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Circuit Breakers: Overview and


Circuit breakers are fundamental elements for a safe and code-compliant

electrical installation. Conductors and electrical equipment are exposed to
damage and malfunction, and there is always a risk that someone may
connect a device incorrectly or use it for the wrong application. These
conditions can cause a device to draw current above its rated value, and
the corresponding circuit breaker trips to disconnect the fault.

Before providing an overview of circuit breakers, it is important to

understand the difference between the two main current conditions that
cause a circuit breaker to trip.

• An overload current occurs when a device draws current above its

rated value, but not by a drastic margin. For example, a motor that is
rated at 60 Amperes but drawing 75 Amperes is likely suffering an
overload condition.
• A fault current is orders of magnitude higher than the rated current
of a circuit, and it occurs when a live conductor touches another at a
different voltage (short circuit), or a conductive surface (ground fault).
There is a high-magnitude current in both cases, since low-resistance
contact is established across a voltage difference. For example, a
residential circuit normally carrying 20 Amperes may experience a
few thousand Amperes during a fault.

A circuit breaker must trip under both conditions, but the ideal trip response
is different for each case:

• The response to an overload current should have a time

delay. Some types of equipment draw current above their rated value
for short periods of time as part of their normal operation. For
example, electric motors draw an inrush current up to 8 times their
rated current when they start.

• The response to a fault current should be instantaneous. These

currents are not normal under any operating conditions, and they
must be cleared immediately when detected.

Given this combination of performance requirements, most circuit breakers

actually have two protection mechanisms in a single device. There is a
thermal protection mechanism that responds to overload current, and a
magnetic protection mechanism that responds to fault currents.

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Thermal and Magnetic Protection
The thermal protection mechanism in a circuit breaker is based on an
expanding contact: the circuit is interrupted once the contact expands
beyond a certain point. The circuit breaker is calibrated so that the contact
will not open below rated current, but any current conditions exceeding it
will eventually cause a trip. Since current is the heat source that expands
the contact, more severe overload conditions cause a faster expansion and
a shorter trip time.

The magnetic protection mechanism is based on induction. Current passes

through a coil inside the circuit breaker, creating a magnetic field that
opens the connection. The field is too weak to trip the breaker under
normal operating conditions, but high-magnitude currents cause a strong
magnetic field that forces the breaker open.

Main Types of Circuit Breakers

Most circuit breakers found in residential and commercial buildings are
either miniature circuit breakers (MCB) or molded-case circuit
breakers (MCCB). MCBs are more compact as implied by their name, but
MCCBs are available in much higher current ratings and come with
additional performance features. MCBs are normally available with a
current rating of up to 100 amperes, while MCCBs reach up to 2,500

You will probably not find MCCBs in small homes and businesses, but they
are common in larger constructions, such as the high rise multi-family and
office buildings found throughout New York City.

Miniature Circuit Breakers

Miniature circuit breakers come in two main versions: DIN-rail mountable
MCBs can be installed along with other protection and control devices that
also use DIN rails, while plug-in MCBs are inserted on load centers with
specially designed slots. Keep in mind that DIN-rail MCBs are designed for
standard rails, while plug-in MCBs only fit into matching load centers from
the same manufacturer.

DIN-rail MCBs (left) and plug-in MCBs (right).

Plug-in MCBs have one to three poles, depending on the number of live
conductors in the circuit being protected. DIN-rail MCBs can have up to 4
poles, in order to disconnect the neutral conductor along with the live
conductors. Regardless of the type of circuit breaker, it is important to
select an adequate rated current and breaking capacity.

• The rated current is determined by the circuit being protected. Any

value above this eventually trips the thermal protection mechanism.
• The breaking capacity is the largest fault current that the unit can
interrupt without suffering permanent damage. Should a fault exceed
this value, there is an ultimate breaking capacity where the breaker
can still clear the fault but is permanently damaged. Any fault above
the ultimate breaking capacity cannot be cleared by the circuit
breaker, and must be handled by a higher capacity protection system
connected upstream.

Miniature circuit breakers are also classified into three types based on their
response to fault currents: Type B, C and D. The type determines the
threshold where the magnetic protection takes over the thermal protection,
causing an instantaneous trip. The following table describes the response
for each type:

Circuit Breaker Magnetic Protection

Type Response
Trips at 3 to 5 times rated
Type B
Trips at 5 to 10 times rated
Type C
Trips at 10 to 20 times rated
Type D
For example, if you have a device that draws 400% rated current during
startup, a Type B circuit breaker will trip but a Type C or D will not. Another
load drawing 800% rated current during startup would trip both Type B and
C breakers, leaving Type D as the only option.

Molded Case Circuit Breakers

MCCBs are bulkier than MCBs and are available with higher current
ratings. Many models also feature adjustable trip settings, allowing a very
accurate protection response if a specific load needs it.
Some MCCBs also come with a removable trip unit that can be replaced
with a smaller capacity unit, to recondition the breaker for a load with
reduced current. However, you cannot upgrade to a larger trip unit that
exceeds the frame size of the MCCB.

There are modern MCCBs that do not use the conventional thermal-
magnetic mechanism, but instead use an electronic circuit that measures
current and simulates the trip response. This allows a very precise
adjustment of protection settings.

Two subtypes of MCCB are designed specifically for the protection needs
of electric motors: Motor protection circuit breakers (MPCB) and motor
circuit protectors (MCP). The main difference is that an MPCB includes
both thermal and magnetic protection, while an MCP only comes with
magnetic protection and needs an external overload relay to offer full

Selecting the right type of circuit breaker is very important to ensure
the safe operation of building systems that include electrical components.
Undersized breakers trip continuously and disrupt equipment operation,
while oversized breakers do not provide reliable protection against overload
current. If an overload is not interrupted, the heating effect can damage
conductor insulation and eventually cause a ground fault or short circuit.

In New York City your installation must be designed according to the NYC
Electrical Code, which also includes the NFPA 70 National Electrical
Code. The NYC Energy Conservation Code does not affect breaker
selection directly, but the use of more efficient equipment leads to less
current consumption and possibly using smaller breakers.