Circuit Breaker Panel


Most of us hear the words “breaker box” or “circuit breaker panel” and we think of that gray metal box stuck in the wall where we flip some switches to turn off and on the power in the house. While there’s nothing wrong with having only this basic knowledge of a circuit break panel, let’s talk about the basics of how this little box of black switches (circuit breakers) relates to your house’s electrical system, what they really do and why in the heck they sometimes turn themselves off.

What is this panel and just where is it?
Every residential house is attached to a main electrical line running down the street either through overhead lines or cables buried underground. As electricity gets ready to enter and disperse throughout your home, there sits a little distribution box, which is in charge of mapping electricity to individual areas or zones of your home. In terms of electricity these areas consist of electrical circuits, designed to power a finite number devices such as lights, TVs and anything else you can plug in. These zones may consist of your kitchen and breakfast area, your family room or your three upstairs bedrooms. The circuit breaker panel makes sure that these areas each draw electricity safely by allowing so many amps (usually 10-20amps per breaker or fuse) and can ensure a circuit is “off” (no electricity running to it) so you can work with the outlets, switches and other wiring without getting electrocuted – this is definitely a good thing! You’ll find your circuit breaker panel somewhere in your home; most commonly in your garage, utility room, behind a bedroom door, or in one of your closets. Sometimes the main electrical panel is located in your kitchen or on the exterior of your house, such as the side where your garage is.

So what’s the point of the electrical panel’s breakers anyway?
As each electrical circuit in your home draws its power, the electricity runs through the individual breakers in your breaker box.  Prior to the mid-1960s, fuses were used, but performed the same functions as breakers. Fuses and breakers allow you to turn on and off the power to a particular circuit and basically keep any electrical malfunctions that may arise from starting a fire. How could this happen you ask? The most common way is by a circuit becoming overloaded. When appliances and other electrical devices are plugged in and running at the same time, they collectively need more amperage than the circuit is capable of delivering. With too many amps (an amp is just a way to measure how much electricity or the volume of it flows across a certain point), wires can heat up, burn through their insulation and…you can guess the rest! Before this can happen though a fuse will “blow” or a breaker will “trip” in the circuit breaker box.  In addition, a fuse may blow or breaker trip if it becomes loose or faulty or if there is a short-circuit event (sudden burst of electrical charge) somewhere in the circuit.

So, the next time you need to do something like install a dimmer switch or replace an outlet you know what you’re really doing when flipping that breaker to the “off” position–no more power to that circuit. And if you’re trying to watch TV on your 60″ plasma surround-sound system while your spouse is vacuuming in the same room and it suddenly goes dark…well, that was just your circuit breaker panel panel protecting you from overheating the circuit!

A couple interesting points about circuit breakers and fuses: Once a fuse blows you need to replace it. Breakers are considered renewable because they just need to be flipped back to their on position again. When adding or replacing breakers, always know the brand of your service panel box since breakers are not universal.

Cleaning a circuit breaker panel
It’s worth mentioning that it’s important to keep your breaker box clean. This means keep it free of dirt, dust and just as importantly cob webs and other debris that can become trapped inside. You may be tempted to vacuum out your box, but this isn’t totally necessary, or necessarily recommended. Simply wipe everything down with a rag. To really get dirt and other residue off, use a rag dampened lightly with rubbing alcohol. This does a great job of picking up the dirt (like a clothe dampened with water would do), but dries quickly. Keep your electrical panel box dry is always important.

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