Understanding Your Circuit Breaker

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Understanding Your Circuit Breaker

Staff Writer · Apr 15, 2010

Circuit breakers are there to protect you from overloading your wiring by drawing too much power. The breaker measures the amount of power going through that circuit and pops if the load exceeds that of the designated amount. Optimizing your household electricity is easy once you understand how it all works.

What You Are Looking At

Each breaker will usually have a number on the switch. In most cases it is either 20, 15 or 10. These numbers indicate the number of amps each circuit will hold. If you look at the information on any appliance or bulb, you will find out how many watts each item draws. To translate the two together, multiply the number of amps a circuit can hold by the voltage flowing through it. Most United States circuits will run at 120 volts. You may have a few breakers that run at 240 volts, but we will get to those later. For now, understand that a 20 amp circuit will hold 2400 watts.

Tracking Your Power

Now you need to find out what outlets each circuit corresponds to. If you have any 240 volt breakers, they are usually much bigger than the 120 volt ones. It is easy to find where these lead because the outlets do not look like regular outlets. They are normally near the fridge or laundry room where there is likely to be high power machinery. The 120 volt breakers will be more difficult to trace. Start by turning on all your lights and any other electronics. Now, flip one of the breakers and track down which light has gone off.

You may only have one lamp to test all your outlets with, but this will not make it as tedious as you think. Understand that electricity is run through the walls. Generally, electricians will want to save themselves some work by running as little cable as possible. So, all the outlets on both sides of a given wall will probably lead to the same breaker. If the apartment has been heavily remodeled several times, then the case may be different. But, assuming this will most likely shorten the process.

Using Your Knowledge

Now that you know where each breaker leads and how to determine what it will hold, you can distribute your appliances and lamps accordingly. In case you do pop a breaker, do not worry, it is not dangerous. Simply reroute one of the items that is plugged into that line. When you look at your breakers, the one that has popped will be in the middle position. You will need to first switch it to the off position then back to the on position in order to reset it. Everything should come back on.

Hopefully you can now get the electricity in your household to run more efficiently. Or, if you were never having power problems in the first place, at least now you know how it all works. Mapping out your breakers is never a bad idea if you have some spare time.

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