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Easily Understand Your Home Circuit Breaker Box

Whether you’re a homeowner or renter, chances are you’ve had to flip a switch in your circuit breaker box.

Both you and your roommate turn on space heaters simultaneously, and suddenly the tv turns off. Someone fiddles with the breaker box, and thankfully, the lights are back on.

Knowing the right switch to flip can be a mystery. Most of the time, you flip each breaker on and off until your gadgets return to life.

We’ve taken a look inside and unraveled the truth behind the lowly circuit breaker box.

Let’s get started!

What Is a Circuit Breaker Box? 

A circuit breaker box is the central nervous system of your home’s power. Electrical currents entering your home split off and feed your outlets. 

Your house gets juice from an outside power grid. The power you receive from the grid is called a service dump. Once you get the power, the wiring behind your breaker switches decides what goes where. It’s the brains of the entire operation. If there’s a power overload at any point, the brain automatically flips a specific breaker off.

Before you freak out and think we’re gelling all Hal 2001 space oddity on you, we’re not. Your circuit breaker isn’t an intelligent life form haphazardly switching energy on and off.

But the analogy of it being the brains behind your home electrical system works well. Its function is to distribute and monitor electricity. When working correctly, it’s an essential safety mechanism.

Other names for your circuit breaker box are the breaker panel or electric service panel. Some out-of-code houses may even have fuses instead. Although they work similarly to electric breaker panels, they aren’t in code anymore.

Replacing old electric equipment with circuit breaker panels is a good idea.

Where Is the Circuit Breaker Box in Your House?

Your garage is one of the most common spots for a circuit breaker box. This placement makes connecting with the wall where your service drops easy. But if your power line is buried, you’ll likely find it in the basement. The basement is also a popular spot for multi-unit apartment buildings.

But circuit breaker boxes can be installed almost anywhere in your home. The location depends on what logically works best for your home or building. Many townhouses and multi-family homes have them in hallways, kitchen pantries, and closets.

Let’s Take a Look Inside Your Circuit Breaker Box

Your circuit breaker box has three main areas. The exterior, zone one,  looks like a long medicine cabinet with a latch metal door. Once you open the door, zone two, you’ll see a bunch of knobby horizontal switches. All of these are intended to be used by homeowners and renters.

The metal surrounding your circuit switches covers zone three, the guts of your breaker box. Homeowners should never go near this area. This is why that metal front cover is called the dead-front cover. Don’t take it off! If you do, you risk electrocution or, at the very least, making any problems worse than they were initially.

Returning to zone two, you’ll likely see two rows of switches. They are usually set to ON and are numbered 15, 20, 30, or 40. The numbers refer to amps per breaker. Standard 120-volt household circuits need 15 to 20 amps.

Sometimes breakers are doubled up or connected on top by a small clamp. Double pole switches yield higher amp ratings which can handle 240 volts.

How Do You Know What the Breakers Control?

Knowing which breaker controls your toaster is important. Electricians wire your house so that each breaker controls one area. Ideally, every breaker inside your electrical panel is numbered and labeled by the installer.

For example, your first breaker might say 1-Kitchen, followed by 2- Living Room. Areas with heavy-duty appliances, like the kitchen, will have higher amps than rooms with regular wall sockets.

Unfortunately, some circuit breaker boxes lose their markings or are old and hard to read. If so, grab a buddy and test what switches control which sections of your home. You’ll need at least one person to flip the circuit breaker while you note which areas’ power goes on and off.

Once you’ve mapped out your entire home, mark everything down clearly inside the circuit box. You may want to get fancy and use a label maker!

How Do You Know If There Is a Circuit Breaker Problem? 

Most circuit breaker boxes last 20 to 30 years. But you may need to replace it sooner if you notice  any of the following problems:

Power goes out now and then. Circuit breakers that trip now and then show that your circuit system works. But if the same breaker keeps tripping, you may have a problem. Check with an electrician or landlord to see if a higher amp breaker will help.

Another warning sign is flickering or dimming lights. If any light in your home starts to flicker often, it may indicate that an uneven power flow is cycling through. 

Most importantly, call a technician immediately if there’s any burning smell in or around your circuit panel. Look for black spots or scorched areas there and on wall outlets. And note any wiring that’s overheating or melting. Any warning signs could lead to a house fire if ignored.

Homeowner Safety 

Having electricians you trust help you with significant circuit breaker box issues is a good idea. They can help you decide whether to upgrade your panel or if a few replacement parts will do.

No matter what, never touch exposed wires. Your finger closes a circuit, and all that electricity leaves a nasty burn.

Make sure your hands are dry if you need to flip a circuit breaker. And never touch the panel if anything near is wet. Although it’s a good idea to flip the switches to test different areas of your home, you don’t want to overdo it. Too many resets could start a fire inside the panel.

Try moving major energy suckers like electric kettles, heaters, and hair dryers into different outlets. Note your results. Your solution may be to have your coffee maker and microwave running at separate intervals.

Now You Know What’s In The Box 

It’s relatively common for homeowners to have minimal experience with circuit breaker boxes until their lights suddenly go out. With everything we need to manage at home, it’s easy to forget about it. But knowing the ins and outs of your electric panel is part of good housekeeping. You’ll feel safer knowing how it works and when to call a professional for help.

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