How to Know the Different Circuit Breakers

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In most modern homes, the electric is managed and delivered by an electrical service panel. This panel is where the feed coming from the electric company is then split up and distributed throughout the home. While most people do not venture near their electric panel too often, it is one of the most important pieces of equipment in the home. Take a moment and open the door on your electrical panel and you may be surprised at how the electric courses through your home. Your entire home, and your family, are protected by those little black solid state rectangles. Just so you can have a better idea of how your electric panel does its job--here is how to understand the different breaker types in your electric panel.

Things You'll Need

  • General curiosity
  • Where at one time most homes featured fuses as the primary electrical protection device, circuit breakers started coming into prevalence during the late 19th century as electric power was beginning to be distributed on an industrial scale. Since that time they have quickly become the electrical protection device of choice in the home.

  • There are essentially five types of circuit breakers that can be found in the home electric panel, although most homes feature just two of them.

  • The first type, and most common, is the single-pole circuit breaker. This breaker delivers 120 volts to any appliance that needs it to work. The breaker is designed to deliver one circuit which can branch off to feed a number of receptacles or lights to a designated area of the home and the appliances under its protection cannot exceed the amperage listed on the toggle switch on the front of the breaker itself. Most homes feature a combination of 15 amp and 20 amp single-pole breakers.

  • The next breaker most common in the electrical panel is the double-pole circuit breaker. Just as the single-pole delivers one circuit to an area, the double pole delivers two, but it is usually used to power a designated outlet like that powering your dryer or electric oven. These breakers typically start around 30 amps.

  • A quad breaker is essentially two double-pole breakers designed to fit in the space normally fitting a single double-pole breaker. Quad breakers can come in a variety of configurations such as:
    One double-pole breaker and two single-pole breakers
    Two double-pole breakers
    Four single-pole breakers

    The individual breakers can also feature different amperage ratings such as one quad breaker consisting of a 30 amp double-pole breaker and a 20 amp double pole breaker. The quad breaker is ideal for a small electrical panel box where space is limited. However, the electrical panel must be able to accommodate a quad breaker, as not all panels do.

  • Some homes may feature a GFCI circuit breaker. This type of breaker eliminates the need for GFCI receptacles to be installed at certain wet locations around the home, like near the kitchen or bath sinks. These breakers are designed to immediately trip once an imbalance in electric flow occurs. The GFCI breaker features a "test" button on the front of it so you can test it to ensure that it is working properly. After you press the test button you will have to reset the breaker to turn the circuit back on.

  • Surge protection devices are relatively new on the home electrical panel scene, but they can be the most important component in your electrical panel. This piece of equipment protects your entire electrical panel from damaging power surges. Think of it like a power strip surge protector for your entire home. It fits in the space required for two single-pole breakers and some come with valuable guarantees to cover any damage in the event that the breaker fails, making it a very good addition to any home electrical panel.

Tips & Warnings

  • It is important to understand that circuit breakers are designed to prevent damage to the wire delivering the electric to the appliance, not the appliance itself. Circuit breakers cannot prevent appliance fires.
  • If you have a circuit breaker which is tripping often, you should troubleshoot the line to see what is causing the overload (see the links in Resources below for some help).
  • If you cannot find the source or you are too afraid to troubleshoot electric, hire a qualified electrician as soon as possible to have the problem repaired.

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