Breaker box buzzing

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  #1  
Old 01-06-14, 11:21 AM
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Breaker box buzzing

Sometime this morning we tripped a lesser circuit that handles part of the kitchen, an open, unused wall outlet, outlets where coffeemaker, dishwasher, garbage disposal and microwave are plugged in -- none were on at the time I noticed the trip. The double oven and range top unit is 220 and not on the same breaker. The fridge is 110 but it's on a different breaker -- fridge was on, though it's cold enough it's not running the compressor too much or too hard.

When I reset the tripped breaker I noticed the breaker box was buzzing. Not arc crackling or popping, just a buzz or hum, like sometimes you'll hear out of a transformer -- in fact remind me of an old Lionel train transformer I had when I was a kid, except louder. Checked all the other breakers and they were locked down and not warm. The tripped breaker was not warm, either. In fact all breakers and switches are pretty much stone cold to the touch.

So I reset the tripped breaker, which brought the kitchen circuit back. Still had the buzzing. It's not screaming loud, just buzzing you can easily hear when that closet door is open.

It's been extremely cold overnight, the electric heat and water heater are going to beat the band, the kids had two modern games consoles on, two HD TVs on, about every light in the house on, etc. We've got a fair amount of other stuff that sits in "suspend" mode so they're not drawing lots of power but they're drawing more than totally off.

I went around and turned everything off -- with the electric heater definitely running and I suspect the water heater running, too -- and the buzzing stopped immediately. Brought some things back on all over the house -- some lights, a couple game consoles, the larger TV -- also with the previously tripped breaker on, the buzzing returned, but very slight, more like exactly how that old Lionel transformer used to sound, probably wouldn't have even noticed it had it not been notably louder a few minutes before. Then the hum quickly faded out completely and stopped.

I think it's likely power overdraw with the heat -- electric furnace and air handler is in the attic, which stays cold, too -- and the water heater -- in a garage closet, likewise stays cold. Plus all the other stuff on with kids home one more day for winter break.

On the chance that tripped breaker is going bad I switched it off again and I'm leaving it off for now, see if anyone her on DIY has any ideas before I turn back on and leave it. Based on seasonal power bills, our central system running compressor and air handler for cooling draws a good bit of power, the electric furnace draws A WHOLE LOT OF POWER.

Right now, no hum. The furnace isn't running, either, though. And no one's used much hot water in the last while.
 
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  #2  
Old 01-06-14, 12:49 PM
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When I reset the tripped breaker I noticed the breaker box was buzzing. Not arc crackling or popping, just a buzz or hum,
Have you narrowed the load down to know exactly which load is causing the buzzing and on which circuit breaker? SOME circuit breakers will buzz when turned on with load on them. I once found that if the load was removed before the breaker was reset and then the load turned back on, the breaker no longer buzzed. What brand panel and breakers do you have? Could it be a Crouse-Hinds panel by chance?
 
  #3  
Old 01-06-14, 03:27 PM
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The brief answer is we don't know what brand panel or breakers. There's a UL issue number J-590 on the label and I called UL and she said she can't look it up by that. She had maybe if there were a file number on there but there's not and she said even if there were if the company had gone out of business or been bought and discontinued their brand name product line she'd have no listing. She said the company logo or brand name might be stamped on the back of the box since it's not stamped on the panel side, but the back of the box is behind the drywall so I can get to it.

The one that tripped is still off. All the others breakers are on and various appliances, lights, etc. are powered up on those circuits. It's not very loud anymore and it's intermittent so I can play with switching appliances on and off and throwing breakers but since it's intermittent and not consistent I may not catch it, or I may think I've caught it but it's actually something else.

No telling how long this has been going on. My wife tripped a breaker a couple time in the past 4 months with her blow dryer and she reset it, but again since it's intermittent, if it wasn't buzzing when she reset the breaker she wouldn't have noticed.

I read elsewhere on these forums that someone had a breaker box that intermittently buzzed and he called an electrician who report everything was fine, and also had the power company check the meter, also fine, and it just continues to buzz intermittently.

I think it's highly coincidental the kitchen breaker tripped -- it doesn't usually; it's the upstairs bathroom breaker trips every once in a blue moon with my wife's blow dryer on -- and we also noticed the buzzing at a time we've got very high draw coming from both the electric furnace and electric water heater. Of course it could be just that, coincidence.

Problem is I can't tell what it means. From what I've read, everything from posts by professional electricians to DIY folks to electric parts and supply companies, it could mean absolutely nothing, it could mean high power draw, it could mean a breaker is slowly going bad. But it's definitely not a sizzle or crackle or popping sound; it's an intermittent buzz or hum.
 
  #4  
Old 01-06-14, 03:49 PM
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Okay wait I got it. It's the electric furnace. We tried your idea, cutting off the furnace, then resetting the furnace breaker, then turning the heat back on. It stopped buzzing for a couple minutes then started again. It's a low hum, no very loud, still seems to be somewhat intermittent, as in not every time I open the closet door to check it is it buzzing, even though the furnace is on at the time.
 
  #5  
Old 01-06-14, 04:10 PM
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Also seems only to make the transformer buzz noise for the few minutes after the furnace kicks on. After the heat element is up to usual operating temperature and maintaining that temperature the buzz stops even though the furnace is still on and blowing warm air. I think that's what it creating the intermittent thing. It's not random, only seems random, as there's are specific period(s) of furnace operation when it buzzes, but not all the time the furnace is operating.

For all I know this has been going on for years. I've only reset a breaker in that closet once in winter, a really cold and very early morning when the water heater breaker tripped, I went and reset it, but the furnace had already been on some time when I went in and reset that breaker. Otherwise, that closet is maybe half-full of mostly empty boxes. I never go in there and you can't hear the buzz at all outside the closet.
 
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Old 01-06-14, 04:12 PM
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It's not uncommon for a high amperage breaker to hum with a load on it. You can do two things to make sure everything is ok. Turn the furnace breaker off and make sure the two screws are tight.


Do this only if you are comfortable.............
If you know how to remove a breaker....Turn the main breaker off. Unsnap the furnace breaker from the panel and look at the connections on the breaker and the connecting points in the panel. DO NOT touch the connecting points in the panel.... just look at them with a flashlight. You are looking for discoloration.
 
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Old 01-06-14, 07:26 PM
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The brief answer is we don't know what brand panel or breakers
Is there a label inside the panel door or inside the panel box? Can you post some pictures of the panel; one with door closed, one with door open and a closeup of the breakers? We may be able to indentify the panel for you. Yes, some panels and/or breakers may occasionally buzz, but I don't like it either. The closet the panel is in, tell me about it; how big is it? How much room is there in the closet? Can you post a picture of the panel showing the closet? What are the boxes doing in there?
 
  #8  
Old 01-07-14, 12:07 AM
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There is a label. It's where I got the UL issue number. There's no manufacturer's information, or if there is, and there may be, we missed it. Whoever stuck that label on put it on upside down so we had to read upside down. The breaker labels are written right side up, so I suppose the installer put the label on upside down and then same or someone else wrote the breaker assignments on the blank lines. The handwritten assignments match the breakers -- breaker labeled refrigerator is the fridge outlet, dryer is the outlet dryer, furnace is the furnace, AC is the condenser unit outside, downstairs hall is the downstair hall, etc. -- so it's probably not been fooled with too much or at all. I don't know it's original to the townhouse or not -- constructed circa 1972. Visually it's in very good shape, the panel, door and no sign of heat damage to the breaker switches. Even the label is in good shape. Visually, from condition, you'd say it could be two years old or twenty. It's at least ten, as long as we've been in the place, and I'm sure predates that a few years.

I can't do anything more with testing or photos until maybe tomorrow, Wednesday at the earliest -- I'll wake people up tonight messing with, and tomorrow I work. I can answer the questions, though.

It's a small under-the-stairs closet with a sloped ceiling and the breaker box installed low in the drywall at the back so that only door and panel are accessible. The rest of the box is behind the drywall. It's a finished closet -- carpet from before we out hardwoods in, and paint -- but it's only of use as a coat closet up front at the door and some light storage. To walk all the way in you have to stoop over because of the low ceiling.

For what space there is in that closet, there's a lot of space open around the breaker panel. We don't hang clothes or coats in there, and there's a direct path through the closet to the panel with boxes stacked neatly to the sides. The boxes are there just for storage. They're the sort of boxes you hang onto for a year and then toss, for things you might have to ship back to the manufacturer for warranty service. But it's not crammed and stuffed. You can open the door and walk straight back to the panel; the only inconvenience is the low, sloped ceiling because of the under-stairs arrangement.

Here's one question I've come up with. It only hums when the furnace kicks on, not very long and it stops, and I haven't caught it humming yet when the furnace is off or its being running a few minutes. I read that sometimes the furnace's low voltage transformer is installed right there at the back of the breaker box, that you may not be hearing the breaker box making noise but actually the low voltage transformer is humming and referring the sound through the box. It does sound just like a transformer hum, though breaker hum may sound the same. Anyway, the air handler and furnace are in the attic and there's a breaker box for the air handler up there but no external enclosure for the low voltage transformer anywhere I've seen. And I've been all over that thing. Maybe it's actually up there, inside the air handler, but otherwise the only thermostat in the whole house is right across the hall from the breaker box closet -- maybe ten feet away -- and it could have made sense to install the transformer on the back of the breaker box.

Thanks for jumping into help. I'm on the fence between PJ and Joe. On the one hand, like PJ says, I know a high amperage breaker can often hum under load. And it doesn't hum with no load on it. Doesn't hum when the furnace is off, or even after it's been running a couple minutes. On the other hand, like Joe, I don't like it. Maybe I don't like it only because I've never noticed it before, and it's been going on for years, maybe since the first winter we owned the place. Our breakers don't trip a lot so I'm never in that closet. A couple times at most, the main breaker for the whole house, in summer, really hot day, AC straining and lots of other power draw all at once. Although the main breaker, not in years. And, used to be, the blow dryer my wife used was a sure bet to trip the breaker for that circuit the upstairs bathroom is on, couple times a month. She got a new dryer and that stopped; it'll still trip sometimes but only when she's got the blow dryer on, a hair straightener on, the bedroom HDTV is on, and, because of full afternoon sun exposure the central AC can't beat, I put a portable AC up there and that's on too. There's a lot on that circuit and to switch on a limited use high draw appliance like a blow dryer, you've got to turn something else off.

Otherwise we trip this or that breaker every few years. Any consistent breaker trip is easily explained by obviously too much power draw on that circuit, and is remedied by reasonably limiting use high draw use on that circuit.

I don't like things making maybe unusual noises without explanation or at least fair assurance it's not a problem. We've had a couple HVAC guys do minor maintenance on the condenser unit outside and not put all the screws back in the housing panels so the housing rattles when it runs. I go out there and find the screws left on the concrete pad and put them back so it quits rattling. The run capacitor went bad a couple summers back and I just replaced it myself from an AC supply house that sells retail, saving money and whatever time it was mate going to take to put everything right.

I'm the sort of person I know how often my fridge defrost cycle runs. Every 10 hours, a less common timing period. I know that because I couldn't find any info for our model fridge on the exact defrost timing interval so I timed it a few days running. So, obviously, a breaker panel hum is going to drive me up a wall until I know it's falls within the range of normal.

One last question, could exceptionally cold temperatures for our region be causing the higher power draw? What I mean is, does the furnace draw the same load no matter what, or if it's colder it works harder and therefore draws more power, and that could cause the intermittent and ultimately temporary breaker hum? The furnace was selected and installed for winter temps at highs generally in the 40s and 50s, lows in the low 40s or mid-30s with some nights right at or a little below freezing. Last couple days it's been very low teens at night and mid-30s if we're lucky for the daytime high. If the power draw is weather-related, we'll hit 47 today and then it's on back to highs mid-50s and low 60s, lows in the 40s, so the noise may just go away until it turns bitter cold again -- this winter, I have a feeling it will.

We're in north Texas, Dallas-area not the colder Panhandle, so I know a lot about hot, humid days, strain on the central AC and high power draw in summer, but I don't know much if anything about strain on the furnace. And of course this is not the sort of electric furnace you'd install to heat 1,800+ square feet in Minneapolis. We have plenty of bitter winter days here but most of the comes from all-day windchill, not the actual atmospheric temperature staying very low. We're breaking records left and right this winter.
 
  #9  
Old 01-07-14, 12:32 AM
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I should maybe add I grew up in a large farmhouse on a few acres upstate New York, built in the 1870s, reasonably but minimally updated over the years till my family moved in. The biggest update was somebody put in a large heated in-ground pool in the 1960s. My wife grew up all in Texas new construction. So really my biggest problem around here is getting my wife and kids to respect the perfectly functional but aging infrastructure of a 40-year-old townhouse. The place was built to last, but last with care.
 
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Old 01-07-14, 01:44 AM
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If I understand you correctly this is not your main panel box but a box that handles only some circuits? If so it is highly unlikely that moisture did migrate into the panel box but you never know maybe even a slight roof leak or pipe leak could have allowed moisture to get in the box.

As I remember just before we had our breaker box replaced we did hear some humming. It turns out that water migrated into our breaker box and was causing the humming. Once it was replaced no humming. Take the cover off and look for rust if it is rusted have it replaced. Ground fault protectors can hum too if you have them and no rust and that is normal.
 
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Old 01-07-14, 02:53 AM
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No, it's the main panel box. I'd be hard pressed to think of a pipe run back there that wouldn't have to flood a couple feet standing water to get moisture into that box. There's only one pipe run in the area, feeds the downstairs half bath, and it comes straight up out of the pad only to waist height, behind a wall enclosing lower stairs dead space, several feet away. Roof leak isn't really possible in this case either. The box is in a closet but the back of the closet is finished drywall enclosed dead space underneath the staircase landing (the closet itself is under-stairs dead space, but finished). The breaker box is set into that finished drywall. The roof would leak over the staircase and we'd notice moisture on the landing before it got through the flooring and subfloor and into the breaker box.

There's no sign of rust or corrosion on the front panel behind the hinged front cover, or on the hinged over. To take the back cover off I'd have to tear out the drywall and crawl back there, or remove the whole breaker box from the wall, both of which are pretty radical undertakings at this point.

I've heard and read all sorts of speculation. Everything from "it's meaningless" to "it's the breaker going bad." General residential contractor lives down the street told me he hears breaker boxes humming under normal loads all the time in brand new, not yet occupied construction and he's had electricians other than the install electricians check them and everything is fine.

It's likely it's very cold weather leading to frequent use and higher power draw on the electric furnace, and it's probably happened before but I didn't have occasion to notice. It'll PROBABLY stop when the weather warms up this week, and it's otherwise not an issue for concern. That's LIKELY what it is. But I'd prefer to know for sure.

Of course, residential electric, and other infrastructure, can be like obstetrics: LIKELY NOTHING to worry about is all you'll get until there's VERY OBVIOUSLY SOMETHING to worry about, so unless things clearly change to signs for obvious concern, you go with likely no concern.
 
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Old 01-07-14, 07:05 AM
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One last question, could exceptionally cold temperatures for our region be causing the higher power draw?
No. This is an electric furnace, correct? There is a KW rating for this furnace if it is electric. Regardless of the outside temperatures, the current draw is the same when it runs. The only thing that changes is how long the furnace runs at that power draw. An electric furnace will draw substantially more power than the air conditioning because of the electric resistance heating elements.

Each circuit breaker should also have a small paper label on them. If you can read it and provide that information, we may be able to identify the panel/breaker manufacturer from that information, but pictures will also help.
 
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Old 01-07-14, 11:55 AM
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Okay I'll try to get some pictures when I get a chance. Yes, electric furnace. It was running almost constantly through most of the day yesterday, which stayed 20s late evening and very low teens all night, but then less toward evening as the outdoor temperature rose 20 degrees over the day. The temp never bottomed out last night like it did night before last, so ran less last night and a lot less today as we're well into the 40s.

The "buzz" definitely had the character of what we used to call a "60-cycle hum," from my younger days hanging around bands and setting up audio equipment, but not distinct, virtually unmistakable sound of an arc people call a crackle or sizzling or popping. And we managed to arc some connections back then, too, so I do pretty well know the difference. Anyway, a vibration, not a zap.

Although we haven't heard the hum since last evening. The last couple times we heard it, just that hum, low and quiet, and only when the furnace started up, for less than a minute and then it faded out to completely silent. Stayed completely silent while the furnace was running, too. My adult daughter, who heard the noise yesterday, too, is at our house today so I've had her checking -- don't worry, just sticking her head in the closet to give a listen now and then, especially when the furnace is on, strict orders not to go back by the panel or touch anything, and she's not the electrically adventuresome type -- and she reports checking several times, every time stone silent in the closet, with furnace running, not running, clothes dryer running, not running, both running, both off, etc.

Don't know why it seems to be going away like this, but it was consistent enough to worry me yesterday midday, but started to improve after we shut off the furnace at the thermostat and reset the breaker. Maybe your idea about the proper procedure for resetting a humming or buzzing breaker worked after all. The thing you mentioned where if you reset a buzzing breaker with a load on it, it will still buzz after reset, but if you remove the load before resetting it, the buzz will go away when the load is reapplied. Because after we reset the furnace breaker with no load on it, then reapplied the load, the hum/buzz/vibration was much quieter and very clearly only at furnace start -- it may have only ever been right at furnace start, though it was louder and I think lasted longer. Then all last evening and night -- I even checked about half past midnight -- and all today, nobody has heard that hum at all.
 
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