A Homeowner’s Guide To The Residential Circuit Breaker Box

Some homeowners find the gray box in their basement or utility room to be confusing or even a little intimidating. Some folks avoid the main breaker panel because they are concerned about getting shocked or breaking something. While there are many electrical issues that are best left to a licensed electrician, as a homeowner it is important to have a basic understanding of what a circuit breaker box is and how it works. Don’t be kept in the dark, read on to get to know your circuit breaker panel...

Understand How the Circuit Breaker Box Works

The circuit breaker box is sort of like a distribution center for the electricity in a house. The main breaker panel receives the energy coming in from the utility wires on the street and then distributes it to an assortment of wires that service the different rooms and appliances throughout the home. It is sort of like one large light switch with smaller switches that perform different functions. Similar to a light switch, switching off the main breaker will shut off all electricity to the home. The smaller switches, also called breakers, work like light switches too. Flip a breaker one way and the power to the associated room or appliance goes off; flip it the other way and the power goes on. The breakers offer protection from the hazards of fire or shock. Here is a quick and easy tutorial, as a few tips on how to label your circuit breaker, to help you become more familiar with your home’s electrical panel and avoid a dark or dangerous situation.

The Inner Workings of Your Breaker Panel

Circuit breaker box door open, revealing the breakers and the breaker labels. It is important to understand how your breaker box works in case you need to turn off the power to your home quickly due to an emergency situation, such as a flood or fire. At other times, you may need to access the breaker box to address a circuit breaker that has flipped. This can sometimes happen when the circuit board gets overloaded due to too many appliances being used simultaneously.Here is a summary of the components you will find behind the electric panel door:

  • Main breaker. This is the large switch that controls the overall electricity of the home. In an emergency, switching off the main breaker will instantly shut off all power to the home.
  • Single-pole breaker. This type of breaker looks like a single light switch. It distributes electricity to many of the lower amperage items within the home such as lighting and garage door openers.
  • Double-pole breaker. This type of breaker looks like a double light switch. It distributes electricity to higher amperage items within the home such as appliances and home electronics.
  • Arc fault circuit interrupters. AFCIs are small breakers that help prevent fires caused by accidental electrical discharge that does not pull enough power to trip the main breaker.
  • Empty slots. A circuit panel that is not at full capacity will have empty slots that may be used in the future for additional appliances or other electrical needs.
  • Sub panels (or smaller breaker boxes). Often with home additions, an electrician will install a secondary, smaller electric breaker box for that part of the house. Similar to the main box, it is important to know what rooms or appliances are controlled by the circuits in the sub panel.

Labeling for Safety: Mapping Your Circuit Breaker Box for Quick Access

Taking the time to correctly label each breaker within your home’s electrical panel breaker box will save you time during an emergency and can also save you from any added inconvenience if you lose power to a room or appliance. For example, if the breaker that supplies electricity to your stove or oven flips while you are cooking dinner, you will want to be able to restore that power quickly. Likewise, in an emergency situation, you may need to quickly shut off power to your home. New construction electricians generally ensure the electric panel is clearly labeled at the end of the job. But many older homes, or houses that have had multiple remodels, renovations or additions, may have electric panels that are labeled inaccurately, incompletely or not at all.

Don’t Hesitate to Call Your Electrician

As a homeowner it is important to have a basic understanding of what your circuit breaker box is and how it works. Labeling a circuit panel accurately can be tedious and time consuming, but this task can be completed very efficiently by a licensed electrician. In addition, if you have any electrical issues beyond an occasional flipped breaker, be sure to consult a professional. For example, if a particular circuit breaker flips frequently, this could be a sign that the circuit is overloaded. A licensed electrician can offer advice and help to resolve any wiring, breaker panel or electricity-related issues before they become a safety hazard.

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