Of all of your home’s major systems, electrical can be the most daunting.
Like the other systems, it involves numerous complicated components. Unlike the others, it’s full of electricity, which can give pause to even the most confident homeowner. Zap!
Though issues beyond flipping a breaker should probably be left to a pro, a basic understanding of your system can’t hurt. Plus, it’ll help you navigate convos with an electrician.
Here’s a brief breakdown of the major parts of your electrical system:
The big picture
The main idea is this: Electricity needs a complete circuit to provide power.
A circuit is a circular path through which electricity follows. It begins and ends in the same place and breaks in the path interrupt the flow of electricity.
For example, a light switch breaks a circuit when the light is turned off and reconnects it again when it’s turned on. If a tree knocks down a powerline, or a rodent chew through a wire in your home, it also interrupts the circuit.
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Electricity outside your home
Electricity reaches your home through a service drop, which is a set of wires that run from a transformer to your house. Transformers are those big grey boxes you see on telephone poles. They transfer energy from the power lines to your home’s individual electrical circuit. The wires may run overhead from a utility pole, or they might be buried underground.
The service drop attaches to an electrical meter, which is usually a gray box with a glass cover attached to the side of your home. It measures the amount of energy flowing into your home, allowing the utility company to figure out your bill each month.
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Your electrical panel and main breaker
From the meter, electricity passes through your electrical panel. This is also a grey box, usually located in the basement or in a utility closet. First, the electricity flows through the main breaker. That’s the big switch or switches at the top of your panel.
If you flip the main breaker off, it breaks the circuit, stopping the electricity for your entire home. This is good to know in case of emergency, like if you shut the power off for your home during a weather evacuation.
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Your home’s electrical circuits
Below the main breaker, there are rows of smaller circuit breakers. These breakers distribute power through the smaller circuits in different areas of your home. They may direct power to a single appliance, a few outlets, or a whole room, depending on how your house is wired.
A tripped breaker is when the breaker turns off, preventing electricity from flowing through that circuit. Breakers trip to prevent damage to your electrical system. It can happen if too much electricity flows through the circuit (power surge) or if the wrong wires touch (short circuit).
If you lose power in a certain part of your home, check your panel. Ideally, breakers are labeled according to which circuit it controls, such as “kitchen,” “downstairs bathroom,” or “washer and dryer.”
If they aren’t labeled, look for a breaker that looks like it isn’t all the way to the left or right, in line with the others. Usually, you just need to flip the breaker off and on again. If it continues to trip, call in an electrician.
Your outlets, fixtures, and switches
The different rooms of your home have outlets, fixtures, and switches. When you plug an appliance into an outlet or screw a lightbulb into a fixture, the circuit is connected, allowing electricity to flow through the appliance. When you shut a light switch off, it breaks the circuit to the fixture, and the light goes out.
If the electricity goes out
When your electrical system is working well, power flows through your home without interruption.
In the case of an outage, the first place to look is your electrical panel for a tripped breaker. If none of your breakers are tripped, or one breaker trips over and over again, you may have a larger problem with your system.
Burn marks, sparks, or bad smells near your panel, switches, or outlets, can also indicate an issue. If you notice any of these issues, call in a pro to take a look. Electricity can pose fire hazards, and it’s always better to be safe.