Understanding Your Circuit Breaker Panel

Circuit Breaker Panel with single and double-pole breakers.Like most homeowners, you probably know where the circuit breaker panel in your home is.

  • You know what the circuit breaker box looks like.
  • You know the circuit breaker box is the first port of call when something electrical in your home trips.
  • And you know how to check the circuit panel and flip the switch back on if there are any tripped breakers.

For the average person, however, that’s probably the extent of their knowledge when it comes to understanding circuit breaker panels. That’s enough, surely?

Mostly. Because truth be told, when it comes to electricity, the less DIY you engage in the better.

Guide to Electrical Breaker Panels

It’s helpful to have some understanding of what’s going on behind that closed door to your circuit breaker box. Yes, the one hiding in plain sight down in your basement, laundry room, storage room, or garage.

Our certified electricians here at Premium Electric decided to create this helpful guide about your home’s electrical breaker panel.

This breaker box guide will help you navigate any minor trips or short circuits occurring in your home’s electrical system.

It will also help you understand when these may be a sign of something more serious requiring a call to your local electrician!

Call us at any time, 24/7, at 604-308-6195 if you are in the Vancouver Lower Mainland and need our help.

What Is an Electrical Breaker Panel?

Single-pole 20 amp circuit breakerA circuit breaker panel – also called an electrical panel – is a strange-looking breaker box built into the wall in your garage, basement, utility room, or another out-of-the-way corner of your home.

  • The door to the breaker box may be painted to match the wall it’s built into.
  • Inside you’ll find a panel with a series of numbered electrical switches or breakers.
  • These breaker switches are usually numbered and should have labels alongside each with written descriptions of the part of your house they control the power to.
  • One of these breaker switches is the main circuit breaker – it controls the power to the entire house.
  • The other breaker switches are individual breakers. Each is responsible for controlling and supplying the appropriate amount of electrical power to specific areas of your home, including the appliances our outlets in these areas.
  • The breakers can be turned on or off manually.
  • The breakers will also shut off automatically any time they detect too much electrical current running through them, thereby breaking the current (hence the name ‘circuit breaker’).
  • Some homes and businesses also utilize electrical sub panels

Oh, and an electrical breaker panel also happens to be one of the most important safety devices in your home.

How Does a Circuit Breaker Panel Work?

Double-pole 50 amp circuit breakerWe could go into a long, detailed, electrician-speak explanation here of how your electrical breaker panel works, but we won’t.

Because yawn, for you anyway, we completely geek out on that kind of stuff. Suffice it to say, at its simplest, your circuit breaker panel works as follows:

  • Each circuit breaker switch in the panel monitors the electrical flow to its assigned space in your home (while the main breaker switch monitors your home’s overall electrical flow).
  • Each circuit breaker is rated based on the amount of electrical current it can safely carry – giving each a predetermined amount of safe electrical current. Visit this page to learn more about electrical panel ratings, or amperage.
  • Each switch is set to the “on” position, allowing electricity to flow from the main external power supply (your city’s grid for example) to a specific zone in your home.
  • Should a switch detect a flow of electrical current that exceeds its predetermined rating, it will automatically switch the breaker to the off position. This interrupts, “trips” or stops the flow of electricity or power supply.

Types of Circuit BreakersSingle-pole 15 amp GFCI circuit breaker

There are many different types of circuit breakers, and each are designed for specific purposes.

Standard circuit breakers types include single-pole breakers, double-pole breakers, AFCI and GFCI breakers, and dual function CAFCI/GFCI circuit breakers.

See this Home Inspection post on Circuit Breaker Types for more info.

What Is the Most Common Reason a Circuit Breaker Trips?

An overloaded circuit is when too many electrical appliances are loaded onto one electrical circuit – or line of current – in your home. If the demand for electricity exceeds the rating of the circuit, your circuit breaker panel will detect this and trip the breaker.

Other common electrical safety hazards that might cause the electrical circuit breaker to trip include:

  • Poor or faulty wiring (see our page on wiring upgrades)
  • Dodgy electrical connections
  • And old or out-of-date electrical hardware

Should I Upgrade My Circuit Breaker Panel?

Here are some signs that your circuit breaker panel isn’t working as it should and could be a hazard.

  • The electrical panel seems to be making crackling, buzzing, or hissing sounds.
  • You find electrical outlets in your home that have only two prongs, instead of three – an indication that they are ungrounded (read more on the dangers of this here).
  • A burning smell seems to be emanating from your electrical panel – even though there are no obvious signs of burning (like smoke, sparks, or flames).
  • The breaker switches in your circuit breaker box seem to trip with ever-increasing frequency.
  • Your electrical panel is warm, or even hot, to the touch.
  • Your appliances seem to be running at less than full power or seem to be straining to run.
  • You have recently added a big electrical appliance, like a hot tub, to your home’s electrical load.
  • There are obvious signs of rust on or within the panel and its series of breaker switches.
  • The lights in your home flicker or dim when you turn on other electrical appliances (like the microwave or blender).
  • Your existing electrical service panel is less than 200 amps. (It may be time for an electrical panel upgrade).

Note: this is not an exhaustive list.

If you suspect that you may not have the correct circuit breaker panel size for your home or if it isn’t operating properly, we highly recommend getting an electrician in to check your home’s electrical breaker panel.

This is especially true if you’re living in an older home that seems to have little, or any, work done to its original electrical wiring.

The bottom line is this: if you are unsure if your circuit breaker panel is doing what it should to keep you safe in your home, then you should call a qualified electrician to get it checked out!

About Premium Electric

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Whether you need an inspection, a panel upgrade, or a circuit breaker replacement, our certified electricians at Premium Electric can help.

All of our electrical staff are fully bonded, and we are available 24/7 if you need emergency electrical services.

No electrical job is too small or too big. We offer both residential and commercial electrical services to clients throughout the Greater Vancouver area and the Fraser Valley.

Our priority is to keep you, your home, and your family safe.

Give us a call at 604-308-6195 or contact us online at any time.

If you have a question or would like to book an appointment, you can also send us an email.

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