In every home there is a distribution board, commonly called a fuse box or circuit breaker box. This enclosure controls all the electricity that comes into your home. It is the heart of your home’s electrical system. Everything runs through the fuse box, but what is it? What, exactly, does it do? And why should you care?
- Fuses prevent fires- Fuses are made for the express purpose of giving their life for yours. They are the sacrificial lambs of the electronic world. When too much current passes through a fuse or breaker it ‘blows’, interrupting the flow of electricity. Without this safeguard, electrical surges could cause overheating or even fire.
- Fuses help protect your electronic equipment- Without fuses or breakers, any stray electrical surge- from lightning, large appliances, or the electric provider- could arc within your equipment. Even if the arc does not immediately destroy the electronics, repeated surges over time build up until the equipment finally degrades too much to function.
- Fuses need to be grounded-Grounding a fuse or breaker is an essential part of the safety system. When a fuse is blown the electricity is blocked from continuing down the line, but that electricity doesn’t just go away. It has to go somewhere, and that’s what grounding is for. By providing a safe outlet for that energy to be released, the danger of electric shock is minimized.
- Fuses need to match the current- The volts passing through the fuse or breaker should match the volts the fuse can take. If you have a fuse that is too small for the volts that are running through it, there is a possibility of arcing. If the fuse is too large, it may not blow when a surge occurs. Either way, the surge will continue into your electronic equipment and could cause a fire.
- Fuses and breakers should be upgraded every 20 years-If your house’s breaker box is older than 20 years, it may be time for an upgrade. Over time, energy use has changed. The demands placed on breaker boxes today are much greater, and an old system may not be able to handle it. If your breakers or fuses are constantly blowing, you may want to think about an upgrade. Generally if you have actual fuses, you have an electrical system that is over 50 years old. You may want to think about upgrading the entire system- including the wiring and outlets inside the house- for safety. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.
- Fuses should be kept clean and dry- As with all electrical equipment, it is important to keep fuses and breakers from getting wet. Most outdoor fuse boxes have a protective cover on the outside and inside to prevent rain from touching the wires. At least once a year take the time to check on the condition of the fuse box. Dust off any accumulated dirt and flip all the breakers on and off three times to assure they are not stuck. Turn off the electricity before preforming any maintenance!
- Breakers can be reset- Most home breaker boxes do not actually blow, they merely ‘trip’, or shut off. To reset the breaker, just take a look. In most cases, all the switches in the breaker box will be set to the on position. The breaker that has been tripped will be in either the off position or in the middle. If there are no visible sparks or signs of damage, turn that loose breaker switch into the off position and then flip it back on. The electricity should be immediately restored.
- Fuses are easy to replace- If you have a true fuse box, your job just got a little harder. Instead of a reset, fuses have to be replaced. Before replacing a fuse, make sure that all power to the fuse box is off. Remove the blown fuse without touching the metal. You can tell a fuse is blown by looking at it. It will appear burnt or the wire inside will be severed. Once the fuse is removed, simply replace it and turn the power back on to the fuse box. If the electricity is not restored, you may more than one blown fuse.
- Fuses blow for a reason- Find out what it is before you reset or replace. There is always a cause; it may be that you have overloaded the electrical system. If so, just turn off some electrical equipment and try again. Electric clothes dryers and ovens, heaters, air conditioners, vacuums and hair dryers are often the culprits of an overload. If there is any sign of an electrical fire- such as sparks, smoke, or burnt and melted wires- DO NOT reset the system. Call an electrician before restoring the power.
- There are more fuses than you think- Before you go out to reset your fuse box, take a look around. What is off? What is still on? You may not have to go outside at all. In some homes an internal fuse is connected to the electrical outlets. If so, there will be a red reset button located between the sockets. If only one plug is affected by the outage, try pressing that red button. It takes a little force to get it all the way in, but it should click. Before you do that, make sure that whatever equipment caused the issue is unplugged, and never use anything metal to push the reset button.
The importance of respecting and maintaining your fuse box cannot be overstated. In the United States, the annual number of people who die from electric shock is 1000, whereas the annual number of shark fatalities is 1. As George Carlin said, “Electricity is really just organized lightning”. So the next time a fuse blows and you’re left in the dark, be thankful. It could have just saved your life.