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Explain Like I’m 5: Electric Panel (ELI5)

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The words "ELI5: Electric Panel" over an image of a hand resetting a circuit breaker in an electric panel, representing what an electric panel is and how it works, what a circuit breaker is, and what happens when a breaker trips, explained with simple words and concepts as part of the Explain Like I'm 5 series.
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As any teacher knows, kids need concepts explained in easy-to-understand ways without complex vocabulary words and confusing terms. At Palmetto, we believe adults would benefit from this approach as well. After all, solar can be confusing! In our “Explain Like I’m 5” (ELI5) series, we examine key elements of clean energy to help everyone understand the concepts, kids and adults alike.

What Is An Electric Panel?

An electric panel is a device that controls where electricity goes in your home and prevents electrical issues from damaging your house. Your electrical panel is also called names like breaker box, circuit breaker, or fuse box in older homes. It’s usually a large metal box that’s located in your garage, basement, closet, or attic, and acts like the “brain” for your home’s electrical system.

How Does An Electric Panel Work?

Your electric panel receives electricity from the utility grid, which supplies power to your neighborhood, and distributes it throughout the house. The electric panel distributes electricity 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 makes sure your appliances and plugs have the right amount of power at the right time, and stops the flow of electricity if they receive too much power.

The electric panel accomplishes these tasks by using a series of switches called circuit breakers that control how much electricity a certain location in your house can receive. Together, your electric panel and circuit breakers keep your home powered at all times and prevent damage if a short circuit tries to use too much power at one time.

What Is A Circuit Breaker and What Does It Do?

A circuit breaker is a protection device that makes sure your home gets the electricity it needs in the correct amounts. To make this happen, the electrical wiring and outlets for each part of your home are grouped together and connected to an individual circuit breaker, which are usually arranged by location and the amount of power they need to provide.

Here’s a high-level look at the primary circuits in your home: 

  1. 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 those high-usage items because they draw lots of energy on a regular basis and don’t want to compete with other appliances for that power.
  2. Medium Appliances: Your washer and dryer also use lots of electricity, but they usually don’t run consistently. Your washer and dryer are probably on their own circuit, and while they probably use less energy on average, they use it in big chunks and in short bursts. 
  3. Small Appliances: You likely have several outlets in every room of your home that you can plug small appliances into. This includes appliances like a TV that never gets unplugged, and kitchen appliances that get unplugged after every use. 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.
  4. Lighting: You probably have lights on in your house during most of the day, but they don’t use as much electricity as an appliance. However, because lights are all over the house, it doesn’t make sense to have them all on the same circuit breaker. That’s why your typical electric panel arranges lighting circuits by room.

If the circuit breaker is doing its job properly, and the house was wired properly by a professional electrician, it ensures that the right amount of electricity will be available in each room of your house so everything works properly.

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 you’ve ever noticed that one part of your home suddenly has no power while other areas still have power, it’s probably because a circuit breaker “tripped”. That 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 and make sure those wires don’t become overheated and start a fire.

If your circuit breaker has tripped, you can usually fix that problem yourself:

  1. Start by fixing 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. 
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.

ELI5: Electric Panel

Your electric panel controls how electricity is used in your home. Typically located in a low-traffic area of 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.

If you’re interested in powering your electric panel with green, clean solar energy, talk to Palmetto today! You can get started with a free solar design and savings estimate, and then one of our experienced energy advisors can walk you through all of your solar power options and answer any questions that you might have.

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