Circuit breakers are the fail-safe keys to your home’s electrical system. By understanding how they work, it enables you to further protect your home, family and belongings. This is especially important for homeowners with older homes and those who plan on doing any major renovations.
What Are Circuit Breakers?
Circuit breakers are automated electrical switches designed to protect an electrical circuit from damage caused by excess current, either from an electrical overload or other malfunction that disrupts the normal flow of electricity. Circuit breakers are designed to interrupt the flow of electricity when a surge is detected.
There are three different types of circuit breakers; standard, GFCI (ground fault circuit interrupter) and AFCI (arc fault circuit interrupter) circuit breakers. All three types function as fail-safe keys to switch off an electrical current and protect you, your home’s electrical system, and items you have plugged into outlets.
Standard Circuit Breakers
Standard circuit breakers (as pictured above) are the most common of all three types. A standard circuit breaker is found inside your home’s electrical panel and any subpanels you may have. Circuit breakers can be easily reset, when tripped, unlike electrical fuses which need to be replaced once they have been tripped. Most homes now have circuit breakers rather than fuses.
There are two types of standard circuit breakers that you may see inside your electrical panel:
Single Pole circuit breakers are the most common and consist of a single switch that controls a single energized wire that supplies 120 volts of electricity to that electrical circuit. That electrical circuit can be divided up into several outlets or hard-wired items like lights and ceiling fans.
Double Pole circuit breakers take up two spots in your electrical panel and consist of two switches that operate together. This type of circuit breaker supplies up to 240 volts of electricity to the circuit. These larger capacity circuit breakers are needed for appliances and dedicated items like water heaters, stoves, refrigerators and washers/dryers.
Both single and double pole circuit breakers can be GFCI or AFCI circuit breakers or a combination of both.
What is a GFCI?
A ground flow circuit interrupter, or GFCI, detects when there is either an electrical leak or improper electrical flow in an electrical circuit. Either of those faults in the electrical circuit will cause it to ground improperly and can cause electrical shock to a person.
Grounding is obtained in an electrical system when one of the conductive wires is intentionally given a direct path to the earth. Electrical power utilities also commonly ground one of the wires on the electrical distribution system by connecting it to the ground.
The Importance of Grounding
The most important reason for grounding electrical currents is that it protects your appliances, your home and everyone in it from surges in electricity. With proper grounding, any excess surges of electricity go into the ground, rather than back into the electrical system or object plugged in.
When a GFCI detects an electrical leak that is not grounded, it trips, cutting off the flow of electricity. GFCI’s are most commonly used to protect areas of your home that are exposed to water such as the bathroom, kitchen and laundry areas. However, they can be used in any area of your home to protect from electrical shock and electrocution.
A GFCI breaker is found in the electrical panel of your home and can be used to replace a standard circuit breaker. A GFCI can give ground fault protection to an entire room or all of your outdoor outlets. Oftentimes, this is the preferred method of ground fault protection instead of using several GFCI outlets. A GFCI Outlet/Receptacle is used to replace your regular electrical outlets and provides protection to any appliance plugged into it. A GFCI outlet can be wired to provide protection to other outlets on the same electrical circuit making this type more cost-effective.
What is an AFCI?
An arc fault circuit interrupter (AFCI) is designed to detect a wide range of arcing electrical faults and stop the electrical flow in that circuit and preventing an electrical fire. Unlike a GFCI, arc fault circuit breakers detect even low-level arcing currents which can silently and slowly smolder into a major fire.
An electrical arc fault is created by electricity flowing through an unintended path. This electrical arcing produces high-intensity heating at the point of the arc. As a result, that heat may easily ignite surrounding materials, such as wood framing or insulation. The temperatures of these arcs can exceed 10,000 degrees Fahrenheit.
What Causes an Arc Fault?
An electrical arc fault can be caused by several things:
- Electrical cords that are bent or damaged by heavy furniture
- Old, dried or frayed cords on any electrical appliance
- Older electrical wiring
- Nails, screws or staples placed into the walls which penetrate and damage wiring
It is because of the dangers of arc faults that all homes are now required to have arc fault circuit interrupters in every room of the home. If you have an older home, you are required to add ACFIs when you remodel a room, build an addition or upgrade your electrical system.
Three different types of AFCI’s include the AFCI Branch Feeder, AFCI Outlets and Combination AFCI Breakers.
An AFCI branch feeder is a circuit breaker that is installed in your home’s electrical panel. This type of AFCI will protect all devices that are connected to that single circuit, up to 125 volts. Therefore, a single AFCI branch feeder can protect an entire room of electrical outlets or hard-wired components. However, an AFCI branch feeder does not protect against arcing produced by an appliance cord that is damaged.
AFCI outlets or receptacles are single outlets that can replace a regular electrical outlet. Much like GFCI outlets, this type of outlet will protect any appliance or electrical device that is plugged into it. Additionally, the AFCI outlet can be conformed to protect the electrical outlets that are on the same circuit. Usually, this is a more cost-effective way to bring a home up to code without the expense of upgrading your entire electrical system.
Combination AFCI circuit breakers are installed in your home’s main electrical panel. This type of circuit breaker not only protects electrical arcing due to dried, broken or fraying wires within the walls but also protects arcing from any appliance plugged into a receptacle along that circuit. The combination AFCI circuit breaker is an easier way to protect from arc faults, especially if you are upgrading your electrical panel.
Reasons to Upgrade Your Circuit Breakers
Up-to-date circuit breakers protect you from electrical shocks and electrocutions as well as protecting your home and belongings from electrical fires. Additionally, if you are already upgrading your electrical service, upgrading your electrical panel or doing any type of home renovations, it’s important to bring your electrical service up to code.
According to the U.S. Fire Administration’s website, in 2018 there were an estimated 2,000 fatal fires in this country, of which, 9.0% were due to electrical malfunction. In the same year, an estimated 7,500 fires resulted in personal injury, of which, 6.7% were electrical malfunction and an additional 6.2% were due to appliances. A total of 25.6 billion dollars in damage occurred because of residential fires.
Electrical fires can be greatly reduced, if not eliminated, by making sure your home has the most up-to-date safety equipment and electrical service, including circuit breakers.