As some of you know, I hold a journeyman’s electrician license in the state of Minnesota. During my trip to the International Builders Show recently, one of the most interesting new products I saw happened to be a new type of circuit breaker. I know, exciting! Actually, this new technology goes well beyond protecting some electrical circuit or piece of equipment. I’ll discuss this new breaker and load center at the end of this blog, first I would like to talk about the different types of breakers, how and what they are designed to protect.
When I first started in the electrical industry, way back in 1996, there were two types of circuit breakers used in residential construction. The first was the standard breaker, which was designed to protect against overcurrent and short circuiting. (A definition for those terms in a minute.) The second breaker was a GFCI, or ground fault circuit interrupter. In 1999 we became aware of a new type of breaker, an AFCI or arc fault circuit interrupter. This type of breaker is now required on almost every circuit in a new home.
Let’s start with a few definitions.
Overcurrent protection is an automatic switch (breaker) that will open an electrical circuit if more electrical current is present than the a wire or piece of equipment is able to safely handle. If too much current is allowed to flow in a wire that is too small, the wire will create heat which can possibly cause a fire. This breaker is also designed to protect the equipment the electrical circuit is feeding. Every circuit breaker used in a home today has overcurrent protection built into the device. Most people have experienced an overcurrent event. Using a curling iron and blow dryer at the same time on a bathroom circuit, or the toaster, microwave and coffee maker on a kitchen circuit will usually trip a breaker due to an overcurrent event.
A short circuit is when parts of a circuit or wires that are to be separated from each other come in contact. For instance, if the ground wire which is connected to the earth comes in contact with a phase wire, or one of the wires carrying electricity, the result will be a short circuit. A very large amount of current will be carried in the wire resulting in sparking and arcing. Again, a properly operating breaker will quickly open to prevent property damage.
Both overcurrent and short circuit protection are in place to protect personal property, such as a home or equipment within the home. There will be too much current flowing through these circuits to prevent an injury to a person, electrocution may be the result.
GFCI or ground fault circuit interrupter is a breaker or receptacle designed to open a circuit if there is an imbalance between the incoming and outgoing current within the circuit. This type of personal protection will open a circuit at a very low amperage. Electricity can stop a human heart in as little as .03 amps, a GFCI clears a fault at .005 amps. A GFCI is designed to protect life.
AFCI or arc fault circuit interrupter is designed to open a circuit if a certain arc is detected. There is always arcing going on in electricity. Turning on a light switch will create a small arc. Using a vacuum cleaner? The motor in the vacuum is arcing. These are “good arcs” were electricity is doing work it was designed to do. An example of a bad arc is when there is a bad connection between a receptacle and it’s wiring or a frayed extension cord. Arcing in these instances can cause a fire. An AFCI will open a circuit if that type of arcing is detected.
The technology in these circuit breakers and receptacles are continually improving. The first AFCI’s that were introduced 20 years ago had a reputation for neucence tripping. The technology continues to improve and reliability is much better today. The newer breakers have an option of GFCI and AFCI together in the same breaker. I recently installed one of these combination breakers in my basement office, the AFCI is code required. My office is finished and would not be required to have a GFCI, but there are a couple receptacles on a common wall outside my basement office Because they are located in an unfinished area, they are required to be GFCI protected.
So, what did I see at the International Builders Show that was so interesting, it needed it’s a blog posting? I stopped by the Leviton booth. Leviton is the largest privately held manufacturer of electrical wiring equipment in North America. They have developed a breaker that is used in their new electrical panel or load center that is Wi-Fi enabled. This breaker is proprietary and can only be used in the Leviton load center. With this breaker, you will be able to track electricity usage through an app on your phone, tablet or computer. Usage can be tracked per hour, day, month, or year. Handy for determining what is using electricity in your home. This would be a great tool for me when conducting energy audits. Another option is you are able to remotely trip a breaker in the panel. Great if you want to mess with your family. Just kidding, this feature would be useful if you forgot to turn something off after leaving home. Lets say a space heater or curling iron was left on, you could simply turn the device off from your phone. One concern is how secure is the system. Last thing someone would want is a hacker to turn of the power to your freezer or furnace.
Another feature I was impressed with is how the panel looks. Most electrical panels are grey in color and only look good if you are an electrician. This panel is white, can be painted, and has an option for a glass front. I nice look for a modern mechanical or laundry room.
How about cost? The factory rep at the Leviton booth indicated the cost will be comparable to an upper end load center. Because of the Wi-Fi breakers, my guess it will be the most expensive residential load center on the market. If your a nerd like me and want to know where electricity is being used and which kid to have a talk with about leaving the lights on, it might be worth the investment. Oh, and by the way this load center and breaker was voted “Best home technology product” at the 2019 International Builders Show.