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FAQ: Breakers

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Oh boy, here we go.

This is one of those topics that is always changing and might be outdated quickly. It’s also very dependent on location, since different states and municipalities might or might not have adopted certain codes.

But at the risk of being outdated, irrelevant, or flat out wrong, it’s time to talk about breakers.

What kind of breakers are in my house?

The most annoying breakers

It seems like every few years, the breaker industry has to get shaken up a bit. I won’t touch on every little issue that surrounds them, just the ones that you are likely to notice. So to keep this simple, lets talk about the difference between breakers and arc-fault breakers.

Almost everybody who hasn’t lived in the dark their whole lives, is familiar with breakers. They’re the switches that send power to all the electrical circuits in your house. No doubt, you’ve tripped these breakers from time to time.

What you may not be familiar with are “arc-fault” breakers. These relatively new breakers have been creeping into our homes for the better part of a decade now, at least here in Utah.

They look very much like a normal breaker, except that they usually have an extra button on the side of them. On first glance, you might not think anything of them. As a builder, I hate them. They cost a lot more to install, provide little to no proven benefit, and create a lot of warranty callbacks.

As a homeowner, I hate them even more. You don’t see the final bill of what these things cost us. To you, they just get chocked up as another hidden cause of rising home prices. What you do see, is how annoying it can be to live with these special breakers.

They are pretty much guaranteed to trip more often than a standard breaker. Often the cause of the trip can be from simply plugging in an old or cheap appliance to unplugging your hairdryer before you turn it off.

At first, they wanted us to install them only on the bedroom circuits. This was a minor inconvenience, but we put them in there for the first few years. Next they wanted us to install them for all the circuits in the house.

This caused our power service panels to get a whole lot bigger, creating a lot more costs, while only adding inconvenience to your daily life.

Fortunately, they’re backing down a little bit, and we’re going back to needing these breakers in only a few locations. They’re starting to realize that nobody likes them, and that they haven’t really proven effective at being any safer than a regular breaker.

As long as we’re required to install them, all we can do is apologize for the governing bodies that insist on installing these things. They do take some getting used to.

Like any breaker, when they trip, all you need to do is to finish turning them all the way off, then switching them back to the on position.

The second most annoying breakers

These breakers make more sense than arc-fault breakers. They’ve also been around a lot longer. No doubt you’re familiar with them. These are the GFCI breakers. They can be found in wet locations, such as bathrooms, kitchens, and the exterior outlets of your home.

Most GFCI breakers are integrated into your power outlet, not usually the breaker panel (unless we go back to ranting about arc-fault breakers again).

The GFCI breaker looks like any other power outlet, except that it has two buttons somewhere between the double outlet plugs. One of these buttons is a tester. If you push it, the GFCI breaker will trip. When this is tripped, no power will be supplied to the outlet.

To reset the breaker, you simply push the second button in until it clicks. Voila, done.

Sometimes there’s also a light next to those buttons. Different manufactures have different reasons for this light. It can either mean that the GFCI breaker has tripped, that it has power, or that it just wants to confuse you. Usually, it’s better not to stress about it. Personally, I just ignore the little light.

One other thing to keep in mind, and this tricks a lot of people, but a GFCI outlet can control more than one outlet. So for example, in your kitchen, you might see one GFCI outlet, but there will be others in that same area that don’t have the tell-tale buttons of a GFCI breaker.

If you try plugging something into one of these other outlets, and they don’t work, start looking around your kitchen area for one of the GFCI outlets that is tripped. Once you reset it, you’ll find your outlets all working again.

This can sometimes be the same situation in your bathrooms. Often two bathrooms will get connected, so that the GFCI button for one bathroom is on the outlet of the other bathroom. So if you are in one of these bathrooms, and you can’t find the outlet with the button, check the other bathroom.

Likewise, the exterior outlets of your home will often be on the same GFCI circuit as one of your garage outlets. If your exterior outlets don’t have buttons, go find the GDCI outlet in your garage.

One last breaker

There’s another breaker that I haven’t mentioned yet. It’s still a standard breaker, but you won’t find it in your main power panel. The breaker I’m referring to, is the one that controls all your power, and is connected to the Power Meter. You will find this breaker on the outside of your house.

Since we build most of our homes with shared walls, the main power connection will likely be located near the front of the building. It may be on your home or on one of your adjoining neighbor’s exterior walls.

This is where you will see the power meters. Attached to those meter boxes is a separate large breaker that supplies the power to each of your homes.

There are very few times when this breaker gets tripped, but it’s still good for you to know that it is there.

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