What does a fuse or breaker do? What are the differences?
Fuses and circuit breakers are designed to interrupt the power to a circuit when the current flow exceeds safe levels. For example, if your toaster shorts out, a fuse or breaker should “trip”, protecting the wiring in the walls from melting. As such, fuses and breakers are primarily intended to protect the wiring — UL or CSA approval supposedly indicates that the equipment itself won’t cause a fire.
Fuses contain a narrow strip of metal which is designed to melt (safely) when the current exceeds the rated value, thereby interrupting the power to the circuit. Fuses trip relatively fast. Which can sometimes be a problem with motors which have large startup current surges. For motor circuits, you can use a “time-delay” fuse (one brand is “fusetron”) which will avoid tripping on momentary overloads. A fusetron looks like a spring-loaded fuse. A fuse can only trip once, then it must be replaced.
Breakers are fairly complicated mechanical devices. They usually consist of one spring loaded contact which is latched into position against another contact. When the current flow through the device exceeds the rated value, a bimetallic strip heats up and bends. By bending it “trips” the latch, and the spring pulls the contacts apart. Circuit breakers behave similarly to fusetrons – that is, they tend to take longer to trip at moderate overloads than ordinary fuses. With high overloads, they trip quickly. Breakers can be reset a finite number of times – each time they trip, or are thrown when the circuit is in use, some arcing takes place, which damages the contacts. Thus, breakers should not be used in place of switches unless they are specially listed for the purpose.
Neither fuses nor breakers “limit” the current per se. A dead short on a circuit can cause hundreds or sometimes even thousands of amperes to flow for a short period of time, which can often cause severe damage.
Why use Breakers? Can’t I use fuses?
Statistics show that fuse panels have a significantly higher risk of causing a fire than breaker panels. This is usually due to the fuse being loosely screwed in, or the contacts corroding and heating up over time, or the wrong size fuse being installed, or the proverbial “replace the fuse with a penny” trick.
Since breakers are more permanently installed, and have better connection mechanisms, the risk of fire is considerably less.
Fuses are prone to explode under extremely high overload. When a fuse explodes, the metallic vapor cloud becomes a conducting path. Result? From complete meltdown of the electrical panel, melted service wiring, through fires in the electrical distribution transformer and having your house burn down. [This author has seen it happen.] Breakers won’t do this.
Many jurisdictions, particularly in Canada, no longer permit fuse panels in new installations. The NEC does permit new fuse panels in some rare circumstances (requiring the special inserts to “key” the fuseholder to specific size fuses).
Some devices, notably certain large air conditioners, require fuse protection in addition to the breaker at the panel. The fuse is there to protect the motor windings from overload. Check the labeling on the unit. This is usually only on large permanently installed motors. The installation instructions will tell you if you need one.
Learn more about What is a GFI/GFCI? here >>