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Tripping the Circuit: The Dangers of Overloading

Key Points
  • Circuit overloads occur when more electrical demand is placed on a circuit than it can handle.
  • Overloading can cause nuisance tripping of breakers, as well as fires and other safety hazards.
  • Consult with a qualified electrician when adding new equipment or if you suspect a problem.

Overloaded power strip

Overloaded electrical circuits are more common than you might think. Circuit overloads occur when more electrical demand is placed on a circuit than it can handle. They can cause nuisance tripping of breakers, a fire or other serious safety hazards. Easy and inexpensive short-term solutions are tempting, but they can put your organization at risk. By understanding the causes of circuit overloads and how to prevent them, you can help ensure the safety of your staff and facility.

The lowdown on overloads

Wires in a circuit have a maximum amount of current they can safely carry. If too many devices are plugged into a circuit, the electrical current will heat the wires to a very high temperature. If any one device uses too much current, the wires will heat up. The temperature of the wires can become high enough to cause a fire. If the wires' insulation melts, arcing may occur, which can also cause a fire. The National Electrical Code Table 310.15(B) gives maximum amperage for a variety of copper and aluminum wire sizes at different temperature ratings.

To prevent overloading, a circuit breaker or fuse is placed in the circuit. If there's too much current in the circuit, the breaker "trips" and opens like a switch. If an overloaded circuit is equipped with a fuse, an internal part of the fuse melts, opening the circuit. Both breakers and fuses do the same thing—open the circuit to shut off the electrical current. If any other device is powered by the same wiring, a larger wire gauge would be required.

If the breakers or fuses are too large for the wires they're supposed to protect, an overload in the circuit won't be detected and the current won't shut off. Overloading leads to overheating of circuit components—including wires—and may cause a fire. In short, a circuit with improper (or no) overcurrent protection is a fire and shock hazard.

Preventing circuit overloading

There are steps you can take to reduce the risk of circuit overloads in your facility:

  • Get an inspection. If circuits are continually tripping or fuses blowing, hire a qualified electrician to inspect the system. The inspection will determine your electrical needs and identify any necessary modifications to the system. 
  • Replace fuses. The presence of fuses in your electrical system is a sign of older (and potentially hazardous) wiring. Consider replacing fuses with circuit breakers. 
  • Check for loose connections or corroded wires. Circuit overloads can result from loose connections or corroded wires. These could be at the circuit panel, junction box or anywhere in the electrical system. If you suspect a problem, contact a qualified electrician.
  • Keep temporary wiring temporary. Temporary wiring, such as extension cords and power strips, are not designed for long-term use. If this becomes the case, consider having additional outlets or electrical capacity installed. 
  • Adding new equipment. The addition of new equipment can put a strain on your electrical system and cause circuit overload. When adding new electrical devices or reconfiguring existing equipment, consult with a qualified electrician about installing additional capacity.

By making sure your electrical system meets your needs, you can reduce the risk of fire or other safety hazards and eliminate costly downtime that electrical problems can cause.

Image source: iStock

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