2006-09-28 / News

Breaker, breaker: Know your fuse box

By Andrew McGlothlen

A fairly common problem in American homes these days is too many electrical appliances. The more we get, the more power they draw and the more likely they will break a circuit or blow a fuse. Once they've done this, though, how do you fix it?

To begin, unplug or turn off the appliances that were running in the area when the circuit or fuse was overloaded. Now, go to your fuse box. This may be difficult if you have never been to your fuse box. In most cases, your fuse box will be in either your garage or basement. You can get a clue as to where to start looking by examining the nearest electrical pole and seeing where the lines run into your home. Should your power be run underground, it's time to start looking. The box should be metal or plastic, roughly a foot or so long, and hanging on the wall. It should have a large pipe or cable running out of one end into either the ceiling or the ground. When the box is opened, you should see one of two things: a set of fuses or a set of circuit breakers.

Fuses in the box look like small glass circles. They are screwed into sockets in the box, much like a light bulb in a lamp. When too much power is being drawn, the fuse blows before the wires can overheat. While this may inconvenience you, the electrical fire it prevented probably would have inconvenienced you more. To replace a blown fuse, you must be careful to use the exact kind of fuse that you are removing. The information is usually written on the part of the fuse you will see as you examine it. If you do not have any spare fuses, it is a wise idea to take the blown fuse to the local hardware store so you can find the exact type of fuse for replacement. While shopping, you may want to pick up more than you need so that you have spares for the next time or in the event of a severe electrical surge.

If you are looking at a box of on-off switches, your house uses circuit breakers. Rather than blow, a circuit breaker is merely tripped. This is the electrical equivalent to the emergency brake in your automobile. It is usually easy to tell which circuit breaker was tripped. When a circuit breaker trips, it doesn't have to be replaced. The circuit breaker is still in good condition in most cases and just needs to be flipped back to the "On" position. Once you have done this, power should be restored to the area. If your appliances are still on or plugged in, the circuit breaker will turn itself back off, as you are still drawing too much power. If the power being drawn is manageable, the circuit breaker will stay on.

Now that you have found your box and know how to restore electricity, there is one more thing that you should do while you're there. If your fuse box is not already labeled, you should consider doing so now. Turn off any appliances in the house that would be harmed by losing power in mid-operation. This particularly applies to computers. Then turn on lights or some form of electrical device in each room so you can determine what areas are affected by each switch. With a circuit breaker, this process is relatively easy. You flip a switch to "Off," go search the house until you find the area without power and then label the space next to that breaker in either permanent marker or white out, depending on the color of your box. For fuses, the process works much the same way. Be careful with the fuses, though, as they are glass and can shatter if they fall as you are playing hide-and-seek with your electrical system.

Once you have finished labeling your box, you should make a paper copy for your records. Use phrases like "north bedroom" rather than "Mary's room" to make the diagram more timeless in the event of different rooming arrangements. If you ever sell the home, be sure to pass on the diagram to the new owners.

Now that you know a little more about your fuse box and you have it labeled, you should be fully prepared to face the aftermath of an electrical storm or a new highpowered appliance. Blown fuses and tripped circuit breakers will no longer pose a problem for you.

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