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American Foundation for the Blind® | Reader's Digest Partners for Sight

When the Lights Go Out: Replacing Fuses and Resetting Circuit Breakers

By Gil Johnson

A sudden loss of electrical power—it's one of those experiences that every homeowner is either familiar with or soon will be. The summer months are an especially vulnerable time as air conditioners are going full blast for hours at a stretch, pushing electrical circuits to their limits. Even if you replaced burnt fuses or reset the circuit breaker many times as a fully sighted person, you may feel reluctant to fiddle with wiring if you have lost some or all of your vision.

Don't be discouraged, however. In most instances, you should be able to turn the power back on by devoting just a bit more care and attention to the task at hand.

Understanding the Problem

Occasionally, a neighborhood—or even an entire city or region—will experience a large-scale power outage. There's little you can do about this from your home, of course, so it's important to keep fresh batteries, a flashlight or two and a battery-operated radio on hand at all times.

More typically, power failures are confined to the home. The cause could be an electrical short. Circuit breakers and fuses will audibly "pop" almost immediately if there's a short or loose wire. These can be quite dangerous, so it's best to have a licensed electrician fix it for you. More often, the issue is a blown fuse or tripped circuit caused by excessive electrical current flowing through the wires. The fuse or breaker will automatically cut off the current to prevent the wires from overheating and causing a fire.

The best way to prevent such outages is to make sure not to use too many appliances on one circuit at the same time. It's one thing to multitask, but it's best not to pop the English muffins in the toaster until after the ironing is done. If several high voltage appliances are rigged to one breaker or fuse in your home, you may want to have a licensed electrician migrate one or more appliances to another breaker/box.

Fuse Boxes vs. Circuit Breakers

Older homes and apartments often have one or more fuse boxes with anywhere from two to eight fuses. The fuse box is metal and may be located in a stairwell, closet, basement, or garage. The surface of the box may be flush with the surrounding wall or it may stick out a couple of inches. The box will have a metal door which must be opened to expose the fuses.

Fuses lay flat on the outward-facing surface. They are round and screw into a socket in the box very much like the socket for a light bulb. The fuse can be unscrewed by turning it counter-clockwise.

Fuses are rated at 15, 20, or 30 amps depending on the size of the electrical wire they protect. You should replace a fuse with the same, or lower, ampier rating than the one you are replacing.

Circuit breakers are standard for all newly constructed and remodeled homes. They serve the same function as older model fuse boxes, and are generally found in the same areas of the home, but are easier to reset.

Circuit breakers looks like small light switches and are generally organized in rows of two to eight or more that can run horizontally or vertically. When a breaker is tripped, the switch-shaped button is forced down or up depending on the position in which it was installed. You can easily locate the affected breaker by running your hand along the row of breakers and locating the one that is out of line with the rest. To reset the breaker, simply press the switch to bring it in alignment with the others.

For the "off" breaker to engage in the "on" position, you may have to push the breaker that has tripped to the "off" position then back "on" again. The circuit may immediately break again if the cause of the initial overloaded circuit was not corrected.

Kitchen ranges, dryers, and other large appliances typically connect to large-sized breakers that require 220 volts of electricity. These are easily distinguished from the common 110 volt breakers for lights and outlets.

Power Off/Power On: Replacing Fuses and Resetting Breakers

Replacing fuses or resetting breakers is not a frequent occurrence, but when it is necessary, there are steps you can take to complete the task safely and with minimum aggravation.

  • Check the circuit list. When electrical circuits were last installed, the installer should have provided a list that tells you which outlets and lights are on each circuit. If no additional outlets or lights have been added since installation, you can quickly tell from this list which fuse or breaker might have been tripped by the overload. It is a good idea to keep this list handy in case replacement or resetting the breaker is needed.

  • If the circuit list is not available or has not been kept up to date, you may have to experiment by removing one fuse at a time until you find the one that has burned out. If you remove a fuse and no other circuits are affected, you most likely have found the culprit.

  • Fuses can be changed while the power is still on but take care. It would be like removing a light bulb without first turning off the switch. Exercise extreme caution when removing fuses.

  • Do not stick anything in an empty fuse socket as this can trigger an electrical short, which could cause a serious injury or fatality.

If you have any home repair questions, comments, or advice, feel free to post them on our Home Repairs Message Board.

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