Electrical Circuit Breaker Tripping Complaints

7 Replies

Hi All,

I recently bought an older four family (in December 2018) built in 1897 and inherited all the tenants.  Each unit is 3 bedrooms one bath and three people in each.  One unit recently had one roommate move out and another one move in and she passed all the background and was fine with me.  Since her moving in though, she has been complaining about the circuit breaker continuing to trip.  So I went over there to look and noticed that the box was limited but newer and functioning just fine.  I go into her room and she has 2 fans going, an alarm clock, an Iphone charger, all hooked up to the same power strip and (the kicker) her hair dryer.  I tried to explain to her that she is overloading the circuit, that they only have 15 amp circuits in the bedrooms and that she can't be using her hair dryer with everything else running.  So she sent me this text yesterday:

 "I've been talking to some electrician friends of mine and they are saying that it is a code violation to have so many outlets on one circuit, and that the outlet in the kitchen that has the fridge should be a dedicated circuit, and that that is why our power has been going out so much. The only fixtures in the apartment that aren't on the same circuit (including the attic) are the second outlet in Coco's room and overhead lights in living room. All 3 in kitchen, bathroom, living room, my room, Griffin's room, attic, and overhead lights in kitchen my room, Griffin's room, Coco's room, and bathroom are one single circuit. I think we have to rewire so that they are more evenly distributed on the 2 circuits supplying our unit.

Also, since it was not an issue when I moved in but became an issue, and then got progressively worse, my electrician friend said the breaker may have to be replaced because they wear our over time. It could also be a loose wire somewhere. If the wires get too hot, they expand enough to loosen a wire nut. "

There are six different circuit running in that unit and two of them are 20 amp circuits.  I guess my plan is to go over there and map out the circuits and outlets with them one by one.  Then again explain that you can't be overloading the circuits.  

What would you do in this situation? 

Thanks,

Brandon

Milwaukee electric

Most of the stuff sounds correct so she must have been talking with an electrician.
Is the fridge not on a dedicated circuit? I think this circuit should be 20Amps if I am remembering correctly.

Google plug in watt checker. You can get one of these devices and plug it into her outlet. Then turn on all her devices to show her how much power is being pulled from that one circuit.

Then use the simple formula; Amps =watts divided by voltage. voltage will be 120. Then you can show here how many amps she is using out of a 15AMP circuit which is typical in a house. It is also typical to have 3 or so outlets on one 15

The circuit and circuit breaker that you tripped have a capacity of 15 amps, or 1,800 watts (15 amps x 120 volts = 1,800 watts) A hair dryer pulls close to the limit by itself on a 15 amp circuit.

As a rule of thumb in counting devices on a circuit you count each outlet (light or receptacle) as 1.5 amps. Now remember you only count 80% of the rating which means a 15 amp breaker should not exceed 12 amp load, a 20 amp breaker would be 16 amps

By rule of thumb you would stick with 8 to 10 outlets and or lights per breaker



@Brandon V.

Hi Brandon,

As @John Underwood is saying, the girl must have talked to an Electrician to know these things.

If it were mine, I would consider this a heads up on the situation and have an Electrician out there Today on a service call to check things out and let me know what is going on, and what (if anything) needs to be done.

I would do this for Tenant satisfaction and as a CYA in case of an unfortunate event.

Good Luck!

  

Originally posted by @Scott Mac :

@Brandon V.

Hi Brandon,

As @John Underwood is saying, the girl must have talked to an Electrician to know these things.

If it were mine, I would consider this a heads up on the situation and have an Electrician out there Today on a service call to check things out and let me know what is going on, and what (if anything) needs to be done.

I would do this for Tenant satisfaction and as a CYA in case of an unfortunate event.

Good Luck!

I agree with having a licensed electrician evaluate this for a CYA.  Then you can show you had it checked and remediated any issues.

 

Originally posted by @Brandon V. :

All 3 in kitchen, bathroom, living room, my room, Griffin's room, attic, and overhead lights in kitchen my room, Griffin's room, Coco's room, and bathroom are one single circuit.

Yikes

 

Disclaimer: I am not a professional electrician.

The code requirements have changed a bit over the years, and I think they're also a little different for apartments vs. single-family.  Having said that, here's what I would expect to have in your situation:

1) One dedicated 20 amp circuit for each bathroom, because hair dryers.  The receptacle should be a GFCI.

2) At least one dedicated 20 amp circuit for each kitchen, serving the countertop receptacles, because toasters, coffee pots, waffle irons, etc.  It's OK if this circuit serves more than one receptacle in the kitchen, but it shouldn't serve anything in any other room.  The first receptacle in the string should be a GFCI.  (For a single-family residence, you need two dedicated 20 amp circuits for each kitchen.)

3) At least one 15 amp circuit for the lights and general-purpose outlets in each unit.  Depending on how many lights and outlets each unit has, maybe two 15 amp circuits.  These don't have to have GFCIs, but if your city requires you to come up to the very latest code, the receptacles might have to have a thing called an AFCI. (Editorial: The electrical manufacturers realized they made a mistake when making GFCIs available as a $60 circuit breaker or a $7 receptacle - nobody bought the breakers.  So they wrote AFCIs into the electrical code, and only made them available, so far, as $60 circuit breakers.)

If you're wiring brand new, one theory is to put all the lights on one circuit, and all the receptacles on another, so that if somebody plugs something in that pops the receptacle breaker, they aren't also plunged into darkness.  This isn't required, though, as far as I know.

To some specific points:

The fridge doesn't have to have its own dedicated circuit, unless it's some monster $10,000 Sub-Zero 30-cubic-foot built-in thing. The $700 GE 18-cubic-foot just doesn't need that much juice. :) It can go on one of the "general" lighting and receptacle circuits.

Modern practice would probably be to put the dishwasher (if equipped) on its own 15-amp circuit - the heater pulls a lot of juice in the dry cycle - and the DIsposall (if equipped) on its own 15-amp circuit. You could probably get away with putting both of those on one 15-amp or 20-amp circuit of their own. There are also plenty of houses where the dishwasher and Disposall run off of one of the 20-amp kitchen circuits or one of the 15-amp general lighting circuits, and it works just fine.

> I go into her room and she has 2 fans going, an alarm clock, an Iphone charger, all hooked up to the same power strip and (the kicker) her hair dryer.

The hair dryer is what's doing it.  The fans are maybe 80 watts each.  The alarm clock is 5 to 10 watts.  The iPhone charger is 10 watts.  Total maybe 180 watts.  A typical 15 amp circuit is good for 1,800 watts, or 10 times that.  The "high" setting of most hair dryers is designed to be 1,800 watts - the full capacity of a 15 amp circuit.

That panel looks to be relatively recent, and isn't one of the "bad" brands (Federal Pacific Eletric, Pushmatic, Zinsco), so you shouldn't need to replace the whole panel.  If it needs another breaker, they are readily available at the hardware store.

From the tenant's description , it does sound like there is too much stuff on that one circuit.  You will never be able to get it to balance out with exactly 10 lights/receptacles on one circuit and 10 lights/receptacles on the other, but if you can get it closer to even, that would be good.

I agree with the other posters that you probably want an electrician to look at the unit now.

You might check with the city/county to see what they require when making renovations.  Sometimes they require that if you touch anything, the whole unit has to be brought up to 2019 code; sometimes only the stuff you touch has to be brought up to 2019 code; sometimes it only has to be brought up to some earlier year code.  For houses built from maybe the 1960s on up, they sometimes just ask it to meet code for the year it was built, but that won't apply to an 1897 house.  The reason you should check this is that sometimes the electrician will say you need to replace the outlets, switches, fixtures, wiring, breaker panel, meter socket, meter, the transformer outside, and the power plant across town, but maybe you don't actually have to do that much.  :)

If they are still running incandescent lamps, you can buy a little headroom quickly by switching to LED.  Swapping two 60-watt incandescents to LEDs will cut the power for that fixture from 120 watts to about 18 watts.  If you do this, make sure you get the "warm white", 2700 K or 2750 K LEDs (it will say on the box), because the color on those is most similar to incandescents.   Most people find the 3000 K or higher LEDs "too blue" and odd-looking.  If the lamps are already LED or compact fluorescent, this won't help much.

One thing you might ask the electrician to check is if any of the outlets are "back-stabbed", "stabbed", or "back-wired".  Some outlets have a hole in the back, so you can just strip the wire and shove it straight into the hole, where a small spring clip retains it.  (Go look at a new outlet at the hardware store to see.)  The spring tends to loosen up over the years, making the connection heat up.  This creates more voltage drop - lower voltage at the outlets past that one - and can start a fire if it's bad enough.  The right way is to loop the wire around the screws on the side of the outlet and tighten the screw - if you have copper wire, and you get the screw tight enough the first time, it will stay that way for 50+ years.  This won't immediately fix your breaker tripping problem, but it's something you should ask them to check on any of the outlets they touch.

Something you can check yourself is if all the outlets are gripping their plugs tightly.  The easiest way to do this is with a 2-prong plug for anything, even your cell phone charger.  Plug it in to a new outlet at the hardware store to see what it should feel like, then try the same plug in all outlets at the unit.  They may not all be quite as strong as the new one, but sometimes you find one that is really loose - if so, replace that outlet, or have it replaced.  Again, this won't fix your breaker-tripping problem directly, but it will help a little.

In the future, like if one of your apartments turns over, a handy thing to have is a "Kill-a-watt" plug-in watt-hour meter (about $30 to $40 at the hardware store, electronics store, or Amazon) and a space heater or hair dryer ($20).  Ideal and Fluke make dedicated tools for this, but they are $300+ .

Go to an outlet, plug in your meter, and write down the reading. It's normal for it not to be exactly 120.0 V AC, and it's normal for it to bounce around a few tenths of a volt while you watch it. If it's consistently way low (below maybe 110.0 V) or way high (above maybe 125.0 V), you may want to seek help from an electrician before proceeding. Now, plug in the space heater or hair dryer, and crank it up to high. Watch the voltmeter while you do this. It is totally normal for the voltage to drop down when the heater/dryer kicks in, but let the heater/dryer run for a couple of minutes and write down the lowest voltage you see. Then, turn the heater/dryer off and do some math.

If the voltage dropped 5% or less (like, it was 120.0 V with the heater off, and 114.0 V at its lowest with the heater on), then the circuit from the breaker panel to that outlet is in pretty good shape. If it's between 5% and maybe 8%, that's not as good, but it might be OK. If it's over 10%, then you should investigate further, or have an electrician investigate - you've got a loose connection somewhere between that outlet and the breaker box, which is potentially dissipating a lot of heat inside the wall somewhere. Back-stabbed connections, loose wire nuts, and terminal screws that aren't tightened all the way down on receptacles and switches can cause this problem.

I hope this helps!

Plenty of good technical comments here. We invest in our assets and usually do a complete upgrade before we put units in service. So yes, I would add a few breakers as needed to address the issue once and for all. All 4 units at the same time. Which brings me to the question, what else should be upgraded in the next years, either as tenants move out or just in general. This will become your capex schedule.

You guys have been very very helpful, thank you for all the tips.  I am going to map out the circuits so they have an idea of where to plug things in and get an electrician over there to do a full inspection and let me know what he thinks.