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May The Circuit Be Unbroken


Half the electronic gadgets in the house suddenly stopped working. What a catastrophe! We didn't even have an internet connection any more so I couldn't ask google what it all meant. I sat there feeling helpless until Robin, who is much wiser in the ways of the world than I am, said, "I think the circuit breaker has tripped again."

"Why does it keep doing that?" I asked, somewhat puzzled. "It seems to happen at least once a month. Sometimes more."

"Maybe we are overloading the circuit," she suggested.

"I doubt it," I said. "We don't really have very much of anything plugged into it."

"Why don't you wander round the house and make a note of all the things that are no longer working," she said. "Then we'll know exactly what we've got on the circuit."

"To hear is to obey," I said. I picked up a notebook and set off on an expedition. Every time I found something that no longer had any annoying status indication lights on it I wrote the item down. Once I'd identified everything that was plugged in to the circuit, I presented the list to Robin:

A fridge
Another fridge
Stereo amplifier and tuner
Two DVD players
Freeview box
Four laptop computers
Desktop computer
Combination file and print server
Laser printer
Combination scanner and printer
Another file server
Sundry networking gizmos
UFB broadband connection
A modem called Fritz
Two telephones
Tumble drier
Electric heater
Vacuum cleaner
Electric toothbrush
Bessemer converter
Aluminium smelter
Thermal depolymerization tank
Haber-Bosch nitrogen fixation plant
Robot partridge in an electronic pear tree

"See," I said. "There's hardly anything of any significance at all on the circuit. It can't possibly be overloaded."

"The problem has to be the toothbrush," said Robin. "Everything else on the list seems perfectly fine. Go and turn it off and then reset the circuit breaker."

I turned the toothbrush off and unplugged it so as to make assurance doubly sure. I went to the main fusebox, opened it up and stared at the circuit breakers. Sure enough, one of them was firmly switched to the off position. I toggled it back on, but as soon as I let go of the switch it immediately flipped itself back off again. The circuit breaker itself was quite hot, and there was a distinct smell of burning permeating the fusebox. I reported what I'd found to Robin.

"Wait a few minutes for the circuit breaker to cool down," advised Robin, "and then try again."

"Righto," I said. "It's pretty cold outside so it shouldn't take long for the heat to dissipate."

After a few minutes, I successfully managed to toggle the circuit breaker back on and everything hummed into life again for a minute or so. Then the smell of burning got stronger and...


...the circuit breaker broke the circuit once more.

"Let's switch things off one by one until it stops doing that," suggested Robin.

I experimented with off switches until eventually, and rather grudgingly, the circuit allowed our fridges to keep the beer cool, it let us watch television via the Freeview box and it kept our internet connection alive. But that was as far as it was prepared to go – if we added anything more to the circuit...


...everything plunged into darkness again.

"That will never do," said Robin. "How are we ever going to manage without our Bessemer converter?"

"Not to mention the thermal depolymerization tank," I said gloomily. "That's vital."

"Thermal depolymerization tank," mused Robin. "Remind me again why we need it so badly."

"I told you not to mention the thermal depolymerization tank," I said.

"Sorry," said Robin. "I forgot. I wonder if perhaps an electrician could help get the thing I'm not allowed to mention working again?"

"Probably," I said. "But today is Sunday. Nobody is going to come and look at it today. Or if they do, it will certainly cost us several vitally important body parts to which we are both firmly attached."

"Send an email anyway," said Robin. "They will read it first thing tomorrow morning. Maybe that way we'll be the first in the queue."

I picked up my (battery powered) android tablet, connected it to the wifi, and sent off an email. We settled down to watch television. A few minutes later, rather to my surprise, my tablet made the plaintive meeping noise that signals the arrival of an email. I opened it up and had a look.

"That doesn't sound good," said the email. "I'd suggest you have it checked out by an electrician."

"That seems like a good idea," I replied. "I hadn't thought of doing that. Can you arrange it for me?"

"Yes," was the almost immediate reply. "I'll send someone round between 8.00 and 8.30 tomorrow morning."

The next day, as promised, an electrician called Ben turned up at precisely 8.15am. I explained the situation to him.

"Well," he said, "let's start by taking a look at the main fuse box."

He opened it up and I showed him the circuit breaker that was causing all the problems. He poked it with a curious finger. "That's odd," he mused. "We've just had the coldest night of the year and yet this circuit breaker is still quite warm."

I felt it myself. "It was much hotter than that yesterday," I said. "It has cooled down a little bit."

"But nowhere near enough," said Ben. "All the other circuits are quite cold in comparison. There's definitely something rather odd about this one. Let's take a closer look at what's going on." He unplugged the circuit breaker. "Goodness me," he said in surprise. "I've never had that happen to me before!"

As he pulled the circuit breaker out, both it and the socket it was plugged into disintegrated into small chunks of plastic all of which were smeared with the black, sooty streaks of left behind smoke particles. "I'm surprised that circuit was standing up to any power load at all," said Ben. "The whole thing is clearly on its very last legs. The socket and the circuit breaker are both going to have to be replaced. Let's go behind the scenes and see what's causing the damage." He turned off all the power coming into the house then he unscrewed the fuse box and swung it forward so that he could get at the inner workings. He poked around for a while then he whistled softly. "Look at this!" he said. He pulled out a cable and showed it to me. The tip of the wire which had been connected to the plug that the circuit breaker was protecting was covered in small silver droplets of melted metal where it had tried very hard to weld itself to the contact in the plug. Behind that about an inch and a half of the plastic insulation round the cable was charred and black and crumbling. "That would explain the smell of burning," said Ben thoughtfully.

"Yes," I said. "It would rather. What caused it to happen in the first place?"

"Probably one time when the circuit was overloaded there was some arcing around the contacts in the plug before the circuit breaker finally tripped," said Ben. "Maybe the connection was a little bit loose. After that, things just got worse every time the circuit broke."

Ben cut off the burned section of the cable and then he cut off an inch more for luck. He trimmed back the insulation and twisted the exposed wire to form a nice solid contact point which he screwed into a brand new plug. He reassembled all the other bits and pieces and closed the fusebox up again. Then he plugged in a brand new circuit breaker and turned the power back on.

"There you are," he said proudly. "It's as good as new. That should stand up to pretty much anything you plug into it."

"What would have happened if we'd left things alone and just kept resetting the circuit breaker every time it tripped?" I asked.

"One of two things," said Ben. "Either the circuit breaker would have eventually refused ever to flip back to the on position and you'd have had no choice but to call an electrician to come round and fix it..." His voice died away into a contemplative silence.

"Or?" I prompted.

"Or," he continued, "the wiring in the house would have protected the circuit breaker from damage by bursting into flame before the circuit breaker had a chance to trip. And then the house would have burned to the ground. Everything you own would have been destroyed and you, your wife, your cats and your dog would probably all have died a rather painful death."

"That doesn't sound like any fun at all," I said thoughtfully.

"It does have its drawbacks," said Ben, handing me an Electrical Safety Certificate which guaranteed the workmanship on his repair. "But look on the bright side. At least the circuit breaker would have been fine."

"That is a great consolation," I said.

"Don't forget to switch your toothbrush on," said Ben as he drove off to his next job.

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