Different Types of Circuit Breakers

Feb 2, 2021

While some homeowners may pay added attention to the aesthetic of their kitchen or enhanced curb appeal, there is one largely overlooked element that is essential to the overall safety of your property… Circuit breakers. It may not sound particularly exciting, but installing the right circuit breakers to suit your home’s electrical needs is a necessary step in preventing electrical fires and avoiding other hazards.

If you’ve ever experienced a storm or power outage it is likely you’ve had to switch a circuit breaker on and off a few times in your life. Circuit breakers are switches that are installed inside your home’s breaker box that protect your electrical system and its components from shorting-out, overheating, or in severe cases, catching on fire.

These clever devices are able to interrupt the flow of electricity to one or multiple outlets in your home if they detect abnormalities in the fault condition. If a surge occurs, your circuit breaker will automatically cut the flow of electricity to protect electrical circuits from any kind of damage.

If you are updating an older home, it is imperative that you hire a professional electrician to ensure that your circuit breakers are up-to-date and are safely installed in your home. There are four basic circuit breakers that are standard in most modern homes: single-pole, double-pole, GFCIs, and AFCIs. And don’t worry, if you are unfamiliar with the different types of circuit breakers, we’re here to help you understand the difference and explain their importance.

Different Types of Circuit Breakers

The dangers of not having the proper circuit breakers installed in your home range from damaged outlets, frequent power outages, and electrical fires. According to the Electrical Safety Foundation International (ESFI), home electrical fires account for an estimated 51,000 fires each year. Resulting in nearly 500 deaths, 1,400 injuries, and $1.3 billion in property damage. Electrical distribution systems account for a 3rd of those structural fires, and circuit breakers can help prevent that from happening to your home.

  • GFCI Circuit Breakers: Short for Ground Fault Circuit Interrupter, GFCI circuit breakers are designed to protect against a line-to-ground fault. GFCI circuit breakers and GFCI outlets are most commonly installed in ‘wet rooms’ like kitchens, bathrooms, laundry rooms, pool decks, and back porches. They help prevent electrical shorts or overloaded currents. As of 2020 the revised NEC guidelines now require that GFCI protection be installed in any part of the home that has running water or that is exposed to the elements, this includes HVAC units as well.
  • AFCI Circuit Breakers: AFCI stands for Arc Fault Circuit Interrupters and is now required in modern homes. AFCI breakers protect against electrical arcs. Electrical arcs can get so hot they are easily able to burn wood, insulation, and other materials, endangering your family and your property. Normally electricity travels through wires. What makes arc faults so dangerous is the electricity can jump, leaving the circuit, and traveling to surrounding environments. Whereas single and double-pole circuit breakers are only tripped by excessive heat, AFCI circuit breakers will trip if arcing is detected in the electrical wiring.
  • Single-Pole Circuit Breakers: Single-pole circuit breakers are the most common circuits found in today’s breaker boxes. They are the most narrow of the circuit breaker switches found in your home’s electrical panel. However basic, they do serve their purpose. The name single-pole came about because these circuits are designed to monitor the current of a single wire, tripping the circuit in the event there is a short, surge or electrical overload. Constructed with one live wire and one neutral wire, single-pole circuit breakers typically are used with 120-volt circuits and are constructed to accommodate anywhere from 15-30 amps.
  • Double-Pole Circuit Breakers: If you understand the functionality of a single-pole circuit breaker, you’ll absolutely understand double-pole breakers. Double-pole circuit breakers simultaneously monitor the flow of two wires, not just one. You can easily spot double-pole circuits in your breaker box, they are the two side-by-side switches that operate as one. These types of breakers will trip if one or both wires is being overloaded or has shorted-out. Double-pole circuit breakers are constructed to supply power to more demanding appliances like washers and dryers, delivering 120/240 volts and accommodating between 15-200 amps.

When to Change a Circuit Breaker

You can always rebuild a home, but you can’t replace your family. Electrical fires not only cause a great deal of damage to the interior and exterior of your home, which is financially devastating, but they put your family in danger as well. Replacing your circuit breakers is a wise and fairly inexpensive investment considering the alternative.

Consider circuit breaker replacements as the first line of defense for protecting your property and keeping your family safe. Damaged and old circuit breakers are a real hazard and shouldn’t be overlooked. Here are some signs to be on the lookout for so you know when it is time to change your circuit breakers.

  • Flickering Lights: Have you been noticing that your lights have been flickering off and on recently? This is cause for concern. While a damaged circuit breaker may not always be to blame, it would be wise to contact a professional electrician to find out what is causing your lights to flicker.
  • Burning Smell: If you or someone in your family has noticed a burning smell lingering around the house and it’s not coming from the oven, you need to take action immediately. When your circuit breaker isn’t working properly due to age or overuse, it will cause the wires to overheat because they are not being protected by the breakers. Inspect your breaker box and electrical panel, if you notice the burning smell is coming from there you need to shut the main power off to the home and contact a licensed electrician immediately.
  • Appliances Aren’t Working Properly: If your kitchen appliances aren’t working or functioning erratically it may be due to your circuit breaker. Instead of replacing expensive appliances, it is wise to check that the breaker associated with that part of the home is working properly.
  • Discolored or Singed Outlets: Have the outlets in your home started to discolor or appear singed? This may be due to wire overheating as a result of your circuit breaker not working properly and it is time to replace one or several circuit breakers.

How to Change a Circuit Breaker

Circuit breakers are designed to take the brunt of electrical surges and fluctuations in electricity flowing through your home. That’s what makes them so great! But if you live in an older home or simply haven’t updated your electrical system in a while, there may come a time when you need to change one or more of the circuit breakers in your home.

While it is always recommended that you call an experienced electrician to check, maintain and replace your circuit breakers, if you have the hankering to do-it-yourself, here are some simple steps you can take to replace a circuit breaker yourself.

  1. Safety precautions are a must if you intend to replace a circuit breaker on your own. Wear protective lineman’s gloves, protective rubber-soled shoes, goggles and ensure there is no water present.
  2. Locate the main circuit breaker box and inspect to see if you can find the defective breaker. If you do find a faulty breaker, take a voltage tested and check for voltage.
  3. Now the important part. Shut off the power supply, but do it in this order. Cut off the power to the branch breaker boxes. Then the main power. And finally, make sure there is no power running to the individual breakers.
  4. Inspect the entire circuit breaker box and individual breakers for any kind of singing, rust, or discoloration.
  5. Next, you’ll have to remove the faceplate from the breaker box using a screwdriver.
  6. Again inspect for any melted components, singing, frayed wiring, and debris.
  7. Once you have located the circuit breaker that needs to be replaced, loosen the breaker wires that are connecting it to the panel.
  8. Remove the faulty circuit breaker and discard it.
  9. Replace the old circuit breaker with the new one and affix the wiring in the same manner that it was affixed to the old breaker. Screw-in tightly.
  10. Now you’ll want to replace the breaker panel faceplate and make sure all of the branch circuit switches are in the ‘off’ position.
  11. With all of the switches set to the ‘off’ position, you’ll want to restore power to the main circuit breaker and then flip each individual breaker on separately.
  12. Test each circuit with your voltage tester to ensure they are all set and working properly.

That should do it! You’ve now successfully replaced your circuit breaker. If you still are noticing problems like appliances not working as they should or a burning smell coming from the walls, it is imperative you contact a licensed electrician immediately.

Contact a Licensed Electrician for Circuit Breaker Repair & Replacement

The circuit breaker panel in your home or business is the heart of your electrical system. Our licensed electricians have been fully trained in identifying problems with circuit breakers and panels. We’ve truly seen it all!

Let the professionals at CMC Electric diagnose and take the best action to bring your home’s electrical system up to its peak performance. We will respond promptly, figure out the problem quickly, and explain all your options. CMC Electric offers expert maintenance and circuit breaker repair in the Raleigh, Clayton, Durham, or Fayetteville, and Chapel Hill areas.

Contact us and schedule an appointment at (919) 642-1042. Emergency services are available 24/7.

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