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What is a Tripped Circuit Breaker — and How to Fix It

A tripped circuit breaker happens when a circuit is overloaded by too much current. A good example is cleaning day — the dishwasher is running, the washer and dryer are going, and you’re reheating your cup of coffee in the microwave. When you plug in the vacuum and turn it on, the power suddenly shuts off.

What happened? The circuit breaker detected an overload and shut down. Before we discuss solutions, let’s learn more about residential electrical systems and circuit breakers.

What Is a Circuit Breaker?

It's a piece of electrical equipment with a safety mechanism that controls the flow of electricity and protects the electrical circuit from overloading and causing a fire. 

Electricity loves to travel. The challenge has always been how to control it, and the circuit breaker aims to do just that. 

When you look at your load center or panelboard, notice the rectangle boxes lined up. Those are circuit breakers. Each breaker represents a branch circuit that carries electricity to a specific area in your house. 

When the circuit overloads, the internal mechanism interrupts the current flow, shutting down any electrical devices connected to that circuit to prevent damage to your electrical system.

The Parts of a Circuit Breaker

There are a variety of breakers available on the market. This list of components focuses on the standard circuit breaker:

  • A molded frame houses the breaker parts
  • Terminals connect the circuit to the breaker
  • Contacts connect the power supply to the circuit
  • An actuator lever manually forces the contacts together or apart 
  • The trip unit automates the trip in the event of an overload or fault
  • The solenoid is essentially an electromagnet to control the electrical current
  • The bimetallic strip breaks the electrical contact when it overheats 
  • An arc extinguisher and arc chutes extinguish an electrical arc when the current breaks

These components work together to moderate the electrical current as it flows from the main power to your individual circuits.

Common Causes of a Tripped Circuit Breaker

An overloaded circuit is the most common cause of tripped circuit breakers. It's usually the result of high-draw appliances operating at the same time on one circuit. 

Bad wiring and old or damaged breakers can also lead to a tripped breaker. Like most things, circuit breakers, wiring, and load panels have a lifespan, and wear and tear can eventually lead to failure.

Fallen trees, electrical storms, flash floods, and heat waves like Columbus experienced in the summer of 2023 can also cause a ground fault or open circuit fault, which causes tripped circuit breakers.

Signs Your Circuit Breaker Tripped

You’ve likely tripped a breaker if you experience an isolated loss of power. If the power to the entire home is off, it’s probably an issue with AEP or your electrical provider. 

A quick visit to your breaker box should indicate whether you've tripped a breaker. When the power in your home is flowing, the breakers in your box will be in the “on” position. Look for the outlier that’s in a different position from the rest of the breakers. Some breakers indicate with a light or toggle. In others, a tripped breaker’s handle will be in the “off” position or between “on” and “off.” 

If there is no difference in your breakers’ handle positions or other indicators, gently tap each handle. A tripped breaker will feel wiggly or less resistant when you push it.

How to Fix a Tripped Breaker

In most cases, fixing tripped circuit breakers is as simple as flipping a switch. Only proceed with this solution if you know the cause of the tripped breaker is something simple, like too many appliances running or a damaged power cord. 

To fix a tripped breaker, flip the switch to the “off” position, and then to the “on” position to reset the breaker. The power should come back on within one or two seconds. 

If the handle pops back or won’t go into the “on” position, you may have a bad breaker or another, more serious problem.

Before flipping the breaker, look for signs of damage, such as scorch marks or melting on the receptacles, load panel, and circuit breakers. Turn off and unplug the appliances on the circuit, and check the receptacles, switches, and surrounding wall for heat.

If you notice heat or signs of damage, contact us before proceeding. With five Apex locations, we’re the go-to experts for electrical maintenance in Columbus.

How to Prevent Your Circuit Breakers from Tripping

The quick and simple way to prevent a tripped breaker is to limit the energy drawn from a single circuit. Stagger power bars and high-amp appliances across multiple circuits whenever possible to prevent another overload. 

Another option is to upgrade your receptacles to ground fault circuit interrupters (GFCIs), which disrupt the flow of electricity at the outlet to prevent overload and frequent tripped breakers. According to the Ohio residential building code, you don’t need a permit or approval to replace a breaker or receptacle — but it’s not something you want to do yourself unless you’re a certified electrician.

The best way to prevent tripped circuit breakers is to have a qualified electrician install additional circuits to upgrade your load. 

When to Call the Columbus Electrical Maintenance Pros at Apex

A tripped circuit breaker indicates that something in your electrical system is off. It can be as simple as an overloaded circuit, or it could be something more serious, like a bad breaker or faulty wiring.

The experienced and qualified electricians at Apex are ready to help you. With five locations in the greater Columbus area, we can spot issues and perform maintenance on your electrical systems to ensure the longevity and safety of your home. Use the online scheduler to book onsite repairs, or contact us for more information about our services.