2848: Breaker Box
Title text: Any electrician will warn you to first locate and flip the house's CAUSALITY circuit breaker before touching the CIRCUIT BREAKERS one.
A distribution board, referred to as a "breaker box" here and also commonly referred to as a "fuse box", "breaker panel", "DB box", and many other names, is a metal box attached to a wall, usually in some maintenance area, containing multiple circuit breakers that distribute electricity to various parts of the building. A circuit breaker is an electrical switch, usually in the form of a small lever, which disconnects the circuit from the power source when opened. These breakers are designed to automatically open if too much electrical current flows through them. This is a safety measure to reduce the risk of damage, fire or electrocution in the event of a short circuit or an overloaded line. These breakers can also be opened manually, deactivating the circuit to allow electrical work to be done.
In breaker boxes, each individual breaker is typically labeled to let the operator know what that breaker controls. Typically, the circuit controlled by each breaker will feed an intuitive set of connections: a certain room, or set of rooms, or possibly a set of related services (like overhead lights, or all the outlets on one floor). Some large appliances will have a dedicated circuit and breaker.
However, in houses that have been rewired multiple times (or were poorly wired the first time), this can quickly become overcomplicated with seemingly random connections. Randall lives in Boston where much of the housing stock is from the late 1800s and early 1900s, and he is likely to live in a house with non-ideal wiring, which may have inspired this comic.
The comic satirizes these complex wiring setups, with multiple breakers "controlling" arbitrary things, including some that – in the classic style of xkcd – are puns on the word "breaker" or may be impossible to hook a breaker up to, getting progressively more absurd to the point of nullifying laws and "breaking" certain laws of physics.
Table of the breaker labels
|Label next to breaker||Explanation||Note|
|Left column of switches|
|Kitchen lights||The lights in the kitchen.||Standard items that could be separate|
|Living room lights||The lights in the living room.|
|Porch lights||The lights on the porch.|
|Bathroom lights and one surprise mystery outlet somewhere|| The lights in the bathroom, but also a random outlet.
It is not uncommon for the power supplies to bathrooms (and other rooms with water connections) to be on a separate circuit. This is because water can potentially cause a short circuit, resulting in the breaker opening, and separate circuits minimize the impact and makes the problem easier to locate. These are called "GFCI" or "GFI" (Ground Fault Circuit Interrupter ) circuits.
It is a standard to connect a bathroom outlet with another outlet also requiring a GFCI, such as basement or outdoors. Another option is that an electrician (or homeowner), having initially reserved an output from the box for such a limited use, may – while adding wiring – chooses to wire seemingly unrelated things into the same circuit. This may make sense (for example, an outlet near a non-bathroom sink or some other water source could reasonably be grouped with the bathroom), or it may simply be out of convenience from how long the wires needed to run (such as an outlet in the room adjacent to the bathroom). In either case, future residents and installers may not be informed of this, and therefore wouldn't realize that the outlet is grouped with that circuit.
|Standard or 'kludged'|
|North-facing appliances||Peculiar and a bit complex to execute. Here's how it might have been set up:
Note: "North-facing" has broad interpretation, as lax as northeast to northwest or as strict as north by east to north by west. It could also be as exact as perfect north, but this would render this breaker completely functionless unless an appliance happens to be ever-so-perfectly aligned.
|Bathtub drain light||Bathtub drains typically do not have lights, but this breaker provides power to that and only that. Why it isn't already considered a "bathroom light" is unexplained (unless it's for the bit of the pipe that is external to that room). Perhaps it is a sub-menu of bathroom breaker, but then its position on the panel is unusual in that it isn't next to the bathroom breaker.
It obviously cannot be the "surprise mystery outlet" already referred to earlier as being covered under the switch for the bathroom lights, much apart from it not being a socket/outlet.
|Appliances whose names contain the letter "F"||Another odd and amusing specification.
To make it work, one might use the "North-facing appliances" setup described above, but just with a different custom group of Wi-Fi-controlled smart outlets chosen to only control appliances with an "F' in their name.
Some common household appliances (kitchen and elsewhere) that this switch might control:
|Hot water heater|| Usually just a heater that creates (and typically stores) hot water. But given that the next breaker controls the "Regular water heater", this breaker might actually control a water heater that pointlessly heats water that is already hot.
This is probably a joke about the fact that the common phrase "hot water heater" is technically redundant or misleading:
Trivia: In some languages, "hot water" is a separate, single word, so "hot-water heater" can be accurate. One such example is Japanese, where "hot water" is simply referred to as "お湯" ("Oyu"), however this is taken a step further as "hot water heater" is referred to as "給湯器" ("Kyūyuki").
|Regular water heater||The heater for regular water. In context with the switch above, this label presumes it's for a heater for heating water that is not yet hot (usually called a "hot water heater", hence the joke). Alternatively, if we assume that a hot water heater is for making hot water, this heater must be for making “regular water”, whatever temperature that may mean. Further still, the difference in these labels may be speaking to the nature of the heaters themselves - it could be the case that one of the heaters is abnormally hot to the touch, where the other is a "regular" temperature, but are otherwise both capable of heating water just fine.|
|Outlets in rooms that it's normal to eat pizza in||This controls every outlet in rooms that it's normal to eat pizza in, such as the dining room and kitchen and – depending on the "normal" habits of the inhabitants – other rooms such as the bedroom, bathroom, or living room (if not already covered by the "living room lights" switch above). Closets and single-purpose rooms such as the laundry room are presumably not included.|
|High-pitched hum generator||Controls a high-pitched hum generator. This is a call-back to 1590: The Source, which was released just over 8 years before this comic.|
|The solution to the cryptogram below:||Likely a pun on a "code breaker," something or someone that solves a code, such as Randall's cryptogram, a type of puzzle where a sentence has been encoded using a cipher, usually simple, and the goal is to determine the cipher and recover the original sentence from the encoded one. Randall has not actually written a cryptogram, simply making the label's text illegible to the audience.
2 other explanations:
|Bugs||Several interpretations are possible:
*Though it's unlikely that it's what Randall is referring to, computer bugs switches actually exist. It's a feature in some video game emulators to either run an unofficial patched version or to stay true to the original system, for example to allow bug-exploit speedruns of a video game.
|Right column of switches|
|A whirring fan you didn't realize was on until now||Fans generally produce a steady, low-level 'white' noise that people generally stop noticing. When such a fan is turned off, the absence of that noise is quickly noticed. Alternatively, the fan could be somewhere that cannot be heard, with the label on the switch serving as the only reminder of the fan's existence.
Shutting down a fan that you didn't realize was running could be worrisome for a couple of reasons: it could be serving an important function (like HVAC or server cooling) and cause a problem when it's off, or it may be a fan that wasn't supposed to be running, but had been for some time without being noticed.
|Dishwasher||A dishwasher may find itself with a separate circuit breaker for a few reasons. Commercial-grade dishwashers are often high-load appliances that require more power (incorporating powerful heating units and pumps). Residential-grade dishwashers may not be as energy-intensive, but if the house wasn't originally built with a dishwasher in mind, it is likely new wiring had to be added during its installation, resulting in a breaker that exclusively controls the dishwasher.
Though what "dishwasher" actually means may depend on what the "dishes" of the next switch might be, and thus what additional device may be required to ensure they remain clean. Even at the more trivial end of the interpretation (though not then explaining the following "dishes"), a busy restaurant might have an employee section equipped exclusively for the dishwashing role and separately supplied with power in a similar manner to that suggested for the bathroom.
|Dishes||Likely a pun on "breaking" dishes.
Of course, dinnerware and dishes are usually not powered devices and wouldn't require a circuit breaker at all; discovering they need their own circuit breaker separate from their dishwasher is a spoof of many common circuit breaker frustrations. Lastly it's also possible the switch powers/controls two or more satellite dishes.
|Hallway lights||The lights in the hallway or hallways.||"Hallway" regions|
|Hallway outlets||The outlets in the hallway or hallways, presumably the same as the "Hallway lights" hallways. A common confusion when turning off breakers is separate wiring for outlets and lights in the same room. Though having the room go dark is a good mnemonic that it is unpowered, it is not a guarantee, and indeed, wiring them separately allows working on the outlets without having to do it in the dark.|
|Hallway floors|| Yet another breaker for the hallways, presumably the same hallways as the previous two breakers, adding more confusion and frustration. This breaker has several potential interpretations:
|Social media||This breaker also has several potential interpretations of "taking a social media break" or "turning off social media":
|State law|| This and the next two items are a pun on "breaking the law."
Taken literally, it would either disable enforcement of State Law or nullify every single one, creating a state of lawlessness similar to the premise of the popular movie, "The Purge". It's unclear if this refers to Randall's state of Massachusetts or State Law as a general concept.
If the switch just nullifies State Law within the confines of the house, that would make the home a place where State Law could be broken without consequence.
|Federal law|| An extension of the previous entry. When discussing legal matters (taxes, regulations, etc.) it's not uncommon for state and federal authorities to issue their own statutes, often labeled "state" and "federal" respectively.
The ramifications of nullifying every US Federal law are immense. Disabling Federal Law while keeping State Law would theoretically fulfill the goals of the "States Rights" advocates, groups of conservatives across US history aiming to return Federal power to the States.
|Second law of thermodynamics|| The second law of thermodynamics means that things naturally move from order to disorder over time. It also says you can't take heat from a place that's cooler and use it to make a place hotter than the cooler place, unless you use some energy to do it. In short, without adding energy, only the hotter place can warm up the cooler one.
This law of physics was also explored in the What If? article Fire From Moonlight.
|Friction||Friction is the resistive force that opposes the relative motion or tendency of such motion of two surfaces in contact. Disabling friction would mean that all objects slide forever, and would destroy several things as well as make it much more difficult to move around and create energy. Being in a frictionless environment (and a vacuum, as physicists love...) was the subject of 669: Experiment.|
|Gravity|| Gravity is a natural force that attracts two bodies toward each other, proportional to their masses and inversely proportional to the square of the distance between their centers. Turning gravity off would have extremely dangerous effects, such as the loss of the atmosphere into space, all items being flung away from the Earth, and, perhaps most dangerous, the complete destruction of the planet.
Of course, if this switch is turned off, it may simply mean that objects within the house itself are no longer subject to gravity. This would be far less cataclysmic, and as a bonus, this would make it very different when moving around the house, making it easier to get to higher areas, and move objects, though impossible to place them without some other force being applied, and could prove to cause some problems once the breaker is turned back on, especially for things under said objects.
|Circuit breakers||Possibly the "master" breaker, controlling the main circuit that supplies power to all other circuit breakers. However, given the other surreal things this breaker box controls, turning it off may possibly make it impossible to turn it on ever again as the switch will no longer function once switched off (i.e.: If this was turned off, it would presumably turn off the functionality of the circuit breaker itself, if it was wired to include itself). Another interpretation is that turning off this breaker should supposedly make this breaker not able to control the power, which leads to a situation similar to the liar's paradox.
Moreover, if this circuit breaker disables all circuit breakers everywhere, it would result in global infrastructure collapse, halting essential services, including transportation, healthcare, and communication, and leading to widespread chaos.
Note that it might be a perfectly valid label if it refers to multiple subsidiary 'boxes', cascaded off this particular one, each containing one or more additional breakers for convenience or safety. e.g. units dedicated to a shed, garage or workshop room which save the need to traipse all the way to this box's utility cupboard location in the event of an otherwise easily resolved power issue.
|The title text is about causality (not to be confused with casualty), and how to use this (unseen, located elsewhere) breaker along with the last shown switch that (de)powers the illustrated box.
Causality, in its simplest form, is the process of cause and effect, meaning that everything that happens only happens because something caused it to happen - in other words, every event is an effect caused by another event. For example, a bag of chips can't just fall onto the floor for literally no reason - it has to be caused by some other event, such as someone smacking it or a gust of wind blowing it down.
Turning off the circuit breaker using the CIRCUIT BREAKERS switch may lead to a loop, if the disabled breaker can no longer disable itself, leading to it turning back on, etc. Alternatively, turning off the CIRCUIT BREAKER switch might be a one-way street.
Turning the CAUSALITY switch from OFF back to ON might be unlikely to do anything if the circuit breakers upstream of it have been fully deactivated. The separation of cause and effect would ostensibly take precedence over the current switch setting. Turning off CAUSALITY first would prevent either the loop or the permanent disabling of circuit breakers, but would also have many other side effects, including letting switches potentially serve power even if there is no power being served to them, or even spontaneously switching (on or off) without any intervention or reason.
The 'warning', from an electrician, could even be to locate the nominally off CAUSALITY switch in order to turn it on, or else all other intended effects will possibly not end up being actually actioned. Either way, whether or not turning on/off causality would change the state of causality (at one stage or other being rendered ineffectual) is an exercise left for the reader.
|This transcript is incomplete. Please help editing it! Thanks.|
- [An open breaker box is shown. There are 26 labelled breakers, all of which are on, paired back to back in thirteen rows as a label, switch, switch and label.]
- Kitchen lights / A whirring fan you didn't realize was on until now
- Living room lights / Dishwasher
- Porch lights / Dishes
- Bathroom lights and one surprise mystery outlet somewhere / Hallway lights
- North-facing appliances / Hallway outlets
- Bathtub drain light / Hallway floors
- Appliances whose names contain the letter "F" / Social media
- Hot water heater / State law
- Regular water heater / Federal law
- Outlets in rooms that it's normal to eat pizza in / Second law of thermodynamics
- High-pitched hum generator / Friction
- The solution to the cryptogram below: [Additional squiggled words that are too small/indistinct to read.] / Gravity
- Bugs / Circuit breakers
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