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Tripping Over Electrical Problems

Posted by Woodrow Aames ~ October 16, 2009

The kids are home from college for the weekend. The washer and dryer are running like some crazy commercial laundromat, the sub-woofer in the living room is pounding like a toothache, and you've just booted up your computer to check your savings balance and-wham!-your house goes dark and silent.

Do you have an overloaded circuit or a short? Did the breakers trip? Is there a smoky aroma in the house that doesn't smell like barbecue?

Thank goodness the age of the glass fuse is behind us. But it can still be infuriating when you have to step outside in a rainstorm, open the electrical panel, and scan for evidence with your flashlight.

In the old days, the fuse would burn out and need replacement before you got things working again. Today, it's easy to flip the breaker switch that prevented damage. But, beware, a breaker that trips over and over becomes more prone to snapping to the "off" direction as time goes on.

Tracing Your Electrical Woes

It takes a little detective work to find the cause of repeatedly tripped breakers, but it's worth it. More often than not, the circuit breaker may be too small to handle the stress on the circuit. So ask yourself, do you really want to overstress the circuit in the first place? Inventory the number of electrical devices or appliances plugged into a single-outlet box.

You may have a short circuit. Tracking down a short circuit takes a little patience. Is the root cause at the wiring, the wall switch, the plugs, or ungrounded wires? Discover when outages occur. If the lights blink out when you flip a switch and the breaker trips, it may be caused by the fixture attached to the switch.

Do You Use the Right Breakers?

Circuit breakers fall into single- and double-pole varieties. The single-pole units are used for most household wiring, offering protection for 120 volts from 15 to 20 amps. Double-pole breakers are used to regulate overloads for air conditioning units, washers/dryers, electric stoves on 240 volts from 15 to 50 amps.

If you need to fix a short circuit, don't touch a thing until you've cut the power to the wiring that handles the suspect appliance or device. Inspect all your power cords, wires, and outlets for signs of burns, smoke odor, or other discoloring. Finally, check insulation for melting or crossed wires. Stay ahead of trouble.

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