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How To Fix An Air Conditioner That Trips the Breaker

How To Fix An Air Conditioner That Trips the Breaker

A significant failure, problem in an air conditioner, or any major components may trip the breaker. Reset the breaker. If it trips again, the breaker itself could be an issue, especially when old, worn-out, or damaged, and you’ll need to replace it as it is beyond repair.

Here’s how to fix an air conditioner that trips the breaker in 11 steps:

  1. Verify that the air conditioner is the problem.
  2. Clean the air conditioner.
  3. Ensure essential maintenance.
  4. Replace old air filters.
  5. Fix compressor hard-starts.
  6. Resolve shorts.
  7. Address grounding.
  8. Repair specific AC problems.
  9. Remedy issues in the AHU.
  10. Upgrade old wirings and circuits.
  11. Replace an old AC.

More than a dozen potential AC problems can trip a breaker. A rare trip in some circumstances, such as during a thunderstorm or power surge, is not worrisome. Chronic issues tend to trip the breaker frequently, so keep reading to learn how you can troubleshoot those problems.

Note: It’s a good idea to make sure you have a warranty on your AC Unit. Better to call in the pros to deal with issues like this instead of having to do it yourself. Consider an Air Conditioner Warranty Coverage (link to American Home Shield).

1. Verify That the Air Conditioner Is the Problem

You may naturally presume some faults in the AC because circuit breakers are usually durable and can last decades. Yet, bad breakers exist. 

Manufacturers have recalled circuit breakers in the past. In 2010, Siemens recalled around 2.2 million units of breakers, including Murray, due to poor-quality spring clips (source).

It’s a good idea to make sure you have a warranty on your AC Unit. Better to call in the pros to deal with issues like this instead of having to do it yourself. Consider an Air Conditioner Warranty Coverage (link to American Home Shield).

Telltale Signs of a Bad Breaker

The first response to a tripped AC breaker is always an attempt to reset it. Inspect your breaker before and as you reset it to check for telltale signs of damage or fault.

Look for the following bad breaker symptoms:

  • Unusually hot to touch
  • A burning smell inside the box or panel
  • Visible signs of damage
  • It won’t stay in the ‘on’ position

A faulty breaker will trip again, sooner or later, and not necessarily due to an AC problem. When in doubt, contact an electrician and get the breaker inspected, then replaced if necessary. 

Don’t attempt anything by yourself if you are not trained or experienced in dealing with circuit breakers.

Source: American Home Shield

In most scenarios, the causal problem is a failure or malfunction of one or more significant components of the air conditioner. 

However, something as simple as a dirty and clogged air filter can trigger the trip in some cases. Ideally, you should conduct a comprehensive inspection of your air conditioner.

2. Clean the Air Conditioner

Two common reasons why an AC trips the breaker are clogged air filters and dirty coils.

Dirty air filters, condenser coils, and evaporator coils reduce the efficiency of an air conditioner and increase the load. Thus, an air conditioner draws more power than usual. Also, a dirty system leads to overheating of the appliance components.

Any power surge that is beyond the permitted threshold per the circuit breaker will trip it. Clean the air filters. Besides, an unclean air conditioner may intermittently shut down and restart, a process known as short cycling (source).

Replace the air filters if necessary. You may need a technician to clean the condenser and evaporator coils.

3. Ensure Essential Maintenance

A standard air conditioner has numerous electrical and mechanical components. All these electrical and moving parts must function flawlessly for optimum performance.

Poor, delayed, or lack of maintenance leads to problems in the following AC components:

  • Electrical connections, including wiring
  • Mechanical moving parts, including blower motor and fan blade
  • Coils and the condensate drain line
  • Safety devices
  • Capacitors
  • Refrigerant/coolant
  • Evaporator
  • Condenser
  • Compressor
  • Thermostat

Source: Amana: Preventive Maintenance

Some contemporary air conditioners have smart thermostats. Thus, the software needs firmware updates, too, for expected thermostat performance.

Thorough maintenance should include a complete cleaning, duct inspection, testing all safety systems in the air conditioner and related wiring, and servicing both outdoor and indoor units.

An air conditioner tripping the breaker frequently could be due to:

  • Loose wiring
  • Shorts and grounding issues
  • Failing electrical components
  • Fan/blower motor problems
  • Low or leaking refrigerant
  • Frozen evaporator coil
  • Malfunctioning compressor

You can detect and even preempt these common problems through timely maintenance. Many of these issues are averted with preventive maintenance that most service providers usually ensure.

Failing or malfunctioning AC components don’t necessarily need extensive repairs or replacement. Many glitches can be fixed by maintenance and service technicians.

4. Replace Old Air Filters

Cleaning dirty and clogged air filters may not solve the tripping problem if they are too old or worn out. All air filters have a lifespan. 1 inch (25.4 mm) filters usually last well for up to 3 months.

However, many technicians recommend a replacement every 45 days. 4 inches (101.6 mm) filters can last longer. Yet, standard recommendations are to replace them in around 3 to 6 months. Media filters can last up to 1 year. Fiberglass filters don’t perform well beyond 30 days (source). 

Check the air filter type and size in your air conditioner and abide by the brand’s recommendation.

Old air filters may still work, but they will reduce the efficiency of the air conditioner. Hence, the outdoor air conditioner and the indoor air-handling unit will consume more power and bear a greater load for cooling and circulation at the same or usual thermostat setting.

The increased load and energy consumption may cause a power surge. The air conditioner circuit breaker will flip to neutral if the surge is beyond the trip unit.

5. Fix Compressor Hard-Starts

All air conditioners require a necessary starting wattage to begin functioning. 

The starting wattage is usually 2 to 3 times the running watts. A 10,000 BTU central air conditioner can function optimally at a running wattage of 1,500. However, the system needs 4,500 starting watts at the outset (source).

An air conditioner compressor has a hard start in the absence of the required starting watts. A few factors can affect the availability of the low starting wattage.

  • You may have a voltage problem in your power supply.
  • The capacitor in the compressor may fail or malfunction.
  • The air conditioner may have failing or damaged motors.
  • Shorts and grounding issues may also cause a hard start.

A compressor makes unusual noises during a hard start. You may hear a click or stuttering. Many compressors fail to start properly and shut down soon after you turn it on. A hard start is generally the problem in such cases.

If your air conditioner trips the breaker the moment you turn it on, you can almost conclude the problem is a compressor hard start. Other than the components inside and low voltage, the compressor itself could be failing (source). You need a technician to conduct a thorough inspection.  

An expert will study the problem and tell you whether you can get the hard start problem fixed or the only solution is replacing the compressor.

  • You may consider hard start kits to increase the voltage.
  • Consider repairing the wiring and motor problems or replacing the malfunctioning parts.
  • Replacing an entire compressor is expensive but unavoidable in some cases.

Don’t attempt any of these without a technician unless you are familiar with such repairs and replacements.  

6. Resolve Shorts

An air conditioner can have a short circuit. A short will almost always trip a circuit breaker unless the latter is damaged or broken. 

The only purpose of a breaker is to protect you, everyone, and everything at your home from a power surge and short circuit, thus preventing an electrical hazard and fire.

Source: National Renewable Energy Laboratory

The common causes of a short circuit involving an air conditioner are:

  • Faulty or poor wiring in a circuit
  • Faulty wiring of the air conditioner
  • Loose electrical connections
  • Manufacturing defects in the air conditioner
  • Failing wires and electrical or mechanical components
  • Grounding issues or broken ground-fault circuit interrupter

Wires can wear out due to overuse. Air-conditioners operating for long hours may lead to wires losing their insulation, leading to electrical leakage. If any conductive element comes in contact with the leaking electricity, you will have a short circuit, and the breaker will trip.

Find out and address the specific problem in the air conditioner, wiring, circuit, electrical and mechanical components, grounding, and ground-fault circuit interrupter (GFCI) to know the causal factor. Contact a technician if you cannot detect the actual problem.

7. Address Grounding

Air conditioners are large appliances consuming much more power than other domestic electrical goods. The entire electrical setup in your home and all appliances require appropriating grounding. However, air conditioners and such large machines are more vulnerable to any faults in the grounding apparatus.

You must consult a technician to inspect any grounding issue or a short caused by a grounded compressor. The latter happens when any part of the winding wire or coil inside the compressor is damaged, broken, torn, or loose.

This detached electrical winding can hit the compressor sides or walls from the inside. Thus, the outdoor air conditioner unit will develop a short.

The broken winding can come in contact with and ignite the compressor oil. The air conditioner will suffer burnout, and a sudden surge in electricity will trip the breaker (source). 

Grounded compressors are a severe problem.

Contact a technician immediately. Address every grounding issue with the same urgency, whether related to ground-fault circuit-interrupter breaker, outlet receptacle, or anything else.

Source: Occupational Safety and Health Administration

8. Repair Specific AC Problems

A comprehensive cleaning and thorough preventive maintenance should identify prevalent and potential problems in your air conditioner. Attend any and every significant issue to avert tripping the breaker.

Here are some standard solutions you have to consider per the problem:

  • Tighten loose electrical connections.
  • Fix wiring issues, both within and beyond the air conditioner.
  • Lubricate moving parts and service the blower or fan, the motors, and the blades.
  • Clean the coils and ensure they are in flawless condition.
  • Repair or replace malfunctioning safety devices.
  • Replace failing capacitors. Consider an additional capacitor for the hard start problem.
  • Refill the refrigerant or coolant to the recommended level. Fix any leakage.
  • Repair prevalent issues in the evaporator, condenser, and compressor.
  • Replace evaporator, condenser, or compressor, if necessary.
  • Repair or replace the thermostat if it is dying or dead.

Always contemplate preventive repairs whenever you consider fixing any of these problems. Allowing a glitch to linger often leads to a severe problem, more expensive to repair or replace.

9. Remedy Issues in the AHU

The outdoor air conditioner is more complex, thus vulnerable to many problems, than the indoor air handling unit, which is the circulating system. However, the indoor air handling unit also has a few major components, and a significant failure can trip the breaker.

Subject to the type and specifications, an AHU may have a mixing chamber, air filter rack, damper, sound attenuator, and the essential supply & exhaust ventilators or outlets. Elaborate ductwork, especially in a large property, requires a powerful air handling unit.

Like air conditioners, the air handling unit may cause a power surge. Clogged and dirty ducts, failing chambers or filters, malfunctioning ventilators, and both mechanical and electrical components in the AHU can trip the breaker.

Inspect the AHU and all associated components. Detect the problem causing the breaker to trip and choose a solution accordingly. Contact a technician if you are unable to identify the precise issue with your AHU.

10. Upgrade Old Wirings and Circuits

Outdated wirings and aging circuits are common in older properties. Assess if you need to upgrade the electrical setup, especially for large appliances like air conditioners.

Contemporary air conditioners are more efficient than older models, so are modern circuit breakers. Using a compatible breaker per the required amperage ensures a safe trip unit.

However, it may not be sufficient if you have old, poor, or worn-out wires in the circuit.

Older wires are more vulnerable to shorts and grounding issues, particularly for large appliances. Modern wires offer much less resistance, and their insulation quality is also improved.

11. Replace an Old AC

The last option is, of course, to buy a new air conditioner. Several significant problems in old air conditioners can cost a small fortune.

An AC unit tripping a breaker frequently is more than an annoying issue. Replacing the compressor or too many components and retrofitting are expensive propositions. Besides, a very old air conditioner is a fire hazard.

Short circuits in old air conditioners can trip the breaker and may cause a fire. A grounding fault can be hazardous.

Prioritize solving such grave issues while also considering if a substantially old and deteriorating air conditioner is safe for use.

See What Appliances Are Worth Upgrading? Here’s The Math!

Final Thoughts

Numerous variables are at play when an air conditioner trips the breaker and does so again after your reset. You may or may not know nor detect the causal problem. Always consider contacting an expert before you try anything without being entirely familiar or sure.

Recommended Reading:

    American Home Shield provides warranty coverage for your essential home appliances and systems. Compare all plans.