Whether you’re building a new home or finally getting around to that long-overdue remodel, electrical safety should always be your top priority. It’s essential to protect ourselves and our families from short circuits, voltage overloads and dangerous electrical fires. Fuses and circuit breakers both help us stay safe by interrupting the flow of electricity as soon as the circuits overload. Here’s a more detailed look at how circuit breakers and fuses work.
What Causes Electrical Overloads?
Even the most modern and state-of-the-art homes never seem to have enough electrical outlets to go around when we’re plugging in our electronic devices! Power strips are generally safe to use to plug in televisions, Blu-ray players, and computers, but not all power strips are created equal. Some power strips include built-in surge protection, but some merely split up the outlet. High-wattage appliances such as space heaters, hairdryers, and power tools should never be plugged into a power strip, and you should also avoid using cheater plugs to plug in a 3-prong appliance into an ungrounded 2-prong outlet. If you still have any ungrounded outlets remaining in your home, you should work with a professional to replace them.
Circuit overloading is more common around the holidays when homeowners are running lots of additional strings of lights in their home. When you run too many power strips or plug too many appliances into the same circuit, you place an excess of current demand on the circuit and run the risk of an overload.
How Circuit Breakers Work
If your lights dim, you notice sparks or an extension cord or plug is warm to the touch, you could be dealing with a potential overload. Fuses and breakers are designed to protect your home from the danger of an overload. If the demand for power exceeds the circuit’s safe levels, the breaker will trip or a fuse will blow to prevent an electrical fire.
Circuit breakers have either an electromagnet or a bi-metal strip that can throw a lever when the electrical current reaches unsafe levels. When the breaker is set to the “on” position, the electrical current will pass from the bottom of the breaker to an upper terminal across the strip. In the event that the electrical current reaches unsafe levels, the circuit breaker will trip. If the circuit breaker features a magnet, the magnetic force of the solenoid will become strong enough to throw the switch mechanism and break the current. If the circuit breaker has a metal strip, the strip will bend when it’s overloaded to throw the switch and trip the breaker.
A tripped breaker is easy to reset at the panel, which is why circuit breakers have replaced fuses in homes. Homeowners can also turn off power at their electrical panel so that they can safely install new electrical outlets or fixtures.
You should also be sure that your outdoor outlets and the outlets in your kitchen and bathrooms have ground fault circuit interrupters (GFCIs) for an additional layer of protection for you and your family. The GFCI outlet has an additional circuit breaker for that outlet that prevents electric shock by breaking an unbalanced circuit. It can turn off a single outlet without tripping the whole circuit. A tripped GFCI outlet can be reset directly at the outlet after you’ve resolved the issue that caused the overload. You should also always be sure to exercise caution any time that you use your electrical appliances near water.
How Fuses Work
The most common type of fuse that you’ll see has a metal wire or filament enclosed in a glass or ceramic and metal casing. Fuses are typically connected into a central fuse panel in the home or commercial building’s wiring. When the electricity flows through the fuse box, the fuses allow the power to pass through the wire or the filament between circuits. In the event of an electrical overload, the filament will melt and interrupt the flow of electricity. Fuses are available with multiple different voltages and ratings, and you should usually use fuses that are rated for a slightly higher operating current than you’ll require for the circuit.
Pros and Cons of Circuit Breakers and Fuses
Fuses can interrupt the flow of power more quickly than circuit breakers, but they must be replaced when they blow or melt. On the other hand, your circuit breaker just needs to be reset. If you’ve ever been forced to locate your breaker panel in the dark, you’ve certainly enjoyed the convenience of being able to throw a switch quickly so that you can get right back to work dealing with whatever problem caused the breaker to trip. There aren’t too many homeowners who would enjoy hunting for the correct replacement fuse and install it in the dark using a flashlight. A replacement fuse is also not the kind of thing that you can find easily at night after the hardware stores are closed.
Circuit breakers are larger in size, and they come at a higher cost. They also won’t always react quite as quickly as a fuse in the event of a mild power surge or voltage irregularity. That’s why most homeowners also use power strips with built-in surge protection to protect their home electronics. Your TV set and your computer don’t use very much voltage and won’t trip your breakers as quickly as a space heater or a blow dryer will, but the circuit breaker might not always be enough to protect your devices from minor voltage irregularities. Be sure to review your manufacturer’s recommendations for safe use of all home electronics and appliances. Circuit breakers are also required in most building codes today, so unless you are doing work that is small enough to not require a permit, they are the default choice. A remodel will typically require an upgrade of your whole home to a circuit breaker, for example.
How Do I Upgrade to Circuit Breakers?
Switching from fuses to circuits may not be as easy as switching the kind of box and the items inside. In many cases, the wiring must be examined. If you have a home with old knob and tube wiring, your electrician may require you to perform an upgrade to modern wiring before performing the switch and signing off on the safety of your upgrade.
Our team at Huft Home Services is here to help with all of your electrical questions! We’re a family-owned business, and we’ve been proud to serve customers in Sacramento and in El Dorado, Placer, San Joaquin and Yuba counties since 2004. We’re proud to be a member of the ACCA, and our BBB-accredited and NCI-certified technicians share our commitment to providing a customer service experience that’s second to none! Contact Huft Home Services today when you’re ready to schedule a free no-obligation estimate for HVAC, plumbing, electrical, or insulation services in Sacramento, CA, and surrounding areas.