A Guide to Circuit Breakers: Uses, Types and More

A man installing a circuit breaker in a home.

Unless we work in the trades, electricity and all that goes hand in hand with is can be quite a mystery for most of us. We hear words like “federal pacific breaker” and we just stare in confusion. Sure, we may have learnt the basics during high school physics, but that doesn’t mean we’re adequately equipped for being able to make responsible, safe decisions when it comes to electrical safety. For example, most people don’t even know what a circuit breaker is, let alone its functions and importance. If you’re one of those people, don’t fear. In this post, we’ll be breaking down exactly what circuit breakers are, as well as the different types and uses for it. You might not be an expert by the time you’re finished with reading this, but you’ll probably have a decent understanding of circuit breakers.

What are circuit breakers?

Simply put, circuit breakers are a type of electrical switch that helps prevent damage caused by any problems with an electrical circuit. It’s an automatic switch, so it’s not your job to turn it on or off. This is a good thing, since we often don’t realize that there’s an issue with the electrical circuit or current until it’s too late and the damage has been done. They are found in most buildings and play an essential role in the safety of a building, so if you’re starting up a business, make sure the building you’ll be using has circuit breakers installed. If you want a more in-depth explanation, there are various articles on how circuit breakers work.

Uses of circuit breakers

Circuit breakers are used in nearly every building. They are used to detect any problems with your electrical wiring, and their job is to then stop that problem from causing any damage by stopping either the heat, the current, or the shock that is building.

Importance of circuit breakers

Electricity is great, but it’s also very, very dangerous. That’s why it’s important to take precautions to protect you and your loved ones. Fire prevention is incredibly important in every building, and circuit breakers can play a huge role in preventing fires as well as shocks. Unsafe wiring is always a risk to have in a building, but even the safest wiring can have a fault that can lead to catastrophic consequences. In summary: circuit breakers help keep you safe from possible electrical damage.

What are the main types of circuit breakers?

The three main types of circuit breakers are as follows: standard circuit breakers, AFCI circuit breakers, and GFCI circuit breakers. Each of these types of circuit breakers is then divided into various sub-types.

Standard circuit breakers

Standard circuit breakers come in two varieties: single pole or double pole. Standard circuit breakers are the type of circuit breaker most commonly used in households. They respond to quick surges of electrical current. They are much less complicated than the other types off circuit breakers. Single pole standard breakers are the more commonly used type of standard circuit breakers. They protect only one wire and supply less volts to a circuit than double pole circuit breakers. Double pole circuit breakers, on the other hand, protect two wires and are able to supply more volts to a circuit. They are generally only used for bigger appliances.

AFCI circuit breakers

An AFCI circuit breaker refers to an arc-fault circuit interrupter. Most circuit breakers help prevent fires in some way (we’ll get to that a bit later on), but AFCI circuit breakers are specifically designed with this purpose in mind. They are often installed in areas in a home that are at a high risk for a fire, and they are also highly recommended for older homes or homes where the wiring isn’t up to current standards. They do this by detecting arcs, which are the products of old or damaged wires. You cannot use only an AFCI circuit breaker and forgo the standard circuit breaker, since AFCI circuit breakers work by detecting slower build ups of heat or current, as opposed to the surges detected by standard circuit breakers.

GFCI circuit breakers

GFCI circuit breakers, also known as ground fault circuit interrupters, are a type of outlet with a built-in circuit breaker. They are not ideal for appliances that are not constantly running, since they may trip the breakers too often. For appliances that are not continuously running, they are safe to use. They are also highly recommended for areas in a house or building that are often exposed to damp, as they help to prevent shock if that outlet should ever come into contact with water.


Your house likely already has circuit breakers, but if not, it’s definitely something you should consider. It may also be the case that your house has one type of circuit breaker, but actually needs another type as well. While it is possible to install your own circuit breaker, it’s not recommended. Unless you’re a professional yourself, you’d be better off getting an expert to do it for you, especially since the consequences of a poorly installed circuit breaker can be quite severe. Luckily, it’s not a very complicated process, so your local electrician should be able to get it done fairly quickly.


Circuit breakers generally have a pretty long lifespan – over thirty years – but they can wear down much faster than that, especially if they’re under a lot of pressure. There are a few ways of determining whether it’s time to replace your circuit breaker or whether it still has a few good years left. The most common way to recognize a faulty circuit breaker is when you smell a burning odor coming from it. Other ways include noticing if your circuit breaker is tripping more often than usual. However, the most accurate method of ensuring your circuit breakers are kept in good condition is by performing trip testing every few years to determine the state of your circuit breaker. The smaller the breaker, the more regularly you need to maintain it. If you have any doubts about whether your circuit breaker is functioning as it should, call in an electrician for professional advice.

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