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Electrical systems can be quite scary when you are not qualified or knowledgeable in how they work. This is not just because an electrical shock from a standard household circuit can be very uncomfortable at best, fatal at worst, but also because it is often difficult to see electrical problems until there is a serious issue.
Overloaded circuits are one of the more common problems encountered by homeowners and businesses, particularly as technology brings more and more gadgets and appliances into our homes. Fortunately, while we can’t teach you how to be a qualified electrician, we can help you identify the signs of an overloaded circuit, as well as go over some steps you can take to avoid this happening in the first place.
Electrical circuits do not have infinite capacity. Every electrical wire in your home or business has a maximum rating to show how much electricity can be safely carried through it. If you exceed that amount of electricity, the wiring (or other overloaded components) will begin to heat up.
If a circuit is sufficiently overloaded that the heat being generated can’t dissipate quickly enough, things will start to melt. Depending on the circumstances around the affected component, this could lead to burning damage or even outright fires.
Overloaded circuits can happen as a result of having too many electrical appliances plugged into the same circuit, or connecting one heavy-duty appliance to a circuit that is not designed for that much load. They are especially dangerous because most—if not all—of the wiring in a property will be hidden in walls and under floorboards.
You will rarely see direct signs of an overloaded circuit unless things have progressed to a critical point, such as things being on fire.
Given that wires are hidden away where we can’t see them and given that electricity itself is invisible most of the time, there are naturally a number of safety precautions employed to prevent things from getting dangerous.
These include fuses on the appliances themselves that “blow” if the current goes higher than what the fuser is rated for. There are also circuit breakers that work in almost exactly the same way as fuses, except that they work for the whole circuit, not just one appliance. And, unlike fuses, they can be reset once tripped, whereas fuses must be replaced as once they have blown, they are no longer usable.
As we’ve said, spotting an overloaded circuit before things have progressed to a quite serious problem is difficult because the signs are not readily apparent. With most of the wires being behind walls and under floorboards, a circuit could be overloaded without generating enough heat to be noticeable. Still, it’s important to know when your circuits are overloaded so that you don’t inadvertently add more load to it and push it over the edge.
#1 Dimming Lights
The most immediate symptom of an overloaded circuit is a lack of power getting to the devices that are connected. We mentioned that overloaded circuits generate heat, and that heat takes energy; energy that is no longer getting to your appliances and other connected devices.
Not getting enough power will affect any electrical device, of course, but lighting is often the most immediate and sensitive thing to register, as you can see the effects in the amount of light that is being produced. If you notice your lights dimming—especially if they are somewhat erratically dimming—that could be a sign the circuit that your lights are on is overloaded.
#2 Warm Outlets or Switch Covers
Wires are not the only part of an electrical circuit that gets warm when it is overloaded, power outlets and light switches can get warm, too. This will rarely be because the switch or outlet is overloaded—though that is certainly possible. It is more likely that the wiring has been overloaded and is getting warm, and the heat from those wires is leaking into the switches and outlets that they are connected to.
In many cases, if the overload is coming from the outlet itself, it will be a poor connection, rather than the outlet receiving more electricity than it is rated for.
#3 Buzzing Outlets or Switches
On the subject of poor contacts in outlets and switches, it is unlikely that this will happen without some other kind of sign beside the heat. In many cases, that other sign will be a buzzing noise as the electricity travelling through the circuit continuously arcs across the poor connection.
If you hear buzzing coming from an outlet or switch, you should cut the power to that circuit immediately, and certainly do not use the outlet or switch until the problem is resolved. If the fixture is made of plastic, it should be safe, but given the potential damage electricity can do, it really is not worth risking it.
#4 Burning Smells and/or Scorch Marks Around Outlets or Switches
Another symptom of poor contact in a switch is a burning smell or scorch marks on the visible parts of an outlet. The same arcing process that can create the buzzing noise can also burn parts of the wiring or terminals, causing the scorch marks.
Again, if you encounter either of these symptoms, do not use that outlet until the problem is resolved. And it would be best to cut power to the circuit that it is on until that resolution.
Outlets with scorch marks pose a more immediate danger beyond the ones mentioned above, as they can burn you immediately, or even cause an electric shock.
#5 Appliances and Power Tools Seeming “Underpowered”
The first sign we mentioned was lighting dimming, and that was because light bulbs are typically the most obvious sign that a circuit is overloaded. However, if a circuit is overloaded enough, it can affect other appliances, too. Additionally, if there are no lights on the circuit in question, you will not be able to use lights as a guide.
In these cases, you may notice certain electrical devices—such as power tools—behaving as though they are underpowered.
It’s all well and good being able to identify an overloaded circuit, but what about preventing it from happening in the first place?
Calculate your circuit loads
If you are knowledgeable enough in electrical systems, you can calculate the electrical load you are placing on your circuit to determine if it should be overloaded. You will need to know the rating of the circuit to begin with, of course, as well as the rating of every device that is attached to it.
This is a good way to determine if there are any weak points in the circuit. If the load should be within the limit of the circuit but you are still getting symptoms of overloading, it is likely you have some poor contacts somewhere.
Invest in Low Powered Fixtures and Appliances
One obvious way to ensure your circuits are not overloaded is to use low powered appliances and other fixtures. Energy-saving bulbs are, of course, a well-known example, but there are often lower-powered alternatives to many appliances, such as electric ovens. This option is usually cheaper than replacing the wiring in a circuit, but by reducing the load, the net result is effectively the same.
Be Careful With Large Appliances
Many types of heavy-duty electrical appliances need to be on their own circuits, such as an electric oven, electric shower, or immersion heater. These items draw more electricity than regular household appliances, and so can’t be put on the regular circuit that you would plug in something like a lamp, or TV into.
We should stress that we’re not recommending you carry out any electrical work unless you are qualified to do so. If you are finding your electrical circuits being overloaded, adding more circuits will allow you to lighten the load somewhat by connecting some of your appliances to the new circuits. You can also upgrade your existing circuits, though this can be a very disruptive process.
If all else fails, call in a professional. A qualified electrician will be able to do the necessary maths to calculate your needs, test your existing circuits, and carry out any work that you need to do.
It is nice to be able to do things for yourself, but electrical systems really aren’t something to mess around with or employ guesswork. If you are in any way unsure, call a professional, and they will tell you what you need.
Electrical circuits are difficult due to their most hidden nature. If a wire is slowly roasting under its own heat in the depths of your wall, you likely won’t notice until something catches fire. This is not ideal.
But, with professional help, you can ensure your electrical circuits are up to the task, keep you and everyone on your property safe from unfortunate electrical accidents, whether you are a residential homeowner or a commercial property owner.