An Easy Guide to Understanding Your Breaker Panel

Breaker Panel 101

Still scared of that big gray and black box in your utility room? It’s time to face your fear. Why should you get to know this mystery box? It receives and distributes electricity through your home, and without a little breaker panel know-how, you could end up in a dark or dangerous situation. Luckily, it’s not as complicated to understand and operate as you might think.

How’s It Work?

Your breaker panel is just a big switch, filled with other smaller switches. Like your living room light, flip them one way and you’ve got power, flip them the other and its lights out. As an added bonus, these switches, called breakers, perform an array of safety services, protecting your wiring from overload and your home and its inhabitants from fire and shock.

What Am I Looking At?

  • The ‘Big’ One - The Main Breaker
    This switch is serves as the on/off for electricity in your entire home. 200-amps is typical for homes around 2,000 square feet, with smaller homes utilizing 150 or 100-amp varieties. In the case of an emergency, you can turn off power to your entire home by flipping this switch.
  • Two ‘Thingies’ – Double-Pole Breaker
    Double-pole breakers come in different amperages, which are typically noted on the switch. Common household electronics use 15 and 20-amp, while larger appliances require higher amperage breakers: 30-amps for water heaters and clothes dryers; 40-50-amp for stoves; 70-amp breakers for an HVAC unit, etc.
  • One ‘Thingy’ – Single-Pole Breaker
    These all-purpose breakers are capable of running lots of stuff in your home, from lights to garage door openers.  
  • AFCI-What? – Arc Fault Circuit Interrupters
    These handy little breakers prevent fires in the case of accidental electrical discharge/arcing that normally won’t pull enough power to trip a regular breaker.
  • Huh? Empty Slots
    These allow for additional circuits for today’s homeowners to add increasingly more ‘stuff’.
  • Why Do I Have 2? – Sub Panels
    Sub panels (smaller breaker boxes) are often used with additions. Again, it’s a good idea to know what these panels run in case of emergency.

What On Earth Do These Breakers All Operate?

It’s a good idea for you to find out. Fumbling in dark is never good. Flip your switches on and off as needed to identify the zones/appliances in your home they serve - labeling your breaker box by room and area so you won’t have to play guessing games in an emergency.

What Do I Do If I Need to Reset One?

If a breaker trips in your home due to electrical overload, it’s usually easily identified, resting in a different position than others in the box (halfway between ‘off’ and ‘on’). To reset and restore power to the circuit, move the breaker to the fully ‘off’ position, then flip it back to the fully ‘on’ position.

Danger Will Robinson!

Since you’re reading this post, it’s a good chance you’re not performing DIY breaker modifications, which always require a pro. And while we don’t want you to be afraid of your breaker box, we want you to respect its electrical components and avoid breaker box dangers…

  • Always work with dry hands – and be certain you’re standing on a dry surface – when operating your box.
  • Never touch or attempt to repair exposed wires. Call a pro ASAP.
  • Don’t keep retrying a breaker. If it won’t reset it may be overloaded, and a fire risk.
  • When in doubt, always call an electrician!

Flipping out over breaker box issues? The pros at Mr. Electric® can help you shed some light on things. Contact us today.

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This blog is made available by Mr. Electric for educational purposes only to give the reader general information and a general understanding on the specific subject above. The blog should not be used as a substitute for a licensed electrical professional in your state or region. Check with city and state laws before performing any household project.