Breakers

Most service panels contain circuit breakers (switches designed to "trip" if an excessive amount of current is drawn through them). These should be tripped and reset by hand periodically to help prevent them from becoming stuck or fused in the open position.

Older services frequently predate our modern dependence on electrical appliances. Accordingly, they are often low capacity, ungrounded systems. Do not try to force the system to perform tasks beyond its design. Consider proper upgrades with modern techniques instead. Circuits that trip or blow can indicate a problem such as overloads or short circuits. Circuit breakers and fuses are both a protection and a warning. Never attempt to defeat these devices! Find and correct the root of the problem! Electrical faults can cause fires and can cause injuries or death from shock.

Always maintain proper unobstructed clearance (30" x 36" x 6') in front of the panel--this is important not only for convenience but to allow firemen ease of access to switch off power in the event of a fire. Any danger signs such as "chatter", excessive heat, arcing, electrical or burning odors, water in or around the panel and so on should be investigated by a licensed electrician immediately. Federal Pacific panels are reported to have been associated with a high incidence of catastrophic failure. If you have these panels consult with your electrician on potential replacements.

GFCIs
A "GFCI" is a ground fault circuit interrupter. A ground fault circuit interrupter is an inexpensive electrical device that, if installed in household branch circuits, could prevent over two-thirds of the approximately 300 electrocutions still occurring each year in and around the home. Installation of the device could also prevent thousands of burn and electric shock injuries each year.

The GFCI is designed to protect people from severe or fatal electric shocks. Because a GFCI detects ground faults, it can also prevent some electrical fires and reduce the severity of others by interrupting the flow of electric current.

The Problem
Have you ever experienced an electric shock? If you did, the shock probably happened because your hand or some other part of your body contacted a source of electrical current and your body provided a path for the electrical current to go to the ground, so that you received a shock.

An unintentional electric path between a source of current and a grounded surface is referred to as a "ground-fault." Ground faults occur when current is leaking somewhere, in effect, electricity is escaping to the ground. How it leaks is very important. If your body provides a path to the ground for this leakage, you could be injured, burned, severely shocked, or electrocuted.

Some examples of accidents that underscore this hazard include the following:

  • Two children, ages five and six, were electrocuted in Texas when a plugged-in hair dryer fell into the tub in which they were bathing.
  • A three-year-old Kansas girl was electrocuted when she touched a faulty countertop

These two electrocutions occurred because the electrical current escaping from the appliance traveled through the victim to ground (in these cases, the grounded plumbing fixtures). Had a GFCI been installed, these deaths would probably have been prevented because a GFCI would have sensed the current flowing to ground and would have switched off the power before the electrocution occurred. If you are old enough...and we are...to remember the old Perry Mason television shows then you will also remember the scene with a man in the bath tub and someone else tosses the plugged in radio into the tub resulting in the man's electrocution and death. Well, the good new is that "death by radio" can be a real thing of the past with properly installed and operating GFCI protection.

How the GFCI Works
In the home's wiring system, the GFCI constantly monitors electricity flowing in a circuit, to sense any loss of current. If the current flowing through the circuit differs by a small amount from that returning, the GFCI quickly switches off power to that circuit. The GFCI interrupts power faster than a blink of an eye to prevent a lethal dose of electricity. You may receive a painful shock, but you should not be electrocuted or receive a serious shock injury.

Here's how it may work in your house.. Suppose a bare wire inside an appliance touches the metal case. The case is then charged with electricity. If you touch the appliance with one hand while the other hand is touching a grounded metal object, like a water faucet, you will receive a shock. If the appliance is plugged into an outlet protected by a GFCI, the power will be shut off before a fatal shock would occur.

Availability of GFCIs
Three common types of ground fault circuit interrupters are available for home use:

  • Receptacle Type: This type of GFCI is used in place of the standard duplex receptacle found throughout the house It fits into the standard outlet box and protects you against "ground faults' whenever an electrical product is plugged into the outlet Most receptacle-type GFCls can be installed so that they also protect other electrical outlets further "down stream" in the branch circuit.
  • Circuit Breaker Type: In homes equipped with circuit breakers rather than fuses, a circuit breaker GFCI may be installed in a panel box to give protection to selected circuits The circuit breaker GFCI serves a dual purpose - not only will it shut off electricity in the event of a "ground-fault," but it will also trip when a short circuit or an overload occurs Protection covers the wiring and each outlet, lighting fixture, heater, etc. served by the branch circuit protected by the GFCI in the panel box.
  • Portable Type: Where permanent GFCls are not practical, portable GFCls may be used One type contains the GFCI circuitry in a plastic enclosure with plug blades in the back and receptacle slots in the front. It can be plugged into a receptacle and then the electrical product is plugged into the GFCI. Another type of portable GFCI is an extension cord combined with a GFCI. It adds flexibility in using receptacles that are not protected by GFCls.

Where GFCIs Should Be Considered

In homes built to comply with the National Electrical Code (the Code), GFCI protection is required for most outdoor receptacles (since 1973), bathroom receptacle circuits (since 1975), garage wall outlets (since 1978), kitchen receptacles (since 1987), and all receptacles in crawl spaces and unfinished basements (since 1990).

Owners of homes that do not have GFCls installed in all those critical areas specified in the latest version of the Code should consider having them installed. For broad protection, GFCI circuit breakers may be added in many panels of older homes to replace ordinary circuit breaker. For homes protected by fuses, you are limited to receptacle or portable-type GFCIs and these may be installed in areas of greatest exposure, such as the bathroom, kitchen, basement, garage, and outdoor circuits.

A GFCI should be used whenever operating electrically powered garden equipment (mower, hedge trimmer, edger, etc.). Consumers can obtain similar protection by using GFCIs with electric tools (drills, saws, sanders, etc.) for do-it-yourself work in and around the house.

Installing GFCIs

Circuit breaker and receptacle-type GFCIs may be installed in your home by a qualified electrician. Receptacle-type GFCIs may be installed by knowledgeable consumers familiar with electrical wiring practices who also follow the instructions accompanying the device. When in doubt about the proper procedure, contact a qualified electrician. Do not attempt to install it yourself.

The portable GFCI requires no special knowledge or equipment to install.

Testing the GFCIs

All GFCIs should be tested once a month to make sure they are working properly and are protecting you from fatal shock. GFCIs should be tested after installation to make sure they are working properly and protecting the circuit.

To test the receptacle GFCI, first plug a night light or lamp into the outlet. The light should be on Then, press the "TEST" button on the GFCI. The GFCI's "RESET" button should pop out, and the light should go out.

If the "RESET" button pops out but the light does not go out, the GFCI has been improperly wired. Contact an electrician to correct the wiring errors.

If the "RESET" button does not pop out, the GFCI is defective and should be replaced.

If the GFCI is functioning properly, and the lamp goes out, press the "RESET" button to restore power to the outlet.

Content Provided By the DOE



Aluminum Branch Wiring 1960's-1970's

Aluminum wiring was used during the 1960’s and 1970’s for the wiring of receptacles, switches and devices throughout many homes. This single strand branch aluminum wiring has been implicated in a number of house fires. The actual cause of these fires was not the aluminum wire itself, but was the result of improper connections. Aluminum does not conduct electricity as efficiently as copper and creates more resistance and heat. The wire also expands and contracts more than copper thus there is a tendency for the connections to become loose at the devices and junction boxes. Oxidation will build up between the loose connections, causing an increase in the amount of heat generated, which then poses a potential fire hazard.

Many individuals believe that the aluminum wiring should be removed and replaced with copper. This is not always necessary, and there are approved or recognized methods for making the system safe. If single strand aluminum wire is present (#12, #10 General Purpose Branch Wiring) it is important to install or verify proper connections of all devices and terminals throughout the house. Copper wire ends, known as ‘pigtails’, can be installed at all terminals. Standard wire nuts are not approved for pig tailing, and according to the Consumer Product Safety Commission, may pose an even greater fire hazard and should be replaced. Approved methods include:

  • UL Listed purple wire connectors with copper pigtails (i.e. Ideal 65)
  • CO/ALR Connectors or Devices
  • Crimped Pigtails (i.e. AMP Copalum connector)

We cannot simply open junction boxes or devices to verify proper connections. All connections throughout the house must be verified by an electrician. Multi-stranded appliance wire or entrance cable is not included as a potential source of problems. It is still used and accepted. Look for antioxidant paste at panel connections for these wires and cables.

Copper Clad Aluminum
Copper Clad Aluminum is easily mistaken for copper. It does not have the same problem with oxidation build up as does aluminum. It is typically a #12 wire and still needs proper devices with the larger screw heads or approved pig tailing methods. To identify Copper Clad Aluminum, look for a silver color at the ends of the wires where they are connected to the grounding bar. Copper Clad Aluminum can also be identified in the attic or crawlspace, or other locations where the wiring is visible, by looking for the identification on the wire sheathing, i.e. CU Clad AL.


FEDERAL PACIFIC BREAKERS and PANELS
These breakers and panels have been associated with an increased risk of fire. The following is the CPSC statement on Federal Pacific breakers. Our position is that design and performance issues raise concerns about the safety of these components compared to other manufacturers. The panels should be closely monitored as recommended in the following CPSC statement and replacement should be considered if there are any signs of failure noted or if substantial electrical work is planned.

U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission

Office of Information and Public Affairs Washington, DC 20207

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE  
March 3, 1983  
Release # 83-008

Commission Closes Investigation Of FPE Circuit Breakers And Provides Safety Information For Consumers

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- The Consumer Product Safety Commission announced today that it is closing its two year investigation into Federal Pacific Electric Stab-lok type residential circuit breakers. This action was taken because the data currently available to the Commission does not establish that the circuit breakers serious risk of injury to consumers.

The Commission investigation into Federal Pacific Electric (FPE) circuit breakers began in June, 1980, when Reliance Electric Co., a subsidiary of Exxon Corporation and the parent to FPE, reported to the Commission that many FPE circuit breakers did not fully comply with Underwriters Laboratories, Inc. (UL) requirements. Commission testing confirmed that these breakers fail certain UL calibration test requirements. The Commission investigation focused primarily on 2 pole residential circuit breakers manufactured before Reliance acquired FPE in 1979.

To meet UL standards, residential circuit breakers must pass a number of so-called "calibration tests." The purpose of these tests is to determine whether the circuit breakers will hold the current for which they are rated and also automatically open or "trip" (shut off the current) within specified time limits if over-loading of the circuit causes current levels in excess of the breaker's amperage rating. (Overloading can occur because a consumer plugs too many products into a circuit or due to the failure of a product or component connected to that circuit). While the Commission is concerned about the failure of these FPE breakers to meet UL calibration requirements, the Commission is unable at this time to link these failures to the development of a hazardous situation.

According to Reliance, failures of these FPE breakers to comply with certain UL calibration requirements do not create a hazard in the household environment. It is Reliance's position that FPE breakers will trip reliably at most overload levels unless the breakers have been operated in a repetitive, abusive manner that should not occur during residential use. Reliance maintains that, at those few overload levels where FPE breakers may fail to trip under realistic use conditions, currents will be too low to generate hazardous temperatures in household wiring. Reliance believes its position in this regard is supported by test data that it provided to the Commission.

The Commission staff believes that it currently has insufficient data to accept or refute Reliance's position.

The Commission staff estimates that it would cost several million dollars to gather the data necessary to assess fully whether those circuit breakers which are installed in homes but which may fail UL calibration tests present a risk to the public. Based on the Commission's limited budget ($34 million for fiscal year 1983), the known hazards the Commission has identified and must address (involving products of other manufacturers) and the uncertainty of the results of such a costly investigation, the Commission has decided not to commit further resources to its investigation of FPE's circuit breakers. However, despite its decision to close this particular investigation, the Commission will continue its investigation of circuit breakers generally. The Commission can reopen its investigation of FPE circuit breakers if further information warrants.

The Commission advises consumers to take certain safety precautions with all circuit breakers and fuses. Consumers should:

  • Know your electrical circuit. Know which outlets and products are connected to each circuit.

  • Never overload any electrical circuit by connecting too many products to the circuit. Be particularly careful not to connect several products that demand high current (such as heating appliances) to a low amperage circuit.

  • Comply with local building codes in wiring or adding electrical circuits. Make sure the wiring and devices used in the circuit are connected to a circuit breaker or fuse of the proper size.

  • Immediately disconnect any electrical product if problems develop. Have the product examined by a competent repair person.

  • Investigate to determine why a fuse blows or circuit breaker trips. Do not simply replace the fuse or reset the breaker. If a fuse blows or breaker trips, it is often a warning that the circuit is overloaded. Check the circuit for causes of overloading (for example, too many appliances plugged in, a malfunctioning product, a short circuit). When in doubt, consult a licensed electrician.

Consumers who have questions concerning circuit breakers, or who wish to report information relating to their safety, may call the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission's toll-free safety hotline at 800-638-CPSC.

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Send the link for this page to a friend! The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission is charged with protecting the public from unreasonable risks of serious injury or death from more than 15,000 types of consumer products under the agency's jurisdiction. Deaths, injuries and property damage from consumer product incidents cost the nation more than $700 billion annually. The CPSC is committed to protecting consumers and families from products that pose a fire, electrical, chemical, or mechanical hazard or can injure children. The CPSC's work to ensure the safety of consumer products - such as toys, cribs, power tools, cigarette lighters, and household chemicals - contributed significantly to the 30 percent decline in the rate of deaths and injuries associated with consumer products over the past 30 years.

To report a dangerous product or a product-related injury, call CPSC's hotline at (800) 638-2772 or CPSC's teletypewriter at (800) 638-8270, or visit CPSC's web site at www.cpsc.gov/talk.html. To join a CPSC email subscription list, please go to www.cpsc.gov/cpsclist.asp. Consumers can obtain this release and recall information at CPSC's Web site at www.cpsc.gov.