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My circuit breaker won't reset. What's wrong?
Tuesday, October 2, 2018
There are several different situations that would keep a circuit from being reactivated after a breaker has been tripped. Here’s the four most common ones:
1) When a breaker has been tripped—whether it’s because of pushing the test button on a GFCI or AFCI breaker, or because of an overcurrent event—the switch moves to the middle position between “ON” and “OFF” on many electric panels. If you are trying to reset it just by pushing the switch back to the “ON” position, it will just pop back to the middle again. You have to push the switch all the way to the “OFF” position, then back to “ON,” in order to reactivate the circuit. See photo below.
2) If you push the switch to “OFF,” then back to “ON,” and it trips back to middle immediately, then there is a “short” in the circuit, meaning that an unintended route has been created by a defect that allows the current to flow unimpeded by an appliance load. The excessive current trips the breaker again virtually immediately. It’s time to call an electrician.
3) Another thing that will trip a breaker is too many lights and appliances drawing more amperage than the rating of the breaker. Excess electric current gradually overheats a thermal link in the breaker and usually, if that’s the problem, the breaker will reset but trip again a few minutes after being reset. To double-check that diagnosis, try disconnecting some of the electrical loads on that circuit, reset the breaker and wait a few minutes. If it doesn’t trip again then the problem is too many things on one circuit, or a single appliance—like a portable space heater—that draws more current than the rating of the breaker.
“But sometimes it will not reset until it has cooled down a little bit,” according to Craig Eaton, a local electrician. “If you wait a couple of minutes, and then the breaker will reset, it’s another sign that an overloaded circuit is the problem.”
4) If you are able to reset the breaker to the “ON” position, but some or all of the receptacles it serves are still dead, you should suspect a tripped GFCI- receptacle somewhere in the home. GFCI is an acronym for Ground Fault Circuit Interrupter and GFCI-receptacles provide shock protection in wet areas of the home, like the kitchen, bathrooms, garage, laundry, and exterior. They have two buttons in the center of the receptacle. One is marked “TEST,” and the other is “RESET.” When the GFCI-device inside the receptacle has tripped, the “RESET” will be popped out forward of the test button. Unfortunately, sometimes that is hard to discern, so the best way to check is to push the reset button and see if it pops inward—which indicates that it was tripped.
When GFCI-receptacles were a new technology, from the 1980s through the 1990s, they were expensive. Home builders took advantage of the fact that one GFCI-receptacle in the first location after the electric panel of a string of receptacles running around the house would protect all of the ones downstream. So a single GFCI-receptacle, typically in the garage or one of the bathrooms, would protect all of the other bathroom, garage, and exterior receptacles in the home.
This means it’s a good idea to check all of the GFCI-receptacles around the home first before calling an electrician, if one dead receptacle refuses to re-energize after all the circuit breakers in the electric panel have been checked. We occasionally find instances where a receptacle in a non-wet location, like a dining room or sun room, has been been dead because of a tripped GFCI-receptacle at a distant location in the home; so check all the GFCIs even for a dead receptacle in a dry room.
Also, see our blog posts What is the life expectancy of a circuit breaker? and Why do some breakers in my electric panel have a "TEST" button on them?
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