A Cheat Sheet for Your Electric Panel
A Beginners Guide to Your Panel, Breakers, and Electrical Service
Have you ever looked at your electrical panel? Do you have any earthly idea what it looks like? I certainly know what mine looks like:
But what does all the ‘high falutin’ stuff in it actually mean? Better yet – what can you do with that information? And how are we supposed to fix it when that big, bad, scary panel starts giving us trouble? Well, let’s start with some basic information about your electrical panel, and troubleshooting problems you might have with it.
Your electrical panel hosts several ‘breakers’, which are circuit protection for your home’s wiring. The ‘main breaker’ protects your service from the utility, preventing your home from drawing more current than it’s wiring system can handle. Each individual ‘circuit breaker’ protects a branch of wiring run throughout your home. Different ones may look different, have a different number or ‘size’ on them, or be labelled for things such as your stove, garage, etc. Each one serves a purpose, and sometimes they ‘trip’ or move from being on or open to being off or closed. This is a protective measure for your home and anything electrical using that particular electrical circuit.
1. Touching the Cover of A Properly Installed Electrical Panel Will Not Electrocute You
It IS true that your electrical service panel controls lots of power, and streams it into your house for you to use. However – if your electrical panel is properly installed and wired, then its surface is not electrified. Likewise, touching your breakers – to turn them on or off – will not discharge electricity through you if your panel is correctly connected.
When in doubt, always call in a licensed electrician.
2. There Is More To Resetting A Breaker Than Flipping It The Other Way
Perhaps not always a LOT more – but there really is more. If you are dealing with a simple, straightforward tripped breaker, make sure you turn the breaker completely to the OFF position before flipping it back to the ON position. The breakers are the big black switches with numbers on them – they are protection devices installed as part of electric circuits to prevent them from drawing too much current and starting an electrical fire in your home.
If you don’t have an electrical panel like the ones pictured previously, it’s possible your wiring system is old enough to use fuses – like those above. While an older technology, fuses can be just as effective at preventing electrical fires from drawing too much power. Some fuses are slow-burning, meaning they are designed to take a short time of high power draw before burning out; most will burn out instantly, however, protecting your wires from catching fire. Fuses are relatively inexpensive to replace and screw in and out like a lightbulb – however, repeated failures are an indication that there is a bigger issue causing your wires to draw too much power. In a circumstance like that, it is always best to call in an electrician. Do not, under any circumstance whatsoever, try to ‘bypass’ or ‘jury-rig’ your fuses or breakers so that electricity flows around or without them. Breakers and fuses are your electrical safety net, and disabling or circumventing them puts your entire family at risk of electrocution, fire, and possibly even death.
3. You Can’t Always ‘See’ When A Breaker Is Tripped
It would be nice to imagine that when you see a breaker that is on it looks like this:
Or that when your breaker has tripped to ‘off’ it is this easy to identify:
The unfortunate truth of the matter is that if your breaker is older and seldom used, it’s possible that it has some corrosion or is not making good contact – or even that the mechanism isn’t quite sound after sitting in the same place, in the same position, for say… 22 years.
Note – if your tripped breaker is an AFI (Arc Fault Circuit Interrupter) and turning it to ‘extreme off’ and then back on leads it to tripping again, it’s possible you have ‘nuisance tripping’ of the circuit. This is relatively common with AFIs due to their sensitive nature, and the instability of earlier technology. Troubleshooting it should start with attempting to reset the breaker; if it the circuit doesn’t want to stay on, then try going through the circuit on the AFI breaker and unplugging everything and turning off power strips, seeking to eliminate any and all electric draw on the circuit. Once you think you have removed every possible opportunity for arcing and/or ground faulting, try resetting the breaker once more and see if the circuit will hold. If it does, then plugging objects in one by one will tell you what is triggering a fault or arc reading on the circuit. If it does not, then we recommend you call an electrician out to troubleshoot the wiring, fixtures, switches, and receptacles on that circuit and see if the problem is with the circuit – or with the AFI breaker itself. Since modern AFI circuit breakers include both GFI and AFI technology, they can be extremely difficult for a homeowner to troubleshoot by themselves.
4. Your Electric Panel Protects Both You & Your Utility Provider
As mentioned, the electrical panel protects your circuits and wires from drawing too much power, overheating, and starting a fire. Likewise, your electrical panel is a connection point to your local utility which will help protect the grid from problems originating on your property. Uncommon, but known to happen – especially for people with their own microgeneration, such as rooftop wind turbines and solar power hookups. This is why these systems come equipped with ‘smart’ monitoring electronics and inverters, to prevent the grid from overloading your system – or your system from overloading the grid.
What this means to you is that your utility provider might put in an appearance around your property – making sure that the service wire and entrance are safe and meet code and that your meter, service, and panel are in good condition to take the power they supply. In this case, they are just protecting themselves – and the grid they maintain – from dangerous conditions which could impact the entire region’s power grid. If you ever have concerns with your utility service, don’t hesitate to call your local provider! They would much rather make sure everyone is safe & sound, rather than endanger people with uncontrolled, unsafe, unmonitored electricity.
5. Never Be Afraid to Call An Electrician
When I polled my electricians on the number one problem they encounter on service calls, it was that homeowners would frequently change their own switches, outlets, or light fixtures – and then they would stop working. The wiring is often done incorrectly, and sometimes chopped so short that the electrician can no longer legally work on them.
I asked my field electrician’s what was the number one concern they have when they go out to help homeowners. Their answer was very definitive.
Don’t take off your panel cover!
The pragmatist in me asked, ‘But why?’. Their answer: A homeowner should never take off their panel and expose the guts of their electrical system. It is dangerous, electrified, and not a place that is safe – or good – for a DIY-er to be.
When a panel screw isn’t installed correctly, you risk damaging wires.
Using the wrong kind of screws is a tiny mistake – and one of a million details electrician’s have to worry about. A traditional DIYer may not know the difference between screws, and might do harm to their wires – or themselves!
Panel problems can result in arc flashing – which is as deadly as it gets. An arc flash is a type of electrical explosion that occurs from high voltages of electricity ‘arcing’ across a tiny space. In this case, the electricity arced from a high voltage wire in an electrical panel into the metallic side of the panel – creating the huge ‘burn’ or char marks with an incredibly hot but brief flash of plasma.
Remember – never be afraid to call an electrician!
Electricity is deadly – and it only takes a tiny amount to make it next to impossible for your muscles to let go. Electricity is extra deadly for this reason, the inability to let go of an electrified item before current reaches your heart, and makes it stop.
Do you have questions about your panel you’ve always wanted to ask an expert? Drop them in the comments section, and we’ll have one of our top-shelf master electricians answer it right away!
Swartz Electric – Your Colorado Springs Electrician performs electrical work throughout Colorado Springs, Monument, Black Forest, Fountain, Falcon, Woodland Park, and everywhere in between. We are the electricians in Colorado Springs to solve your electrical problems and meet your electrical requirements.
Call, e-mail, visit our website, or stop by our office today, and allow Swartz Electric to serve YOU.
This is an original article written by Mai Bjorklund for Swartz Electric. This article may not be copied whole or in part without the express permission of Swartz Electric, LLC.
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