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Circuit Breaker Panel Keeps Tripping – Sorting Electrical Faults

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Electricity MCBs (Miniature Circuit Breakers) and GFCIs (Ground Fault Circuit Interrupters). A GFCI is more commonly referred to as an RCD (Residual Current Device) in Europe. An MCB is an electro-mechanical device, and like a fuse, it acts as the “weak link in the chain”. It is going to trip to protect cables from overload currents which can damage the cable or even cause a fireplace. A GFCI will trip and shut off power if there is a flow of current from hot(live) to ground(earth). This can occur for instance when the connector of the flex of a kettle is left in a pool of water on the sink, when an appliance gets wet, you cut through the flex of a garden power tool, or there’s a fault inside equipment eg a cracked electrical element in a hot water tank. A GFCI can normally be identified because it is wider than an MCB in the breaker box and has a small test button on it.

Examples of Faults
Faults which might trip an MCB:
Connecting too many high powered appliances to an electrical circuit. In modern installations, there are usually plenty of outlets and separate circuits for various sections of a home, e.g. upstairs and downstairs. In a kitchen there are usually at least two circuits. So there is less chance of an overload as power demand is distributed between circuits. In an older installation however, this may not be the case.

A fault in equipment causing a short circuit of current from hot to neutral. This might be due to insulation on a wire becoming compromised in a roundabout way. The exposed wire could then make contact with a neutral or ground conductor or terminal.

Breakdown of the windings in a transformer or motor. Wire in these devices is usually coated with a thin layer of polyurethane varnish or similar so that a lot of turns of wire may be tightly packed together. Over time the varnish layer can be compromised. This can be as a result of heating of the windings as the appliance is loaded e.g. when a power tool is used for a long time period and isn’t allowed to cool properly. Overheating softens and cracks the insulation and in addition, abrasion as a result of particles of dust being sucked through a motor, wears away the insulation of the coils. This eventually causes arcing to occur between adjacent turns. Once this starts to happen, the winding can go into meltdown, but hopefully the breaker will trip and save the day before the device catches fire.

Power cord of an electric garden tool is cut through. The metal blades or teeth of the tool short hot and neutral together.

You drill through a wall and hit a power cable. The drill bit shorts out hot and neutral and causes an overload. Alternatively since the hot in the cable touches the drill bit, this could provide a path to ground through the body of the drill. Nowadays many power tools are “doubly insulated”. Because of this despite the fact that the outer casing may be metal, sufficient insulating barriers are built into the tool in order that the external metal casing cannot become live due to an internal fault. These tools or appliances are only supplied with hot and neutral via the facility cord, and not grounded. Most power tools have a plastic body though for absolute safety in damp environments.
Faults which can trip an RCD:

Someone touches a live conductor. A current in excess of 30 ma flowing to ground through their body should trip the breaker.

The flex of a kettle is left in a pool of water on a sink
The cable of a garden power tool is cut through, If the appliance is grounded, the teeth or blade of the tool would cause a short circuit from hot to ground.

Exposed wiring or terminals inside an appliance touch the metal body of the appliance.
The outer sheath of the element in a kettle, hot water tank or washing machine becomes cracked. This permits water to seep into the powder which insulates the heating wire from the sheath, causing an electrical leak to ground.

Wireless Function Gold 1 Gang 1 Way Wall Touch Switch Floor LampsAn RCD(GFCI) with test button | Source How Do I Reset the Breakers
If an MCB trips, the first thing to check out is whether you are pulling too much power from the circuit, e.g. from having multiple high power devices akin to kettles, heaters etc plugged in. Usually though, circuits are able to supply many kilowatts of power and it’s more likely that there is a fault in an appliance or lighting circuit. Ideally it’s best to know which MCB supplies each circuit/socket outlet in your home. If you do not, by a means of elimination, identify what is causing the fault. Power down all your appliances and attempt to reset the breaker. If it doesn’t reset, the breaker itself could possibly be faulty or there could possibly be a fault in your home wiring. If it does reset, power up appliances one by one (or switch on lamps) until the fault re-occurs. A fault in the appliance could possibly be attributable to an internal short circuit, a burnt out motor etc.

The system for resetting breakers is different in the US and UK
In the digital countdown timer switch U.S., a breaker can be in considered one of three positions, off, on, or midway if it is tripped. On could be left or right depending on your box, so if you happen to look at the other breakers, you can identify which way is on. With two sets of breakers, on is generally when the breakers are pushed towards the center of the panel. The tripped switch could be identified because it can have flipped to the central position. To reset, push to the off position first and then to the on position. Within the UK, breakers are on when pushed up and flip down when tripped. These could be reset by simply being pushed back up again.

If multiple appliance was plugged in, by a technique of trial and error you need to establish which appliance is causing the problem by plugging them in a single at a time and switching them on. Sometimes an appliance may must run for some time before it trips the switch. If the breaker trips again, unplug the appliance and have it repaired.

The GFCI may have tripped also. As I said earlier, this is caused by an electrical leak to ground and it is advisable to check for evidence comparable to water in an appliance, damaged insulation on a flex allowing a leak (common when a extension lead runs across grass outdoors) or possibly a water heating appliance may have a damaged element. Once you have identified and removed the fault, push the switch on the GFCI upwards.

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by Eugene Brennan51

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Hi Dee Dee. Usually the gas or oil feed will shutoff if a sensor doesn’t detect a flame, however for absolute safety, it is probably best to turn everything off (fuel and electricity) until you may get an electrician to check out your stove.

Dee Dee 6 months ago
My stoves burner control indicator is staying on, the burners are cool but I want to know if it will cause a fire.

AuthorEugene Brennan 2 years ago from Ireland
Hi Peter, I believe I heard Dr Karl going on about this on BBC or ABC’s Triple J channel. Supposedly switches are turned on or off sideways in Japan so that falling objects during an earthquake can’t turn the switch on!

Peter 2 years ago from Australia
It gets confusing here in Australia because the ‘normal’ switch to turn a light/power point to the ‘ON’ position is pushed downwards.

However to reset the ‘Circuit Breaker’ one must push it upwards.
I had to reset mine today as a consequence of a faulty water pump 🙂

Fortunately it is easy to locate as you only should look for the CB that is in a different position to all of the others 🙂

AuthorEugene Brennan 5 years ago from Ireland
There appears to be a difference between the European and American system for resetting breakers. I asked someone about this before publishing the hub but I was misinformed so thanks for the data and pulling me up on the error!

Sam 5 years ago from Tennessee
Unless things have changed drastically. The circuit breakers are re-set by turning them to the off position and then turning them on again…

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