DIY Repair & Maintenance

Why Is My Circuit Breaker Tripping? 4 Potential Problems and Solutions

Learn the proper way to figure out reasons for a circuit breaker tripping in a home—as well as when to let an electrician do the sleuthing.
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Why Does a Circuit Breaker Keep Tripping? Solved!

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Q: Every few hours—sometimes minutes!—my living room and one side of my kitchen lose electrical power. I’ll check the breaker panel and, sure enough, a circuit breaker has tripped…again. Should I call an electrician, or is there a simple DIY fix I can try first?

A: While it’s frustrating when a circuit breaker keeps tripping, they are important safety mechanisms. Designed to shut off the electrical current when something goes wrong, circuit breakers are one of the best ways of protecting a home from an electrical fire. “When a circuit breaker trips, typically it is because we use too much electricity, which causes it to overload and turn off,” says Christopher Haas, expert electrician and owner of Haas & Sons Electric in Millersville, Maryland. For those who need an electrical panels 101 refresher course or aren’t sure how to reset circuit breakers, each breaker has an on/off switch and controls a separate electrical circuit in the home. When a breaker trips, its switch automatically flips “off,” and it must be manually turned back on to restore electricity to the circuit. For those wondering, “Is it dangerous if a circuit breaker keeps tripping?” the answer is that it can be, depending on the source of the problem. An electrician can ultimately deal with the root issue, but a little sleuthing will reveal whether it’s something that’s easily remedied.

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In many cases, the cause of a circuit breaking tripping is an overloaded circuit.

A circuit overloads when more electrical current is being drawn through the wires than they can handle, tripping the circuit breaker. If this happens, there may be a few additional signs:

  • Buzzing noises coming from outlets
  • Devices charging slowly
  • Electrical outlets not working
  • Flickering lights
  • Scorch marks on outlets and light switches

If a circuit breaker keeps tripping in one room, homeowners can test for circuit overload by turning off all the switches in the affected area and unplugging all appliances and devices. After the breaker is flipped back on, the devices can be turned back on one at a time, with homeowners waiting a few minutes in between to see if the circuit remains on. If the breaker trips before all the appliances are turned on, the experiment can be repeated, this time turning them on in a different order. It may be necessary to do this several times to find out how many appliances can be operated at once before the circuit overloads.

“As a short-term solution, you can unplug unnecessary appliances to prevent tripping circuit breakers. You may still get some trips, but you can limit them by unplugging devices that you don’t need to use,” advises Dan Mock, vice president of operations at Mister Sparky, an electrical company with 90 locations in the U.S. The best long-term solution, however, is to pay an electrician for the cost to rewire the house and add additional circuits. The cost to replace an electrical panel is about $1,274 on average.

Other times, the issue may be caused by a short circuit.

A “short” circuit means that two wires that should not be coming into contact are inadvertently touching, triggering a sudden surge of electricity through the wires. A short can occur in an outlet, a switch, or within an appliance if wires are loose or have been chewed through by mice or pets. Some signs of a short circuit include:

  • Sparks
  • Popping sounds
  • Discolored outlets or switches
  • Burning smells

Testing to see if an appliance has a short is similar to testing for an overloaded circuit. When an appliance that has a short in its wiring is turned on, it will immediately trip the circuit. Homeowners can also try plugging it into an outlet in a different room. If the breaker for that room trips, there’s a short in the appliance (if it’s unclear what breaker goes to what room, the breaker can be identified with one of the best circuit breaker finders). Electrical shorts can be a major fire hazard, so it’s a good idea to call a licensed electrician for this circuit breaker repair. It’s wise to stop using the outlet or appliance until a pro takes care of the problem.

Why Does a Circuit Breaker Keep Tripping? Solved!

Another potential cause of a circuit breaker tripping is a ground fault.

A ground fault occurs when the electricity running through a home’s wiring diverts from the wiring loop and travels to the ground, usually due to faulty wiring or water infiltration in an outlet or switch box. Water is a conductor, which is why walking through puddles is often listed as something not to do in a power outage in case of downed power lines. Once water makes contact with wires, electricity can jump from the wiring loop and follow the water trail. This creates a surge in electricity leading to a tripped circuit breaker. If a person comes in contact with the electricity that is on its way to the ground, this can result in electrocution. Homeowners may notice a few signs of a ground fault, including:

  • Tripped GFCI (ground fault circuit interrupter) outlets;
  • A burning smell coming from an outlet; and
  • Lights flickering.

Newer electrical breakers have features designed to protect against the danger of ground faults. According to Haas, “Ground fault breakers sense electricity going to earth as opposed to going through the wires of the circuit. You’ll find [these] for bathrooms, kitchens, garages, exteriors, and basements.” GFCI outlets are another safety feature that shut off the electric current within a fraction of a second of sensing a ground fault.

If a ground fault is the problem, the cause of the errant water must be discovered and repaired, and any damaged wiring must also be replaced. It’s also a good idea to install GFCI outlets in rooms where water is commonly used. A GFCI outlet costs $210 on average.

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Sometimes a bad or worn-out circuit breaker can be the culprit.

In some cases, the circuit breaker itself may be faulty. Breakers that are old, damaged, or were installed incorrectly may trip frequently for no apparent reason. Alternatively, faulty breakers may not trip when they are supposed to, leaving the home at risk of electrical fire. Some signs of a bad circuit breaker include:

  • The circuit breaker getting hot and tripping frequently;
  • The circuit breaker won’t reset;
  • It has been over 10 years since the breaker was last serviced; and
  • The breaker has scorch marks.

An important electrical safety tip to keep in mind is that resetting a breaker over and over again can cause what is called an arc flash, which is a small electrical explosion that can be deadly. If resetting the breaker once does not remedy the issue, it’s a good idea for the homeowner to hire an electrician near them who knows how to replace a circuit breaker safely. Mock warns, “Don’t take any chances with circuit breakers. Instead, call a licensed electrician who knows the safe ways to replace breaker boxes, upgrade circuits, and diagnose potential electrical problems in your home.” Wiring a breaker box is a job to leave to an experienced electrician.

Why Does a Circuit Breaker Keep Tripping? Solved!

A professional electrician can help determine the specific cause of a frequently tripping circuit breaker.

Most circuit breaker problems—aside from those explained in the sections above—will need to be inspected and addressed by a licensed electrician. According to the Electrical Safety Foundation International (ESFI), each year “thousands of people in the United States are critically injured and electrocuted as a result of electrical fires, accidents, [or] electrocution in their own homes.” While homeowners may be tempted to save on electrician costs by attempting circuit breaker replacement or repair themselves, electrical work is not suitable for casual DIYers. “Yes, you have to pay, but you can save many hours of head-scratching by hiring an electrician. Electricians will also have all the right tools for diagnosing and repairing the circuit,” Haas adds. “Lastly, they will come with a warranty/guarantee should something arise, and they will typically return at no additional cost.”