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Every now and then, your circuit breaker is tripped. A room in the house goes dark, or your electrical plugs don’t work and you simply flip the switch back to where it should be. But what exactly is going on when that switch flips off? What does your circuit breaker do for you? The simple answer is that your circuit breaker is there to protect you, but how it does so is a little more complicated.

Circuit breakers are called such for a reason. When a dangerous surge of energy is detected, your circuit breaker will interrupt the electric flow by opening the circuit to prevent possible fires or other damage. When the circuit is opened, it creates what is called an arc, which is a large amount of heat created by the interruption of the electric flow. The breaker is designed to withstand this arc and then extinguish it to avert any possible danger.

When an overabundance of energy is detected, the circuit is opened by what are called contacts, which are made of highly conductive metals to ensure that the contacts can endure the arc. But, these contacts can wear out after battling the many arcs that come their way. Luckily, many circuit breakers have replaceable contacts so it’s easy to keep your home or any other building safe from fire or electrical damage. When you flip the switch back on, the circuit closes and resumes the electric flow to give you that light and electricity you need.

While the contacts are able to hold the heat of the arc, the arc must be extinguished before the electric current can be reestablished. This can be done with air, oil, insulating gas or vacuum, depending on what type of circuit breaker it is. It sounds complicated, but it doesn’t take long for the arc to be extinguished. Most arcs can be snuffed out in 30 to 150 milliseconds. That’s about 0.03 to 0.15 seconds. So, when you finally lug those old boxes aside, the arc has been extinguished and the circuit is ready to resume that electric flow to your television.

When the circuit breaker is tripped, it seems like a bit of a nuisance to go flip it back on. But, in reality, your circuit breaker is protecting you, like a security system for malevolent electric surges. Except, unlike a security system, it not only detects the problem, it gets rid of it for you. Just reset it and that trusty circuit breaker will be ready to defend you from the next fire or power surge.

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