If you’re like most people, you likely use the terms circuit breakers and electrical panel interchangeably. That’s understandable because the two things are parts of a building’s larger electrical infrastructure. However, they’re not the same thing, and it’s important to know the difference between the two. To help with that, our electricians came up with this guide to understanding electrical panels and circuit breakers.

What Is an Electrical Panel?

Put simply, an electrical panel is a box that divides your building’s incoming electrical service into smaller, dedicated circuits. Most electrical panels are metal, and you’ll typically find them tucked away in basements or utility rooms. They usually contain multiple circuit breakers, which allow you to turn off power to each dedicated circuit. In main electrical panels, you’ll also find a master circuit breaker that controls all of the power to your building.

Electrical panels feature two levels of access. One is for an electrician to make necessary connections inside the electrical panel itself. This is where the electrician connects the wiring running through your building to the appropriate circuits. Those parts of the box aren’t accessible by the end user. They’re usually covered with a faceplate that includes an access door to let end users access the circuit breakers alone.

Types of Electrical Panels

Although most electrical panels appear similar to the untrained eye, there is more than one type you may encounter. They include the following.

Main Electrical Panels

A main electrical panel is where the incoming electrical service to a building terminates. In most homes and small buildings, this will be the only type of electrical panel you’ll find. Main electrical panels come in a variety of amperage capacities and with varying circuit capacities. The amperage capacity refers to how much total incoming electricity the panel can safely handle. The circuit capacity refers to how many physical spots the panel has to accommodate circuit breakers. A main electrical panel will also contain a main circuit breaker for the whole building.

Lug Panels

A lug panel is a type of sub-panel you will occasionally find installed in homes and commercial buildings. They are used to expand the circuit capacity of a main electrical panel. They don’t have main circuit breakers but act as an extension of a main panel. You’ll find a circuit breaker to cut off power to a lug panel inside a main panel located nearby.

Fuse Boxes

If you own an older home or building, you may occasionally see an electrical panel called a fuse box. They rely on single-use fuses rather than resettable circuit breakers. This is an outdated technology that you won’t see installed in any newly-constructed building. So, if you encounter one, you should call HR Phoenix to ask about an electrical panel upgrade.

Three-Phase Electrical Panels

Although not commonly found in residential settings, three-phase electrical panels are often found in commercial and industrial settings. They’re built to accommodate high-capacity electrical service coming in via three hot wires and a single neutral. This type of service allows end users to operate high-voltage equipment. It also delivers more stable voltage that makes industrial equipment more efficient. You can easily identify a three-phase panel by looking at its main breaker. If the main breaker features a three-pole switch, you’re looking at a three-phase panel.

What Is a Circuit Breaker?

A circuit breaker is a type of switch that guards a circuit against overloads and short circuits. Circuit breakers also provide a way to manually cut power to the various circuits coming from an electrical panel. This allows for safe modifications, repairs, and upgrades to a building’s electrical infrastructure without cutting power to the whole building. Plus, circuit breakers prevent electrical fires that would otherwise result from building wires melting from excess voltages.

Most basic circuit breakers use an ingenious system to detect overvoltages and automatically cut power. The most common design uses an electromagnet through which the circuit’s voltage flows. Under normal operation, the magnet isn’t strong enough to pull the breaker’s contacts apart. However, when the amperage exceeds the breaker’s capacity, the magnet’s strength surges and opens the circuit.

Types of Circuit Breakers

Although most circuit breakers look similar on the outside, there are actually four main types you may encounter. Here is what they are.

Single-Pole Circuit Breakers

A single-pole circuit breaker is the most common type you’ll find in most homes. It features a single switch and monitors a single electrical line. Most single-pole circuit breakers handle 120-volt circuits between 15 and 30 amps. This means you’ll find them on circuits that serve outlets, lighting, and small electrical devices.

Double-Pole Circuit Breakers

Double-pole circuit breakers simultaneously monitor two hot wires, enabling them to serve more voltage and higher amperages. They typically feature two connected switches that operate as a single switch. They come in 120- and 240-volt varieties and can handle between 15 and 200 amps. For this reason, you’ll find double-pole circuit breakers protecting high-load circuits. They’re used on circuits powering things like refrigerators, HVAC systems, washers, and dryers. Functionally, however, they work just like their single-pole cousins. The only difference is that a fault in either protected hot wire can trigger the breaker’s protection mechanism.

GFCI Circuit Breakers

GFCI stands for ground fault circuit interrupter. This refers to a mechanism that compares the incoming and outgoing voltage on a circuit’s hot and neutral wires. If there’s a difference in voltage between the two, it means the circuit’s current is flowing somewhere it shouldn’t be. This can happen due to a malfunctioning electrical device or if an outlet gets wet. In that situation, a GFCI breaker would detect the voltage differential and trip within 1/40th of a second. GFCI breakers can extend this protection to anything connected to their circuit. They also protect against short circuits and overvoltage, like ordinary circuit breakers.

AFCI Circuit Breakers

AFCI stands for arc fault circuit interrupter. An arc fault refers to a condition where electrical current escapes a wire and jumps to another conductive surface. This can happen if a wire in a circuit suffers damage to its sheath. For example, if someone accidentally drives a nail into a wire that’s hidden in a wall. Arcing electricity is a leading cause of electrical fires. An AFCI circuit breaker can detect abnormal electrical arcing along its circuit and immediately cut power.

Your Trusted Electrical Experts

HR Phoenix has been the leading commercial and residential electrician in Colleyville, TX for over six years. We can handle everything from replacing faulty outlets to complete building rewiring. We also offer generators, EV chargers, and plumbing services. We’re Better Business Bureau-accredited with an A+ rating. We offer financing options on approved credit to help you pay for costly projects. Plus, we’re a family-owned business with a flawless safety and customer service record. So, if you need a new electrical panel or circuit breakers in Colleyville, call our team at HR Phoenix right away!

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