In general, a circuit breaker refers to any device that can stop the flow of electricity by switching itself off. Most homeowners are familiar with circuit breakers in the context of their home’s breaker box or electrical panel, which manages power distribution to light fixtures, appliances, and electronics. The circuit breakers usually look like two columns of horizontal black switches. Each breaker may be labeled with a device or room to which it delivers power.
An overloaded circuit is usually what causes a circuit breaker to trip. When too many lights, electronics, or appliances are running at once, the breaker tries to draw more power than it can carry, and an internal sensor trips the breaker and shuts it off. To restore electrical power, the breaker simply needs to be switched back on. A breaker can also trip because of a:
Sometimes, breakers can become loose or corroded after many years of use. This may cause them to trip by accident.
There are three main types of circuit breakers used in residential and commercial buildings:
Each type serves a different function, discussed in more detail below.
A circuit breaker serves as a protection device. It can sense if there is a short circuit or electrical surge. If this happens, the breaker will disconnect automatically, cutting off the power supply to a specific part of the home. This is important for preventing electrical fires, as well as preventing damage to any device that gets plugged into an outlet, such as a computer or a microwave.
Circuit breakers are used to manage the flow of electrical power to different parts of a home. Most newer homes will have an electrical panel with a set of 20 to 40 breakers. However, an older home may have a fuse box that uses glass or ceramic knobs instead of circuit breaker switches. Once a fuse is blown, it must be replaced. Circuit breakers, in contrast, just need to be switched back on after they are tripped. Most circuit breaker switches will last for decades.
In most homes, the maximum voltage for a circuit is 120V. In a commercial building, a circuit breaker may be able to handle 240V.
Remember these electrical safety guidelines when working on or near a circuit breaker panel:
Circuit breakers typically have a number marked on the end of the operating handle. This is the ampere rating and it specifies the maximum amount of electrical current that the breaker can carry. In most household breaker panels, the circuits will have a rating of 15 amps or 20 amps. Standard homes will have 100-amp or 150-amp power, while larger homes and commercial buildings may need higher amperage.
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