Short circuits are among the most common electrical problems, yet there are many homeowners out there who still don’t quite understand what they are. In a circuit that is functioning correctly, your power will flow through your wiring circuit, back to the service panel, and on through your home’s utility wires. Problems occur in circuits when the connections in the wiring are interrupted, causing the electrical current to essentially leak out. Electricity naturally wants to flow to the ground, and if a break in a connection occurs, the electricity flowing through your system will simply look for a faster way to get there. It doesn’t matter if the way it gets to the ground is through an electrical device, something flammable, or even a person, your electricity will always take the path of least resistance.
This phenomenon, when a circuit accidentally allows excessive electricity to travel along an unintended path, is a short circuit. The term can also be used as a verb, i.e. “damage from the storm caused the circuit breaker to short circuit.” When electricians use this phrase, we are typically referring to a scenario wherein hot wiring carrying live current comes in contact with a neutral wire. This reduces resistance, prompting a significant flow of current to go where it’s not supposed to, often resulting in crackling, sparks, smoking, or even a fire. There is another type of short circuit that may occur in your home as well, called a “ground fault,” which happens when a hot wire comes into contact with a grounded portion of your system, such as a bare copper ground wire, a grounded metal wall box, or a grounded appliance. With ground faults, fires are significantly less likely to occur, though the chance of accidental electrocution goes up. Keep reading to learn more about common causes of short circuits as well as what you can do to prevent them.
The Most Common Causes for Short Circuits
- Loose Wiring Connections: One of the most common causes of interruptions in the flow of current through your wiring is loose connections. It is not uncommon for attachments in your wiring to loosen over time, allowing neutral and live wires to come in contact with one another. When this occurs, you will definitely need to hire an electrician to fix your wiring.
- Faulty Appliance Wiring: Anytime you plug an appliance into your electrical system, that appliance and its wiring become an extension of the circuit it is connected to. Therefore, when wiring is faulty in an appliance either due to age or manufacturing, it is possible for that appliance to short circuit. This is why it is extremely important to pay attention to the functionality of your appliances, always replacing them when necessary.
- Damaged Wiring Insulation: Proper wiring insulation is key to helping prevent the current from the wiring from causing any hazards. But when insulation becomes damaged or old, it may allow neutral and hot wires to touch, thereby prompting a short circuit. Punctures from staples, nails, and screws can cause your insulation to deteriorate, as well as damage from rodents, who love to chew on wiring insulation to help file down their sharp teeth. That’s why it is a good idea to periodically call an electrician to inspect your wiring—and to call a pest professional right away if you suspect you are dealing with an infestation.
Top Ways to Protect Your Home from Short Circuits
- Circuit Breakers/Fuses: The most obvious protection against short circuits in your home is obviously your circuit breaker panel or fuse box. Circuit breakers and fuses are designed to control the individual circuits throughout your home by sensing when there is a change in the flow of current. If a change in current flow is detected, the breaker/fuse shuts the circuit down, preventing a sudden, excess flow of current. While fuse boxes used to be common in houses across the U.S., they have been largely replaced by circuit breakers, as circuit breakers do not have to be changed out every time they are activated, and are generally more effective at stopping large amounts of electrical current.
- Ground Fault Circuit Interrupters: Since the early ‘70s, electrical codes have mandated that most homes require Ground Fault Circuit Interrupters, aka GFCI outlets. These outlet receptacles work similarly to circuit breakers, detecting changes in the flow of your system’s electrical current, and cutting the current off as soon as an irregularity is detected. As you have likely already guessed by their name, GFCIs are most effective at protecting your home from the type of ground faults we discussed above.
- Arc Fault Circuit Interrupters: GFCIS and circuit breakers are fairly well-known to most Americans. However, fewer people are aware of the importance of Arc Fault Circuit Interrupters, or AFCIs. Starting in 1999, electrical codes began to require protection against “arcing,” which is sparking that occurs when electricity jumps between two metal points. This often happens when wiring is loose but not completely separated. AFCIs work by shutting off the power before it can cause a short circuit. While GFCIs’ primary purpose is to act as a safeguard against electrical shocks, AFCIs are mostly designed to prevent fires caused by arcing. AFCI protection can be applied through both AFCI circuit breakers and AFCI receptacles.
For Protection from Short Circuits & More, You Can Trust Mel Carr Electric
At Mel Carr Electric, our expert electricians have everything you needed to ensure your home is protected as possible against short circuits. We proudly offer service upgrades to help you update your wiring, make the switch from fuses to circuit breakers, or replace your panel box entirely. Call today to learn about our full list of quality electrical services, and get upfront, flat-rate estimates on all jobs.