Choosing Between Safety Switches and Circuit Breakers: What Sets Them Apart?

by | Jun 5, 2024

When it comes to electrical safety in your home and office, you don’t want to take any chances. Protecting yourself, your family, and your colleagues is crucial, and ensuring every measure is in place to prevent accidents or injuries is essential. This is where safety switches and circuit breakers come into play.

Surprisingly, many people can’t tell the difference between a circuit breaker and a safety switch—about 40% of people think they are the same thing. With the government now pushing for homes to be fitted with more than one safety switch for added protection, it’s more important than ever to understand the difference and make sure they are installed in your home.

Both safety switches and circuit breakers are devices designed to ensure electrical safety in households and workplaces. All leased homes must have safety switches installed, and a licensed electrical contractor can only perform installation work on a home with safety switches if it has been sold since September 1, 2002.

Understanding the role of each device and ensuring proper installation can significantly enhance the safety of your electrical systems.

Understanding electrical safety switches

A safety switch is designed to protect against electric shock by disconnecting the electricity whenever a fault is detected in a building’s wiring. It works by cutting off power from the electrical sources immediately upon sensing a problem, preventing potentially dangerous situations.

For example, if there is a fault in the wiring and someone comes into contact with a live wire, the safety switch will instantly detect the issue and cut off the power. However, it’s important to remember that while safety switches provide a significant level of protection, they are not infallible. You should always take responsibility for your personal safety measures first.

Safety switches can be installed on individual power outlets or switchboards, though switchboard installations are more common and provide broader protection for the entire electrical system.

Exploring different types of safety switches

There are three types of safety switches, each offering a different level of protection:

1.   Switchboard safety switches

These are mounted on a switchboard or meter box and protect electrical circuits, appliances, and extension cords throughout the property. Installation must be performed by a licensed electrician.

2.   Powerpoint safety switches

These protect appliances and electrical cords plugged into them. They are typically installed at the first powerpoint closest to the switchboard, providing localised protection for specific devices.

3.   Portable safety switches

As the name suggests, portable safety switches are designed for use with electrical appliances and power tools that cannot be connected to switchboards or powerpoint safety switches. They must be plugged directly into the portable switch, offering on-the-go protection.

Troubleshooting issues with electrical safety switches

When your home’s electrical system is under strain from powering too many devices, safety switches can run into trouble. If multiple appliances are running at once, the safety switch might overload and shut off the power—a common occurrence in residential settings known as electrical tripping.

Various factors, such as water damage or malfunctioning appliances, can potentially trigger these switches to trip, leading to inconvenience and potential safety hazards.

Circuit breakers explained

Similar to safety switches, circuit breakers also detect abnormal electric currents in the system and promptly cut off the power. This crucial safety feature is installed to protect the electrical circuits in your home. If there’s a fault in the wire connections or a system leak, a sudden surge in power could potentially lead to fires.

An electrical circuit breaker serves as a switching mechanism for managing and safeguarding an electrical power system. It can operate manually or automatically, providing essential protection against electrical faults. Modern circuit breakers are specially designed to safely interrupt the arc produced during their operation, as today’s power systems handle extremely high currents.

Various types of circuit breakers

Based on their functions and operations, circuit breakers can be categorised into four main types:

1.   Standard single pole breaker

These circuit breakers protect a single circuit unit, such as specific equipment or a particular area of the home. They typically protect circuits ranging from 15 to 20 amps. Under normal conditions, they allow electricity to flow through the circuit. However, in the event of overloading or a fault, they immediately shut off to prevent further damage. Once the system is repaired, it can be easily reset and reused.

2.   Standard double pole breaker

Similar to single pole breakers, double pole breakers also protect larger equipment like air conditioners or refrigerators. They require two wires to function properly, and the breaker can accept both, protecting against overcharging or short circuits. Double pole breakers are larger compared to single pole breakers and feature handles for resetting the hot wires when they trip.

3.   Ground Fault Circuit Interrupter (GFCI)

GFCIs are designed to protect against ground faults, which occur when electricity unintentionally enters the ground through conductive materials. They monitor the flow of current, and if there’s a discrepancy between the outgoing and returning currents, indicating a ground fault, the GFCI immediately stops the flow of electricity.

4.   Arc Fault Circuit Interrupter (AFCI)

AFCIs monitor circuits for hazardous malfunctions in electrical arcs. These arcs occur when there’s a loose connection, diverting the current flow towards another wire and potentially causing a fire. AFCIs detect such arcs and prevent the flow of current through the circuit to mitigate fire risks.

Identifying common issues with circuit breakers

1.   Damaged wires or faulty installation

Damaged wires or improper installation can affect any appliance, sometimes causing irreparable damage. To spot wire faults, watch for flickering lights, smoke coming from power outlets, or issues with your appliances.

2.   Circuit overload

Another common problem is circuit overload, which happens when too many gadgets are plugged into one outlet. Each device is designed to handle a specific amount of amps. If this limit is exceeded, it can damage your appliances.

Comparing safety switches and circuit breakers

Safety switches play a crucial role in monitoring electricity flow, instantly cutting off power in the event of a leak. While they primarily ensure human safety, protecting against electric shocks, burns, and fatalities, they are essential for any property, even if it already has a circuit breaker.

Speaking of circuit breakers, these devices swiftly interrupt power flow during electrical overloads. Positioned in switchboards, they safeguard wiring and systems from harm, preventing Powerpoint overload, fires, and wire burning. However, unlike safety switches, they don’t provide direct protection to individuals from electricity.

In essence, safety switches prioritise human safety by managing electrical overload, while circuit breakers focus on safeguarding wiring and systems. Both are crucial components for maintaining a safe electrical environment.

A combination of the two: RCB

A combination switch or an RCB offers the benefits of both a safety switch and a circuit breaker, making it ideal for installations needing dual protection. It’s versatile and capable of safeguarding single or multiple circuits.

However, there are drawbacks. Combination switches tend to be pricier and may require longer installation times compared to standalone options. You might also face compatibility issues with older electrical systems.

The final plug

Both safety switches and circuit breakers offer valuable features and benefits, but choosing between them depends on specific needs and circumstances. Safety switches are particularly advantageous in environments where accidental falls are possible, as they are protected by safety covers. Both devices are engineered to protect against electrical shocks, yet their differences are distinct.

Before investing in a security device, it’s essential to carefully consider these distinctions to make an informed decision. Understanding the unique capabilities and applications of safety switches and circuit breakers ensures that you select the most suitable option for your requirements.

If you have any inquiries about safety switches, circuit breakers, or any other electrical safety devices, or if you need assistance with electrical issues, don’t hesitate to reach out to us. Give Bell Electrical Contractors a call today at 0411 471 922, and one of our friendly team members will be more than happy to assist you.

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