When a fan is tripping the breaker, it indicates an inbalance in the flow of electrical current.
The most common causes of a fan tripping the breaker are a circuit overload, short circuit, or ground fault surges. A malfunction causes a spike in the current flow, which the breaker detects and trips to protect the electrical system.
The possible malfunctions can vary based on the location and type of fan, but they all fall into a few basic categories. While the issues and solutions are similar, each type of fan requires a specific procedure to troubleshoot and repair.
Read this guide to understand these procedures and how to do them correctly.
What Causes a Fan to Trip a Breaker?
A circuit breaker is an automatic switch that turns off, or trips, in the presence of a dangerous electrical current or fault. This tripping protects you and your family from electrical fires and other hazards.
Unlike other electrical protection devices such as fuses, you don’t have to replace a tripped breaker. You can just flip the switch back on to reset it.
Most homes have several breakers that divide the building into separate circuits, typically located in a central electrical panel. As such, separate breakers control different rooms, ensuring that if an appliance trips a breaker, it will not trip the entire house.
A breaker will trip if any application faults the circuit, but there are a few especially fault-prone appliances. One such appliance is the humble fan. While a single fan is usually OK, running several fans from the same outlet or circuit may consume enough power to trip the breaker.
When Circuit Breakers Trip
Overloading a breaker by running too many fans is just one way to trip it. The breaker will notice that the electricity flow is too high for it to handle and cut off to shut down the circuit safely. The shut off is automatic, though you must manually locate the breaker to reset it.
However, a single fan can trip a breaker under the right conditions. If your breaker constantly trips, you can check for these conditions so you can fix them.
While you can overload a circuit with multiple fans, you can do it with a single fan in conjunction with other appliances or faulty electronics. As overloading is the most common reason for a breaker trip, you want to rule it out before anything else.
Overloading just means that the line draws more electricity than available. For instance, your appliances draw 20 amps from a 15-amp outlet. If not solved, it can overheat the circuit leading to fire risks and damage.
If your fan trips your breaker, you can plug it into an outlet in another room to see if overloading is the issue. You can then take an inventory of your appliances and devices so you can redistribute the load. You can also turn off devices you do not need.
A short circuit, often abbreviated as a short, is when a “hot” or live wire comes in direct contact with a “neutral” or grounded wire. It can happen anywhere along a circuit, and it allows a lot of current to pass through the circuit. This condition can cause the circuit to overheat, tripping the breaker.
If your fan has a short, you will find either faulty wiring or a loose connection. Fortunately, shorts mark their presence with a burning smell around the breaker and/or fan. You may also see black or brown discoloration on:
- The wire
- The fan
- Near the breaker
Ground Fault Surges
Ground faults are similar to shorts, but they are usually isolated to a single outlet. They occur when a hot wire makes a direct connection to the outlet’s metal chassis or the actual ground. They also happen when someone accidentally touches the hot wire, letting the current pass to the ground through their feet.
They cause the same overflows as shorts, but they are usually rare. Unless you installed or use the fan improperly, you should never come face to face with a ground fault using modern equipment. However, these faults can and will trip your breaker, though they usually trip the dedicated ground fault breaker built into the outlet first.
If you do notice the signs of a ground fault, you should seek professional help immediately. These problems are serious health and safety risks if overlooked. Do not try to fix them yourself either.
Bathroom Fan Tripping Breaker
The most common cause of a tripping breaker for bathroom fans is either overloading the breaker or producing a ground fault. A bathroom fan may be hooked into a circuit containing a ground fault circuit interruption (GFCI) protected outlet. It is this outlet’s breaker that trips in case of a ground fault.
The GFCI protection is especially needed if the fan is installed near the shower, bathtub, or sink. Water is a common source of ground faults.
Bathrooms without operable windows require an exhaust vent (source). The fan in the vent discharges the air outside the house, ensuring the air inside is as clean as possible and removing steam to prevent mold.
So, you also must ensure the fan is rated for those locations as well. If the GFCI breaker trips, you should call an electrician and a plumber as you may have more issues than a poorly operating fan.
Overload a Bathroom Fan
Ground faults are not the only way a bathroom fan can trip a breaker. It can overload one as well.
The main problem is that many bathroom installations place everything in a bathroom on the same circuit, including the vent fan. When a fan, hairdryer, small floor heater, and lights are all running on the same breaker, it can be too much at one time.
Troubleshooting Bathroom Breaker Trips
When bathroom circuits typically have two circuit breakers, they require a more complex troubleshooting procedure. This is because you must determine which breaker tripped so you can pinpoint the exact cause.
The procedure begins with you checking all of your appliances to see which devices are still operating and which ones were shut off. If multiple devices on different outlets went out, the problem was likely an overload.
You can then redistribute your appliances, reset the main breaker, and move on with your life. However, if the problem is isolated to just a single outlet, you probably have a ground fault issue.
If this is the case, you want to manually trip the main breaker to ensure that there is no electricity in the circuit in case of an emergency, then call an electrician to take a look at your bathroom circuit and fan.
Ceiling Fan Tripping Breaker
A ceiling fan causing a breaker to trip is usually the result of a short circuit. You are rarely looking at an overload when your fan trips its breaker. If there is an overload, it will be because of something else.
There is an easy test you can do to find out: unplug all other devices and appliances and see if the fan trips the breaker on its own. You can then add devices to the line until it trips.
If your problem is an overload, you can just redistribute the power use to get your energy consumption under your breakers’ maximum ratings.
Vibrating Fans Can Short
If you can rule out an overload and that it is indeed your fan causing the issues, then you might have an arc fault.
Because of their location and purpose, ceiling fans collect a lot of dirt and dust on their paddle blades. This debris alters the delicate balance of the blades, causing them to vibrate.
As the fan wobbles, the vibration can loosen the connections between the wires inside the fan and at the power connections.
The vibrations get so bad that even the tightest and strongest wire connections can break, loosen, and occasionally short. If they continue to worsen, you can get arcing across the small gaps.
These arc fault shorts ultimately trip the breaker. They can occur even if the wires make solid links inside the connector.
You can also get arcing if you installed the fan with improper splicing using wire nuts or if you forgot to tighten the terminal screws. Either arcing cause can intermittently trip a sensitive arc fault combination breaker.
AFCI is Recommended for Ceiling Fans
While not required, most professional electricians will install an arc-fault circuit interrupt (AFCI) breaker on the circuit containing your ceiling fan. This is because arcing poses a severe fire risk.
ACFI breakers can either replace a regular circuit breaker or be used in conjunction with one.
They operate similarly to GFCI breakers. The trip in the presence of arcing in the protected circuit. You can tell if the AFCI tripped if you notice that other devices connected to the main breaker still function.
Troubleshooting an Arc Fault
The best way to prevent arc faults is to keep your fan as clean as possible. However, if the problem still occurs, the fan might be serviceable.
The arcing occurs because the wire connections are loose. It is a simple procedure to disconnect the fan and then reinstall it with tighter connections.
You may also want to clean the blades before resetting the breaker and turning on the fan.
Faulty Ceiling Fan
Unless you bought your ceiling fan off a garage sale or otherwise second hand, the fan is probably not faulty, but it does happen from time to time. A faulty fan is hard to detect though, as there are no outward signs.
You must eliminate all other potential causes for your breaker tripping before concluding that the problem is the fan itself.
A good test for a broken fan is:
- Remove the fan
- Apply wire nuts to the leads
- Test to see if the breaker trips without the fan
If the breaker does not trip and you know the problem is not loose connections, then you know the problem is the fan itself. As there are no user-fixable parts in most consumer fans, your only real solution is to buy a replacement.
Attic Fan Tripping Breaker
Attic ventilation uses hot air’s natural tendency to rise. These systems consist of two types of vents: intake vents and exhaust.
Located under the eaves, intake vents let cool air inside while exhaust events release the hot air through the rook peak. This passive ventilation is the most common method for attic cooling.
Both vents can have fans to control the airflow.
These attic fans help reduce your electricity bill by regulating your home’s room temperature instead of an air conditioning system. Either one of them breaking down will leave you with a costly repair bill, but they pay for themselves in the energy savings.
As faulty fans run the gauntlet of electrical issues, you want to properly maintain your attic fans to prevent them from tripping your breaker or something worse.
Vibrations and Dry Rot
With direct connections to the outside environment, attic fans are incredibly vulnerable to dry rot. The dry rot can grow on the blades and belt in the presence of extreme temperature changes.
Moisture from the air collects on the fans creating breeding grounds for:
If left alone, the dry rot can either damage the fan or take it out of balance. These conditions can loosen wire connections, lead to arcing, or cause the fan to fail and overload the circuit.
Checking the fan for dry rot and keeping the belt and blade clean are the only ways to prevent a disaster.
Troubleshooting Tips for When Your Attic Fan Trips a Breaker
Dry rot is the most common reason why an attic fan would trip a breaker, but it is not the only reason. Problems with attic fans can be either electrical or mechanical and must be fixed before you can reset the breaker.
Luckily, most of these problems are easy do-it-yourself projects and rarely require calls for a professional repairman.
Besides the vibrations caused by dry rot, attic fans are vulnerable to other common electrical issues such as faulty electrical contacts causing a short.
You might have overloaded the circuit by running too many other appliances on it. You can just plug other appliances into the outlet to check for many of these problems.
Most attic fan installations use thermostats to automatically turn the fans on and off. These thermostats are vulnerable to the same electrical problems as the fans themselves and can trip the breaker even if the fan is perfectly fine.
You can disconnect the thermostat and wire the fan directly to the outlet to see which device is tripping the breaker.
A fan’s motor is the single most crucial component of the fan. It translates the electrical signal into the mechanical motion of the blades.
As such, any motor issues can have significant impacts on the fan and circuit. If you can rule out the other possible causes, your only solution might be either replacing the motor or the fan as a whole.
The Problem Might Not Be a Fan At All
As temperatures rise in the summer, many people start running multiple fans, which can quickly overload and trip their circuit breakers.
However, fans are not the only appliances that can trip breakers.
You probably have several devices lying around your home that can easily do it if you are not careful. Some of these appliances are even more fault-prone than fans.
If your circuit breaker trips, it is probably not your fan that caused it. The true culprit is most likely your hair dryer or curling iron.
These devices use a lot of electricity to generate a lot of heat in a short period. A good bathroom GFCI circuit might be able to handle the strain, but not your bedroom circuit.
Irons are another source of quickly-produced high heat.
You are also more likely to use them in rooms that are neither GFCI protected or rated for such power demands. Therefore, you should never run an iron for long periods under its max setting as you will quickly trip the breaker.
Extension cords are not a threat on their own, but they give you a false sense of security. The cords can help you bring power to where you need it but be careful not to overload the outlet with too many devices accidentally.
Older Model Refrigerators
While not a problem with refrigerators built since roughly the year 2000, many older models were extremely power-hungry, especially if the room temperature rose significantly.
If you still have one of these old refrigerators in your home, you probably want to keep it on its own circuit breaker or replace it with something newer.
A fan can trip a circuit breaker for numerous reasons, but rarely because of the fan itself.
The usual suspects have simple fixes such as running too many other devices on the same line or loose wires in the power cable.