Circuit Breaker Keeps Tripping: Common Causes and Solutions

Home Electrical Panel
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Your home has numerous safety devices built in to prevent damage. One of the most visible of these is your circuit breaker. This device is designed to trip in the event of power surges or other potential electrical threats. Unfortunately, circuit breakers can begin to trip frequently, causing frustration even when there’s no real risk.

This may be due to one of several common reasons which are usually easy to fix, especially if you are able to test each circuit to narrow down the possible source location.

Air Conditioner

Air Conditioner
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Air conditioners are notorious for tripping the circuit breaker, and the causes vary greatly. In many cases, your AC is simply rated higher than 20 amps and trying to pull too much power from the breaker at once. In other cases, it is an issue with the AC unit itself and may require professional repair.

Compressor-Related Problems

Older compressors tend to wear down and begin drawing more power to start. Known as a “hard start”, the compressor draws excess power in an attempt to start. As the startup phase already draws a lot of power, this can cause the breaker to sense a surge and trip.

Technicians can generally fix this by installing a special capacitor, although you may wish to use this problem as an excuse to find a newer, more efficient model.

Grounding is another common problem with compressors, especially older ones. The electrical winding located inside the compressor can break and come into contact with the compressor’s wall, which ignites the oil in the system and burns the unit out. Your breaker will trip, and the compressor will be useless.

In this scenario, it is best to replace your entire AC unit, although a technician can also replace the compressor, which is almost as expensive.

Dirt Buildup

This is a very common problem and can occur in two locations with very different repairs involved. Both instances will cause your unit to draw more power in an attempt to do its job. The easiest source of dirt to maintain is the air filter, which should be changed regularly. This also helps to maintain the air quality inside your home.

Modern AC units have both an indoor and outdoor unit, and the latter remains exposed to the elements, leaving it prone to dirt buildup on the coils. Cleaning these should be left to a professional technician, as it requires specific chemicals, equipment, and technique to avoid damaging the coils.

Motor

One of the most used and abused portions of an AC unit is the motor. This can run for long periods of time, which wears down the wire insulation over time. As a result, the wires may short out and cause the breaker to trip. You will want a technician to inspect the unit and determine where repairs will be necessary.

Furnace

Residential Gas Furnace
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Your furnace can be another common cause of circuit breaker issues. This is a very large appliance which tends to run on 15 amps. Unfortunately, it is also prone to numerous problems when not given regular maintenance, leading to overloads.

In some rare instances, you may find that your furnace shares a circuit with other appliances. As furnaces require a lot of power to function, it is always best to keep it on a dedicated circuit to avoid an overload.

Dirt

Dirt and grime are another major cause of overloading, as the furnace is required to work harder to maintain the proper temperatures. Some areas where this can occur are:

  • Air Filter – These should be replaced regularly.
  • Air Vents – The return vents can become clogged, limiting the amount of air being cycled through the furnace.
  • Ducts – Clogged or damaged ductwork can lead to the furnace working harder in an attempt to maintain room temperature.

Furnace Short

As with all appliances, furnaces may be subject to shorting out. This could be from crossed wires or grounding, but may also indicate a mechanical problem.

Many of the electrical components within a furnace have a limited lifespan that can become even shorter when not properly maintained. A bad pilot or another component will draw excess power or prevent the furnace from functioning properly and should be replaced.

General Issues

Overloaded Electrical Outlet
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There are two major causes of a breaker malfunction that are related to the breaker itself. These issues have fairly simple solutions and tend to be easy to diagnose, although solving them tends to take a little extra work.

Overloaded Circuit

Perhaps the most common cause of frequent breaker tripping is also the easiest to diagnose and remedy. One of the primary functions of a circuit breaker is to regulate the amount of power traveling to a specific outlet and shut that circuit down if the levels exceed a specified amount (usually 15-20 amps). Certain appliances that require a higher amperage cannot be connected directly to the power supply.

Overloads usually are the result of attempting to pile too many appliances into one outlet or circuit. You may notice the breaker tripping in a busy bathroom when one person turns on a hair dryer while others are using corded razors and other appliances, for example. Using multiple surge protectors or extensions can also cause an overload.

Sometimes the cause of an overload isn’t immediately apparent. This is usually the case when rooms on opposite sides of a wall share a circuit due to the placement of outlets. Be sure to check all connected rooms when the circuit on an inside wall is tripped, and there are no apparent sources of overload. Finally, a loose connection can lead to increased power flow and an overload.

Short Circuit

The most dangerous scenario, a short circuit is when a hot wire touches another hot wire or a neutral wire (generally color-coded black and white, respectively). This creates a high risk of electrical fire and is one of the biggest reasons you should pay attention to a breaker that repeatedly trips.

What makes short circuits difficult to repair is the fact that they may be located at the breaker, in the walls, or in an appliance connected to the power supply. Be sure to check all wires for signs of brown burn marks, exposed wire, or unusual smell. In the event you cannot locate the short, it is best to call a professional.

Grounding is another form of short circuit. Problems with grounding can happen when the live black wire comes into contact with the bare copper grounding wire. This may be direct or, more commonly, from both coming into contact with the metal breaker housing.

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