When my house was built, electricity was a thing. I know this because there are no gaslight pipes, but there are electric wires. Electricity was The Thing To Do.
But it was a pretty new thing. I don’t have knob-and-tube wiring, thank goodness. Or wires buried in plaster. But I strongly suspect that when the house was built there was only one circuit for the whole place. Because when we moved in, there were several circuits. But one of them seemingly comprised the parts of the house left behind as other circuits were added:
- Half the living room
- All of the kitchen
- All of the back bedroom but one outlet
- One of the three outlets in the dining room, and the light
- The front room
- Half the attic
- The front porch light
- And others.
And all that was one 20 amp circuit. Which means that we had to shut off some lights and either the stereo or my computer before we microwaved anything or risk blowing the breaker if the fridge kicked on.
I’ve done what I could to alleviate this issue. The rooms that have been remodeled have been rewired, and put onto their own circuits; there are three just for the front room (now my office). So it’s seldom that the breaker on that demon remainder circuit blows anymore unless someone does something truly egregious like try to run the microwave and the toaster oven at the same time and then start the laser printer.
One thing that does help: clear labeling. I’ve labeled each breaker with a general idea of what it does: “Bathroom”, “Master Bedroom”, “Demon Circuit From HELL”, etc. And whenever I open up a box to rewire a switch or outlet, I write the breaker number on the back of the plate with a sharpie, so next time I’ll know which breaker to shut off. Another thing to do is (when you do do any actual rewiring) put the lights and the outlets for a room on separate circuits. Even if that just means the lights for room A are on the circuit with the outlets for room B and vice-versa. (More logically, the lights from several rooms could be on one circuit by themselves. Lights hardly ever overload.) There’s nothing more fun than blowing the breaker while ironing or soldering and suddenly being in the dark with a dangerously hot thing in your hand.
And of course do what you can when you can in re wiring. As the basement cleanup and reorganization process continues, the new basement lights will get their own circuit. Which will a: reduce further the load on the Demon, and b: hasten further the day when the Demon and a bunch of other antique wiring can go completely away. Since in my house all electricity comes from the basement, I’m idly toying with the idea of half-rewiring: finding the places where the BX (the whole house is BX. The only conduits I know of are ones I myself put in. If it was conduit I would have done more by now to clean some of this stuff up) comes down into the basement and split them as much as possible into more (and more logical) circuits, leaving the actual wiring in the rooms in place.
If you blow a particular breaker all the time, there is one thing you may be tempted to do that you must never do: replace the breaker with a higher one. This will burn down your house.
Whenever electricity flows through wires, the wires heat up. How much they heat up depends on a lot of things, but the main ones are how long and how thin the wire is compared to the amount of electricity you’re trying to pull through them. There’s a lot of gnarly math involved in figuring out how heavy the wire needs to be to support a given load. Smart people have done that math and taught simple rules of thumb (with fairly wide safety margins) to electricians. The electrician who installed your wiring used those rules (and they are rules. Actually laws, in most places) to decide how big a breaker to put in based on how heavy the wires she installed are, how many wires are in the pipe with the most wires (because you have to plan for the hottest spot), etc. If you exceed that load, the wires will get dangerously hot. When they get dangerously hot they can melt or burn off the insulation keeping them apart, which will cause a short circuit which will make them heat up a lot and catch fire, or start sparking and start things on fire. Or they can just slowly get hot enough to set things around them on fire.
Setting the house on fire is good to avoid.
So when you look at that underpowered breaker, don’t even think of it as an underpowered breaker. That is a correctly-sized breaker protecting you from underpowered wiring. The wiring is what needs help. Install heavier wiring: there are tables that will help you figure out how heavy the wires you need will be based on what you’re trying to feed. Or you may be able to split the existing circuit in two, each with its own breaker: If the 20-amp breaker is always blowing because your 15-amp fridge and your 15-amp TV are on the same circuit, splitting them into two separate 20-amp circuits—each with its own breaker—will alleviate the problem without you having to pull all new wire: if you can find the place where the kitchen branch splits off the rumpus room branch, you can run a second feed from there back to the breakers and add another breaker just for the kitchen. This is what I hope to do in my own house.
(Note: I am not an electrician. You are not an electrician (probably). In some jurisdictions, only a licensed electrician can work on your wiring. In others (like mine), you can do your own wiring without help but if you hire someone they must be licensed. In others anyone can do the wiring, but a licensed electrician has to inspect it. know the law where you are. I am not advocating that you ever break the law. And really: if you are at all uncertain of what you are doing or frightened of house wiring, don’t touch it. If you don’t know how to respect it, electricity will kill you instantly dead. I can’t tell you in this blog post all the things you need to know to be safe working with high voltage electricity. If you do it wrong, you will die. It’s not particularly hard to learn all the things you need to know. And as long as you do know them and follow the rules, working with electricity is pretty easy and safe. Even fun. But you do need to know what you’re doing: Death is good to avoid.)