The ABCs of Electric Panels: A Simple Guide


Electricity is the lifeblood of our homes, powering everything from our lights to our laptops. But have you ever wondered how electricity is distributed throughout your home? The answer lies in a device called an electric panel, also known as a breaker box, circuit breaker, or fuse box in older homes. This device, usually a large metal box located in your garage, basement, closet, or attic, acts as the "brain" for your home's electrical system.

The Role of an Electric Panel

The electric panel plays a crucial role in controlling and directing the flow of electricity in your home. It receives electricity from the utility grid, which supplies power to your neighborhood, and distributes it throughout your house. This distribution is done using circuits, or large loops of wire that go from the electric panel, through various plugs and outlets in your home, and then back to the electric panel.

The electric panel ensures that your appliances and plugs receive the right amount of power at the right time. It also stops the flow of electricity if they receive too much power, preventing potential electrical issues from damaging your house. This is achieved by using a series of switches called circuit breakers that control how much electricity a certain location in your house can receive.

The Role of a Circuit Breaker

A circuit breaker is a protective device that ensures your home gets the electricity it needs in the correct amounts. The electrical wiring and outlets for each part of your home are grouped together and connected to an individual circuit breaker. These are usually arranged by location and the amount of power they need to provide.

Here's a simplified look at the primary circuits in your home:

Major Appliances: Your heating, air conditioning, and ventilation (HVAC) system and refrigerator need lots of electricity all the time while they’re running. Your electric panel normally has a circuit breaker exclusively for these high-usage items.

  Medium Appliances: Your washer and dryer also use lots of electricity, but they usually don’t run consistently. They are probably on their own circuit.

  Small Appliances: Each room’s outlets are typically attached to their own circuit breaker, so they can adapt to changing electricity needs based on what’s plugged in or turned on at any one time.

  Lighting: Your typical electric panel arranges lighting circuits by room.

If something causes too much electricity to flow through a circuit, the circuit breaker will “break” the electrical circuit and stop the flow of energy. This helps prevent an electrical surge that can cause damage to your home or the people inside it.

What Happens When A Circuit Breaker Trips?

If a part of your home suddenly has no power while other areas still have power, it’s probably because a circuit breaker “tripped”. This usually means part of your home was asking for more electricity than was safe, so the breaker works by automatically and immediately disconnecting the circuit to stop the flow of electricity.


If your circuit breaker has tripped, you can usually fix that problem yourself by following these steps:

  1. Fix whatever tripped the circuit breaker in the first place. For example, if the circuit breaker tripped when you plugged in an appliance, you should unplug that appliance and inspect it for damage.
  2. Go to your electric panel. The tripped breaker will typically sit in the middle position, often next to a brightly colored marker. The non-tripped breakers will all face one direction.
  3. Push the tripped circuit breaker switch all the way to the opposite direction of what every other circuit breaker is facing until you hear a small click.
  4. Push that circuit breaker all the way back to the other direction (the direction that the other circuit breakers are facing) until you hear another small click
  5. You should now have power back on in the affected part of your house.

If you can’t reset your circuit breaker, or resetting the circuit breaker doesn’t restore power to your house, you should contact a licensed electrician to inspect the issue. Electrical work can be dangerous in untrained hands, so you should always hire a professional for most wiring work in your home.

In a Nutshell: The Electric Panel

Your electric panel is the control center for how electricity is used in your home. It contains individual circuits for the various ways that your home uses electricity. If you ever try to use more electricity than is safe, a circuit breaker will trip to prevent a power surge that could damage your home.

While it’s important to understand how your electric panel works, you should hire a trained electrician to do most of the electrical work around your home. Yes, you can reset a tripped circuit breaker on your panel, but you should probably leave it to the professionals to install things like new outlets or additional circuits.

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