What Causes a Breaker to Trip (and What to Do When It Happens)

Alison Kasch
Written by Alison Kasch
Updated November 4, 2021
Circuit breaker box
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When you’re left in the dark—literally—it helps to know what made your breaker trip

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Your circuit breaker has the important task of disrupting electricity to prevent shocks, fires, and other disasters—but sometimes it’s not clear why a circuit breaker trips. If you’re not sure what the deal is when the lights go out, there are a few common reasons to consider.

What Happens When Your Breaker Trips?

Circuit breakers protect your home’s electrical system by cutting off the flow of electricity to a circuit whenever problems occur. You might see a breaker trip if you have too many appliances or electronics plugged in, or there could be an electrical issue at hand.

Possible Causes of a Circuit Breaker Tripping

There are many reasons why a circuit breaker trips, but the most common ones are circuit overloads, ground fault surges, and short circuits. Below is a breakdown of the signs and symptoms of each.

There’s a Circuit Overload

Circuit overloads are the most common reason that a breaker trips. Sometimes you want to microwave some leftovers and blow-dry your hair all at the same time. Sure, you’re killing the multitasking game, but this is the perfect recipe for a circuit overload. Certain appliances can trip circuit breakers, so check out what you plugged in.

Your electrical wires have a finite capacity for electricity, and can only handle a certain flow. When that load gets exceeded, your breaker will cut it off. This prevents the wires from heating to a dangerous level, potentially causing an electrical fire.

There’s a Ground Fault Surge

A ground fault is a specific type of fault where the flow of electricity goes astray and gets redirected to the floor or earth. This happens when a “hot” wire contacts a grounding wire, or any grounded part of the system (such as the metal electrical box). When your circuit breaker detects the sudden surge in electrical flow, this will cause the breaker to trip.

If there’s someone standing on the ground where the electricity gets directed, there’s a high risk of electric shock—especially if the ground is damp. This is also a common reason why your circuit breaker trips randomly. Should you suspect a ground fault, contact a local electrician to investigate the issue. 

There’s a Short Circuit

Short circuits resemble ground faults because they, too, involve a misdirected flow of electricity. These happen when a hot wire contacts a neutral wire in an electrical outlet, leading to an overloaded current within the circuit. This creates heat, which will cue your circuit breaker tripping to prevent a possible fire.

If you suspect a short circuit, unplug your appliances and check the wires for melted coverings. You might also notice a burning smell coming from the outlet. Call in a pro to find the source of the problem.

Circuit breaker box
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What to Do If Your Main Circuit Breaker Keeps Tripping

When your circuit breaker trips, start by resetting the breaker and seeing if the issue continues. If it does, you might have an old fridge or other appliance that requires more power than the circuit can deliver. Figuring out why your appliances trip circuit breakers can help determine whether it’s time to upgrade.

If you’re confident that your appliances aren’t the culprit, then it’s time to call in a pro. There could be dangerous electrical issues at hand, or the breaker might be faulty.

Why Does My Circuit Breaker Keep Tripping with Nothing Plugged In?

If your circuit breaker keeps tripping for no apparent reason, it’s possible that there’s a current leakage or a damaged or loose wire somewhere. You also might need to repair your electrical breaker box or possibly invest the cost to replace the breaker box altogether. If you’re sure you haven’t forgotten something plugged into your garage, basement, or anywhere else, contact a pro to come and take a look.

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