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In my bathroom, I have a switch for the light and a switch for the exhaust fan. It seems that on occasion, not all the time, the power will trip when I turn the fan off, not on. It also seems to be independent on whether or not the light is on.

Where is the most likely source of the problem, the switch, the breaker, or buried in the wall somewhere?

  • Is the breaker a GFCI type? – SteveR Jan 27 '12 at 22:27
  • Are your hands dry when you flip the switch off? – put up wet Aug 29 '17 at 4:06
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Interesting. I can think of a couple scenarios.

First, the switch may be causing a small arc as the contacts separate, and that is tripping a GFCI/AFCI breaker in the panel. The switch may also be worn to the point where it can cause a short from hot to ground; this would be unlikely to trip a breaker, but it could happen. Lastly, there may be exposed wiring in the switch box, coupled with a loosened mounting of the switch int the box, causing a short between wires when the switch is flipped.

In all cases, the most likely culprit is the switch. Single-pole 120V15A switches are a buck-fifty a pop, so it can't hurt to just replace it. Make sure there's no bare wire that can short against a ground; I've found it helpful to give the switch or outlet I'm installing a wrap of electrical tape, which covers the terminals and other energized metal around the switch body and helps prevent shorts. Make sure no bare metal can touch any other bare metal when you put the new switch back in the box.

If that doesn't solve the problem then the next likely culprit is a GFCI or AFCI panel breaker, which is tripping in response to arcing at the point where the contacts in the switch disengage. This is normal; a very small arc will occur when the contacts are very close together right when the switch turns on and off. AFCI breakers are sometimes prone to "false positives" like this; you can trip an AFCI breaker plugging in an appliance that's already turned on, for instance. You do not need an AFCI breaker on bathroom circuits; only bedroom circuits built or last renovated after 1999. So, as long as your bedroom and bathroom are on separate panel circuits (and they should be), you can use a normal breaker. You DO need GFCI protection for outlets on bathroom circuits, meaning if you remove the AFCI breaker and replace it (or, more accurately, if you have a licensed electrician do it for you), you will need to replace the most "upstream" outlet on that circuit with a GFCI outlet, and you will need to make sure all outlets in the "wet" areas (within 4 feet of a sink, tub, shower or toilet) are protected by that GFCI.

It may also be caused by a GFCI breaker protecting the switch and fan, that is detecting current being driven through the neutral side (which remains closed when the switch is turned off) by the rotating fan motor as it winds down. A motor is basically just a generator in reverse, after all. With the big flywheel of the fan keeping it rotating after the power is cut, it can induce voltage, causing an imbalance between the hot and neutral that trips the breaker. Again, in this case you can solve the problem by replacing the panel breaker with a normal "slow-trip" breaker, and just protecting the outlets with a GFCI receptacle instead of the whole circuit.

I find it hard to believe the fan could be causing a tripped breaker if the breaker isn't a GFCI, but if you still haven't found the cause by this point the fan would be the last thing to check. Ensure the motor is securely mounted in its housing, and that all wiring is properly insulated with no possibility of a short. Make sure the motor itself is in good repair; there may be a worn bearing or bushing that is causing the armature to contact the shell during a sudden change in stress (like when the electomagnetic force that spins it goes away). I can't think of much that would cause the fan to trip a normal breaker when turned off, that wouldn't be causing far worse problems when turned on.

  • The main reason I know of people wrapping outlets/switches in electrical tape is so that drywallers dont short it out when they cutout the boxes later. Otherwise its sort of unnecessary – Steven Jan 27 '12 at 22:37
  • If a bath fan or light fixture is within the tub or shower area, it may require a GFCI. NEC code states that if the manufacture recommends to use GFCI, you must use it. – SteveR Jan 27 '12 at 22:52
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    @Steven: Wrapping the switch in electrical tape helps ensure that the terminals cannot come in contact with the ground bundle, or if the box is metal, the sides of the box. I have personally experienced headaches where everything worked fine when the switch was hanging loose, but shorted out once I put it back in because the switch terminals ended up touching the side of the box or the next switch over. It's more of a problem with the big beefy GCFI and 20A nodes, but it can still prevent problems even with an ordinary 15A switch or receptacle. – KeithS Jan 27 '12 at 22:58
  • @SteveR: Yes, you are right. I would expect, if the fan's manufacturer recommends GFCI, that the fan should be designed not to trip a GFCI due to loading of the neutral as it spins down, or for any other reason, no matter how much it's used over its rated life (and I've seen fans still going strong after 40 years). The OP or a previous homeowner may have removed a fan that required GFCI, and replaced it with something that is neither recommended not compatible with GFCI. – KeithS Jan 27 '12 at 23:03
  • I should add that the fan is brand new, I replaced the old one which was doing the same thing. – Paul Belardi Jan 28 '12 at 1:14
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I've had this problem while working in a pubs. The switch was a 2-way and the earth cables from another switch was touching L2 so when switched it went from switch wire to earth wire causing a dead short.

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Very old question I know, but the cause of my problem was more related to the design of the fan enclosure itself. During a fairly steamy shower, I lost power in the bathroom. Resetting the breaker made it trip again. I turned off the fan switch on the wall and reset the breaker. It didnt trip. Now I knew the issue was with the fan portion of the circuit and not my lights/outlets. I pulled down the cover of the fan to make sure that the motor would easily spin and immediately noticed drops of water on the fan motors plug. I unplugged the cord and saw that vapor had collected an the prong side of the plug and was creating a short circuit between the 2 prongs. I dried of the plug and the outlet, plugged it in and the breaker did not trip. There was no problem with my house's wiring, or the fan itself. Since the plug faces up, when the fan is plugged into the housing, water vapor being pulled into the housing can settle on the plug as its being pulled through the fan and create a short. I imagine that this might be less likely to happen if the plug faced sideways rather than up. This has only happened once in 6 months of using this fan. Of course Ill need to verify that the exhaust vent is not plugged with a birds nest or something, but it seems to clear the steam pretty efficiently. If this happens again, Ill need to find a way to keep water vapor from making contact with the plug face.

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