The breakers (or fuses) in your electrical panel are like modern-day sentries standing between what you want to do with the electricity you are paying for and the source of your electrical power.  These sentries are programmed to allow a set amount of current (the number or volume of electrons in motion in the circuit's network) to pass through.  If more current is demanded by the various devices attached to the outlets connected to their circuit than allowed, they shut off the flow abruptly (and often inconveniently, from the homeowner's standpoint).  Their job is to prevent an electrical overload, overheating and the catastrophic electrical fire.

Fortunately it is fairly easy to determine how much current each breaker (or fuse) regulates.  It is measured in amps: 15, 20, 25, 30.  The higher its amp, the more current that breaker or fuse will permit to flow through it.  So components that draw more electricity need to be plugged into an outlet that is connected to a breaker or fuse allowing a higher amperage 

Quite often more than one outlet is attached to a single breaker or fuse.  Everything may function smoothly - until just one more electricity-demanding component is added to that network.  Suddenly everything on that line dies - the breaker has popped, or the fuse blown.  This is when homeowners who have a breaker panel quietly rejoice - breakers are easy to reset (fuses have to be replaced).  If the breaker is in good condition, it will probably trip again.  If it is worn out (likely from repeated resetting!), it may allow the electrical overload to pass through.  There is a chance the homeowner may then be faced with a situation no one wants - overheating leading to an electrical fire.

The best approach is to try to figure out what the breaker or fuse is trying to communicate.  It works in the amp world.  The homeowner can calculate how much total electricity in amps the devices on the problematic network are demanding.  In order to do this, he or she must first determine which outlets are attached to that circuit.  Plugging lights or radios or other devices that do not demand too much electricity into the various outlets then tripping the breaker and recording (either mentally or on paper) which devices went off is one way.  Once the outlets are identified, analyze the normal demand load on the circuit by figuring out how many amps are being drawn by each of the individual devices.  Amperage is marked on the labels of some electrical devices.  If not, amps can be calculated by dividing the listed wattage by voltage (pressure).

A good rule of thumb is that the total demand load on a circuit should not exceed 80% of the available current.  So if the breaker is 20 amp, the devices attached to it should not in total demand more than 16 amps of current.

In this scenario, the vacuum cleaner is the final straw for this particular circuit.  It may have a 15 amp breaker or fuse with 3 or 4 outlets attached to it.  The normal demand load may be safely under the 80% ceiling.  But plug in the vacuum cleaner, and the demand load jumps to more than 15 amps.  The breaker does its job and shuts the system down to prevent what has the potential to be a dangerous overheating issue.

If that particular outlet is the only one that can be used for the vacuum cleaner, it may be necessary to analyze what other outlets are connected to the breaker and unplug a couple of devices before trying to vacuum.  Some electrical devices, such as space heaters, draw a large amount of current and should be unplugged before attaching another energy guzzler to the same network.   

Homeowner-induced overload is the most common cause of tripped breakers and blown fuses.  But there can be other much more serious causes (which in most cases warrant a visit from a licensed electrician).  If the outage is not caused by the addition of a particular electrical device, it may be the result of loose connections (wires) in an outlet or the main panel that can create a dangerous situation if not repaired.  A homeowner can check for this (after turning the main breaker switch to off).  A short circuit can be caused by a black (hot) wire touching another black wire or a neutral white wire - or by a break in a wire.  This can be in one of the electrical devices or within the house's electrical system (more serious and difficult to uncover).  A ground fault is another type of short circuit, where a black wire touches the ground wire or the side of a metal electrical box.   Electrical arcing can occur in walls and ceilings when heat produced by overloaded current causes wiring to expand and contract, loosening it.  Loose wire may arc, sometimes resulting in a fire. 

In some rooms of the house special GFCI (Ground Fault Circuit Interrupter) outlets may be installed, usually in the bathroom and kitchen.  These are actually designed not to protect the house from electrical fires but the owner from electric shock.  It monitors the amount of current flowing from the hot (black) wire to the ground.  If there is an imbalance, it will trip the circuit. 

Electrical fires are dangerous to extinguish because of the risk of electrocution when using water.  In the event of fire, homeowners should cut the power in the main panel if safe to do so and enlist emergency response ASAP.

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