Did you know there are different types of circuit breakers? Unless you’re an electrician, electrical systems are difficult to understand. You hear terms like “circuit breaker” and “blown fuse” and think to yourself: what does this even mean, and why should I care? Don’t worry. You’re not alone.

As your trusted power experts, we’re here to help you understand what devices like circuit breakers are, how they work, and how they enhance safety for homes and businesses. Keep reading to learn more about electrical breaker types and why they're essential.

Table of Contents

What Is a Circuit Breaker?

A circuit breaker is a safety device for your electrical system that controls the current traveling through a circuit. If the electrical current is too strong, the circuit breaker turns off, stopping the current completely. This protects electrical equipment and appliances from damage caused by sparks and electric shocks.

How Circuit Breakers Work

When the amperage of a current is too high, the circuit can’t support it. An overload occurs when the current increases over time, and an overcurrent occurs when the current increases rapidly. Sensors on the circuit breaker detect the increase in current and turn off the breaker to stop the circuit. This is known as a tripped circuit.

Without a circuit breaker, an overload or overcurrent would cause the circuit to spark and start a fire or create an electric shock, damaging the equipment and potentially electrocuting someone.

How circuit breakers work

Different Types of Circuit Breakers

Standard Circuit Breakers

Standard circuit breakers are most often found in homes or small businesses that use 120V/240V single-phase electric power, which is the industry standard for things like lights, outlets, and appliances. These are the two different types of standard circuit breakers.

  • Single Pole: This type of circuit breaker protects one 15 or 20-amp circuit and provides 120 volts to the circuit. It’s most commonly used in homes and small businesses.
  • Double Pole: This type of circuit breaker takes up two spots in the breaker panel to protect two circuits simultaneously. It provides large appliances—like EV chargers and laundromat equipment—with 120V/240V or 240V power.

When the current is normal, the breaker remains “open” so it can travel to and from the panel through the circuit. When the circuit experiences an overload or overcurrent, the breaker “closes,” preventing the current from traveling through the circuit. If your breaker keeps tripping, you know an overload or overcurrent has occurred. Once the underlying current issue is resolved, you can reset the breaker.

GFCI Circuit Breakers

GFCI (ground fault circuit interrupters) breakers detach a circuit if the current becomes an electrocution hazard. The term “ground fault” originates from the pattern of electrical currents traveling downward. A ground fault occurs when the current’s electrical path reaches a conductor, such as metal pipes or water. It’s important to note a current will always take the shortest path to the ground, whether it’s through a wire, a pipe, or a person.

Businesses often use GFCI breakers to prevent electrocutions in damp areas such as bathrooms and commercial kitchens.

AFCI Circuit Breakers

While a GFCI circuit breaker disconnects when the current travels down an unwanted path, an AFCI (arc fault circuit interrupters) circuit breaker disconnects when an electrical arc forms. An electrical arc forms when the current skips from one wire to another, which often occurs when the wire is damaged or malfunctions. Electrical arcs generate heat, which can cause materials nearby to catch fire.

Only businesses that have dwelling units—such as hotels, apartment complexes, resorts, campgrounds, and rental homes—are required to have AFCI breakers on-site.

AFCI/GFCI Dual Function Breaker

AFCI/GFCI dual-function breakers protect buildings and people from electrocution and electrical fires by performing the functions of both devices. If you’re building a new structure or rewiring an existing one, we highly recommend installing this type of breaker. You can save money and space by investing in one device rather than two.

electrician working on a breaker box

Circuit Breaker FAQ

GFCI vs. AFCI: What’s the Difference?

GFCI breakers are required in businesses where water is a known hazard. They prevent electrocution by disconnecting a circuit if it travels down an unwanted path.

AFCI breakers are required in businesses with dwelling units. They prevent fires by detecting and stopping electrical arcs.

What Is a Short Circuit?

A short circuit occurs when the current skips from a live wire to a neutral wire. Short circuits are common in buildings where the insulation surrounding the wires is worn or damaged. A short circuit can create a spark that turns into a fire if left undetected. If a short circuit occurs, your circuit breaker should detect it and stop the current.

What Voltage Rating Do I Need?

When selecting a circuit breaker for your home or business, take your electrical system’s voltage rating into account. The highest voltage that all end ports can handle gives you the voltage rating. You should also consider how the voltage will be distributed and how the circuit breaker will be integrated. The circuit breaker you choose must be compatible with the desired application.

Why Is My Breaker Blowing?

Overloading and short-circuiting are the top two causes of a blown fuse. Overloading occurs when one circuit supports too many electrical devices. A short circuit occurs when electrical wires are loose, damaged, or installed incorrectly.

Protect Your Home From Power Surges & Fire Hazards

Thanks to phase converters, overloads and overcurrents are the least of your electrical concerns. That’s because they’re more compatible with your electrical system and distribute power evenly to your circuits. If your home or business isn’t equipped with a single-phase to three-phase converter, it’s time for an upgrade. Investing in a phase converter is an investment in your safety.

Browse our collection of digital and rotary phase converters today to find the one that’s right for you.

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