Fuse Box 101

Your fuse or breaker box is probably one of the last things on your list of things to learn about—probably somewhere behind learning about how to clean leaves out of the gutters. However, it quickly moves to the top of your list if you’re watching your favorite TV show on a cold winter’s night, when suddenly the lights start to flicker, and you find yourself surrounded by nothing but silence and darkness. Or, maybe you’re blow-drying your hair, and all comes to a hushed, eerie halt. Worse yet, your kids are playing the latest video games when the screen and room goes black. Do you know what to do?

First, let’s move this subject to the top of your list and get ourselves familiar and prepared for just such an occurrence. As you can see, it’s best not wait to learn about fuse and breaker problems until after they happen.

Location, Location, Location

As a first step, it’s important to know where your fuse or circuit breaker box is located. In some homes, it is outside of the main house, usually in the garage. However, in older homes it is commonly found inside the house.

Once you locate it, you need to determine what type of box it is: Fuse or Circuit. You can easily tell the difference: if you see round, glass topped shapes or small tubes with metal ends, these are fuses; if there are toggle-like switches, it is a circuit breaker box.

NOTE: If your home is subject to flooding, and your electrical panel is located in the basement, you might want to think about relocating the panel upstairs.

Preparation Pays Off

If you have a fuse box, it is wise to purchase some additional fuses the next time you’re at the hardware store. There are a few different amperages for these fuses, so be sure and check your box to see which ones you have, and then get at least one of each amperage. The amperage is the amount of electrical current that an appliance, light, or outlet uses.

NOTE: Fuses are usually color coded for quick reference. For example, 15 amps fuses might be colored green. Also, you may need slow burning types (usually marked with a "P" or "D") for certain appliance circuits.

Keep a flashlight placed at or near your fuse box—with fully charged batteries that work! There’s no use adding to your stress by having to fish out a flashlight or batteries in the dark of night; and it’s usually nighttime when these types of incidents happen, since people tend to use more electricity then.

Make sure the ground and area around your fuse box is free of water. This is especially important if the box is located outside. Consider stowing a small, dry throw-rug stored nearby so you can use it to stand on whenever you need to work on it. Also, it’s handy to have a pair of leather gloves that you can easily locate to wear when working in your panel box.

NOTE: If it is difficult to read the amperage numbers, or if you do not have color coded fuses, then get a black felt marker and, in large letters, write the amperages next to each fuse in the box. You might also want to mark the inside of the panel door with the room or rooms that each circuit powers, which makes it easier to determine the problem area and perform the process of elimination.

What to Do

When a Fuse Blows:

The first thing to do is to unplug all appliances on the overloaded circuit. For instance, if you were in your bathroom with the hair dryer and it stopped working, unplug the hairdryer before replacing any fuses. If it is dark, use the flashlight to see what you are doing easily.

Next, be absolutely sure to turn the main breaker off within the box. This usually means toggling the main On/Off switch into the "Off" position. Find and wear your gloves when working in the fuse box. Take off any jewelry, and be sure to wear rubber-soled shoes. If you must use a ladder to reach the panel, use a non-conductive wood or fiberglass ladder.

To determine which fuse blew, you can look inside the glass top and see if either the metal line is broken within it, or if it is cloudy. Carefully unscrew any broken fuses and replace them with the equivalent amperage. Cartridge-type fuses can be removed very easily by hand. Pull it out from the clips and replace it with a new one. Some of the fuses may be a P- or a D-type. These fuses are usually for motorized or large appliances, and offer additional protection. Be sure to replace with these same types. Check that all fuses are screwed in tightly. When removing and replacing any fuses, make sure to use caution, and remain focused on the task you are performing.

After you have replaced the fuse, turn on the main power to make sure it does not immediately blow again. If so, consult the professionals—you have a problem that needs the attention of an electrician.

Re-plug in all the appliances you unplugged before replacing and see if the fuse blows again. If it does, your problem lies in either the appliance or you are trying to plug too many things into one circuit.

WARNING: Do not put a coin in the fuse socket and replace with the old one. This is a very dangerous practice that offers absolutely no protection in case of an overload, and could start a fire.

When a Circuit Trips:

We’ve saved the best for last, because most modern houses are equipped with circuit breakers, which are quite advanced compared to fuses.

Why? Because instead of having to replace them, you simply need to "re-set" them.

If you do trip a breaker, be sure to unplug all appliances on that circuit. You don’t need to turn off the main power switch. Open the circuit box, and find the trip switch on the breaker that is out of line with the other, or not fully in the "On" position. Sometimes, tripped breakers have a little red flag on them.

When you locate the tripped switch, turn it all the way off, and then turn it back on. Many circuit breakers will not reset if not turned completely off first.

Then flip it back on. If it trips again without anything plugged into it, you’ll need to call an electrician. If it stays on, re-plug in the appliances one by one on that circuit to see if it trips. If it does, then the problem lies with them. Plug them in elsewhere and see if that solves the problem.

Seeing the Light—Again

With a little preparation and taking a few minutes to learn what to do about a blown fuse or tripped circuit breaker, you can help keep yourself out of the dark. That leaves you some more time to tackle those other important items on your wish list—like maybe taking care of those leaves in the gutters waiting to be cleaned?


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Author: John O’Melveny Woods