Circuit breakers are a vital part of home safety. If installed properly, breakers perform a vital function in protecting your home or commercial facilities electrical system.
All circuits are controlled and protected by the circuit breakers. If there is an overload, short or ground in the circuit, the breaker will detect the fault and open (kill) the circuit. The purpose is twofold: prevent fire; prevent electrical shock.
TROUBLESHOOTING BREAKERS AND CIRCUITS
One of the most common situations occurs when the electricity goes out in a certain area of the home but the breaker doesn’t seem to have opened the circuit. A breaker switch can sometimes open a circuit without its mechanical handle flipping off. You should first try to manually switch the breaker off and then back on. It’s also possible the current was interrupted somewhere other than the breaker due to faulty wiring. In this case, an electrician will probably need to come, run tests, and determine the nature of the open circuit and where the break has occurred. You should never attempt to replace a circuit breaker switch unless you have electrical expertise. Improperly replacing a switch can easily lead to much larger problems in your electrical wiring.
GROUND FAULT CIRCUIT INTERRUPTERS (GFCI Breakers)
The GFCI is designed to protect people from severe or fatal electric shocks while the AFCI (below) protects against fires caused by arcing faults. The GFCI also can protect against some electrical fires by detecting arcing and other faults to ground but cannot detect hazardous across-the-line arcing faults that can cause fires. A ground fault is an unintentional electric path diverting current to ground. Ground faults occur when current leaks from a circuit. How the current leaks is very important. If a person’s body provides a path to ground for this leakage, the person could be injured, burned, severely shocked, or electrocuted. More than two-thirds of household electrocutions can be prevented by this inexpensive device.
The National Electrical Code requires GFCI protection for receptacles located outdoors; in bathrooms, garages, kitchens, crawl spaces and unfinished basements; and at certain locations such as near swimming pools. A combination AFCI and GFCI can be used to satisfy the NEC requirement for GFCI protection only if specifically marked as a combination device.
HOW THE GFCI WORKS
In the home’s wiring system, the GFCI constantly monitors electricity flowing in a circuit, to sense any loss of current. If the current flowing through the circuit differs by a small amount from that returning, the GFCI quickly switches off power to that circuit. The GFCI interrupts power faster than a blink of an eye to prevent a lethal dose of electricity. You may receive a painful shock, but you should not be electrocuted or receive a serious shock injury. Here’s how it may work in your house.. Suppose a bare wire inside an appliance touches the metal case. The case is then charged with electricity. If you touch the appliance with one hand while the other hand is touching a grounded metal object, like a water faucet, you will receive a shock. If the appliance is plugged into an outlet protected by a GFCI, the power will be shut off before a fatal shock would occur.
AVAILABILITY OF GFCIs
Three common types of ground fault circuit interrupters are available for home use:
* RECEPTACLE TYPE
This type of GFCI is used in place of the standard duplex receptacle found throughout the house It fits into the standard outlet box and protects you against “ground faults’ whenever an electrical product is plugged into the outlet Most receptacle-type GFCls can be installed so that they also protect other electri-cal outlets further “down stream” in the branch circuit.
* CIRCUIT BREAKER TYPE
In homes equipped with circuit breakers rather than fuses, a circuit breaker GFCI may be installed in a panel box to give protection to selected circuits The circuit breaker GFCI serves a dual purpose – not only will it shut off electricity in the event of a “ground-fault,” but it will also trip when a short circuit or an ov.er-load occurs Protection covers the wiring and each outlet, lighting fixture, heater, etc served by the branch circuit protected by the GFCI in the panel box.
* PORTABLE TYPE
Where permanent GFCls are not practical, portable GFCls may be used One type contains the GFCI circuitry in a plastic encio-sure with plug blades in the back and receptacle slots in the front. It can be plugged into a receptacle, then, the electrical product is plugged into the GFCI. Another type of portable GFCI is an extension cord combined with a GFCI. It adds flexibility in using receptacles that are not protected by GFCls.
WHERE GFCIs SHOULD BE CONSIDERED
In homes built to comply with the National Electrical Code (the Code), GFCI protection is required for most outdoor receptacles (since 1973), bathroom receptacle circuits (since 1975), garage wall outlets (since 1978), kitchen receptacles (since 1987), and all receptacles in crawl spaces and unfinished basements (since 1990). Owners of homes that do not have GFCls installed in all those critical areas specified in the latest version of the Code should consider having them installed. For broad protection, GFCI circuit breakers may be added in many panels of older homes to replace ordinary circuit breaker. For homes protected by fuses, you are limited to receptacle or portable-type GFCIs and these may be installed in areas of greatest exposure, such as the bathroom, kitchen, basement, garage, and outdoor circuits. A GFCI should be used whenever operating electrically powered garden equipment (mower, hedge trimmer, edger, etc.). Consumers can obtain similar protection by using GFCIs with electric tools (drills, saws, sanders, etc.) for do-it-yourself work in and around the house.
Circuit breaker and receptacle-type GFCIs may be installed in your home by an Electrical Specialist. Do not attempt to install GFCI breakers or receptacles yourself, unless you are very familiar with them and closely follow installation instructions. Improper installation will lead to defective operation and could lead to serious injury or death. The portable GFCI requires no special knowledge or equipment to install.
ARC FAULT CIRCUIT INTERRUPTERS (AFCI Breaker)
The “AFCI” is an arc fault circuit interrupter. AFCIs are newly-developed electrical devices designed to protect against fires caused by arcing faults in the home electrical wiring. Annually, over 40,000 fires are attributed to home electrical wiring. These fires result in over 350 deaths and over 1,400 injuries each year. Arcing faults are one of the major causes of these fires. When unwanted arcing occurs, it generates high temperatures that can ignite nearby combustibles such as wood, paper, and carpets. Arcing faults often occur in damaged or deteriorated wires and cords. Some causes of damaged and deteriorated wiring include puncturing of wire insulation from picture hanging or cable staples, poorly installed outlets or switches, cords caught in doors or under furniture, furniture pushed against plugs in an outlet, natural aging, and cord exposure to heat vents and sunlight.
HOW THE AFCI WORKS
Conventional circuit breakers only respond to overloads and short circuits; so they do not protect against arcing conditions that produce erratic current flow. An AFCI is selective so that normal arcs do not cause it to trip. The AFCI circuitry continuously monitors current flow through the AFCI. AFCIs use unique current sensing circuitry to discriminate between normal and unwanted arcing conditions. Once an unwanted arcing condition is detected, the control circuitry, the AFCI trips the internal contacts, thus de-energizing the circuit and reducing the potential for a fire to occur. An AFCI should not trip during normal arcing conditions which can occur when a switch is opened or a plug is pulled from a receptacle. Presently, AFCIs are designed into conventional circuit breakers combining traditional overload and short-circuit protection with arc fault protection. AFCI circuit breakers(AFCIs) have a test button and look similar to ground fault circuit interrupter (GFCI) circuit breakers. Some designs combine GFCI and AFCI protection. Additional AFCI design configurations are anticipated in the near future. It is important to note that AFCIs are designed to mitigate the effects of arcing faults but cannot eliminate them completely. In some cases, the initial arc may cause ignition prior to detection and circuit interruption by the AFCI. The AFCI circuit breaker serves a dual purpose – not only will it shut off electricity in the event of an “arcing fault”, but it will also trip when a short circuit or an overload occurs.The AFCI circuit breaker provides protection for the branch circuit wiring and limited protection for power cords and extension cords. Single-pole, 15- and 20- ampere AFCI circuit breakers are presently available.
WHERE AFCIs SHOULD BE USED
The 1999 edition of the National Electrical Code, the model code for electrical wiring adopted by many local jurisdictions, requires AFCIs for receptacle outlets in bedrooms, effective January 1, 2002. Although the requirement is limited to only certain circuits in new residential construction, AFCIs should be considered for added protection in other circuits and for existing homes as well. Older homes with aging and deteriorating wiring systems can especially benefit from the added protection of AFCIs. AFCIs should also be considered whenever adding or upgrading a panel box while using existing branch circuit conductors.
AFCI circuit breakers can be installed by an Electrical Specialist. The installer should follow the instructions accompanying the device and the panel box. In homes equipped with conventional circuit breakers rather than fuses, an AFCI circuit breaker may be installed in the panel box in place of the conventional circuit breaker to add arc protection to a branch circuit. Homes with fuses are limited to receptacle or portable-type AFCIs, which are expected to be available in the near future, or AFCI circuit breakers can be added in separate panel boxes next to the fuse panel box.