Overloading Circuits: Fuse Boxes and Circuit Breakers

Most of us have experienced the lights suddenly going out. We’re ironing the laundry while toasting bread and heating up soup in the microwave. Then, suddenly, the lights go out. The toast remains bread and the iron cools down.

What happened? In many cases, the home tripped a circuit breaker or blew a fuse. This can happen for multiple reasons, but a common reason is excess electrical current flowing through the wires. In the case of the iron, microwave and toaster, this is the most likely cause because heating elements require electrical power. The circuit breaker or fuse reacts to the current overload by cutting off the current so that the wire does not overheat, potentially causing an electrical fire. As a safety feature, the cutoff can be annoying, but it serves a purpose. It’s also generally easy to get the power back on again.

Circuit breakers are the easier system to reset. They are often located in the basement of a house. Behind a metal panel, the circuit breaker consists of many little switches. Typically, the one in the opposite direction of the others is the one that has been tripped. Resetting the circuit and turning on the lights usually only requires flipping the switch in the opposite direction. If it’s still not working, try unplugging some appliances and flipping it again. It may take a couple of tries to find the right switch, as houses can have quite a few. However, it’s a pretty simple process to re-set and it protects the house from electrical fires.

As an older system, fuse boxes are a little harder to reset. Often located in the basement as well, fuse boxes have round glass cylinders mounted in a metal box. If the power is off in a part of the house, one of them has burnt out. A small wire should be visible behind the glass portion of the fuse. If it’s not, it likely burnt out. To replace it, the fuse will have to be unscrewed from the metal box. A new fuse, of the same type, needs to be inserted into the metal box. Buying a new fuse is like buying a new light bulb, the wattage and size need to match the original. Luckily, fuses usually come in package of two or four, so shopping is not required after every blown fuse.

Clearly, the newer circuit breakers are easier to manage than fuse boxes, but provide the same guard against electrical fires. Fuse boxes can be converted to circuit breakers as an upgrade. However, this process should be managed by a licensed electrician. He or she can determine the proper number of circuits for your home, comply with electrical codes and work on the system. Upgrading to a circuit breaker makes it leasier to re-set the system after overloading a circuit with too many appliances.

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