutral wires together that causes current to spike. A nail through a wall could connect with a wire, throwing off the current, or too many items plugged into a wall socket could cause a slow overheating.

When this happens and our power shuts off to a room, it’s important to know how to turn it back on (and troubleshoot the problem).

Taking Control of Your Circuit Breaker Panel

Now that you know how each of the switches on your panel functions, make sure that your switches are properly labeled. If a need arises to shut off power to a particular room, you’ll want to be able to do that quickly and painlessly. If the labels on your breaker panel are worn off or never existed, get some white label stickers and spend a few minutes IDing each switch on your circuit breaker.

Flip the first switch off and move through the house trying wall sockets. If you find one that doesn’t work, be sure to try each one in the room and vicinity, even on the other side of the same wall. Once you’ve pinpointed which sockets the switch pertains to, label it properly at the circuit breaker panel. Continue through each switch, remembering that some switches may apply to outdoor outlets, your HVAC system or lighting circuits that may not have an outlet.

Finally, if you’re rewiring a home or building from scratch, remember to properly label your circuit breaker as you go, and save the future homeowner the trouble of tackling the project switch by switch. It’s important to properly label and understand your circuit breaker panel for home projects, safety, and troubleshooting persistent problems with power surging and cutting off to a room.

Chris Long is a store associate at a Home Depot in the Chicago suburbs, where he has been helping customers since 2000. Chris has interests in household electrical topics ranging from smoke detectors to solar panels.

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