A circuit breaker is an automatically operated electrical switch designed to protect an electrical circuit from damage caused by excess current from an overload or short circuit. Its basic function is to interrupt current flow after a fault is detected. Unlike a fuse, which operates once and then must be replaced, a circuit breaker can be reset (either manually or automatically) to resume normal operation.
Interconnection of multiple generator sources into an electrical grid required the development of circuit breakers with increasing voltage ratings and increased ability to safely interrupt the increasing short-circuit currents produced by networks. Simple air-break manual switches produced hazardous arcs when interrupting high voltages; these gave way to oil-enclosed contacts, and various forms using the directed flow of pressurized air, or of pressurized oil, to cool and interrupt the arc. By 1935, the specially constructed circuit breakers used at the Boulder Dam project use eight series breaks and pressurized oil flow to interrupt faults of up to 2,500 MVA, in three cycles of the AC power frequency.
The circuit breaker must first detect a fault condition. In small mains and low voltage circuit breakers, this is usually done within the device itself. Typically, the heating or magnetic effects of electric current are employed. Circuit breakers for large currents or high voltages are usually arranged with protective relay pilot devices to sense a fault condition and to operate the opening mechanism. These typically require a separate power source, such as a battery, although some high-voltage circuit breakers are self-contained with current transformers, protective relays, and an internal control power source.
Low-voltage miniature circuit breakers (MCB) use air alone to extinguish the arc. These circuit breakers contain so-called arc chutes, a stack of mutually insulated parallel metal plates that divide and cool the arc. By splitting the arc into smaller arcs the arc is cooled down while the arc voltage is increased and serves as an additional impedance that limits the current through the circuit breaker. The current-carrying parts near the contacts provide easy deflection of the arc into the arc chutes by a magnetic force of a current path, although magnetic blowout coils or permanent magnets could also deflect the arc into the arc chute (used on circuit breakers for higher ratings). The number of plates in the arc chute is dependent on the short-circuit rating and nominal voltage of the circuit breaker.
Circuit breakers are usually able to terminate all current very quickly: typically the arc is extinguished between 30 ms and 150 ms after the mechanism has been tripped, depending upon age and construction of the device. The maximum current value and let-through energy determine the quality of the circuit breakers.
Under short-circuit conditions, the calculated or measured maximum prospective short-circuit current may be many times the normal, rated current of the circuit. When electrical contacts open to interrupt a large current, there is a tendency for an arc to form between the opened contacts, which would allow the current to continue. This condition can create conductive ionized gases and molten or vaporized metal, which can cause further continuation of the arc, or creation of additional short circuits, potentially resulting in the explosion of the circuit breaker and the equipment that it is installed in. Therefore, circuit breakers must incorporate various features to divide and extinguish the arc.
Circuit breakers are manufactured in standard sizes, using a system of preferred numbers to cover a range of ratings. Miniature circuit breakers have a fixed trip setting; changing the operating current value requires changing the whole circuit breaker. Larger circuit breakers can have adjustable trip settings, allowing standardized elements to be applied but with a setting intended to improve protection. For example, a circuit breaker with a 400 ampere "frame size" might have its overcurrent detection set to operate at only 300 amperes, to protect a feeder cable.
Solid-state circuit breakers, also known as digital circuit breakers are a technological innovation which promises advance circuit breaker technology out of the mechanical level, into the electrical. This promises several advantages, such as cutting the circuit in fractions of microseconds, better monitoring of circuit loads and longer lifetimes.
Thermal magnetic circuit breakers, which are the type found in most distribution boards in Europe and countries with a similar wiring arrangements, incorporate both techniques with the electromagnet responding instantaneously to large surges in current (short circuits) and the bimetallic strip responding to less extreme but longer-term over-current conditions. The thermal portion of the circuit breaker provides a time response feature, that trips the circuit breaker sooner for larger over currents but allows smaller overloads to persist for a longer time. This allows short current spikes such as are produced when a motor or other non-resistive load is switched on. With very large over-currents during a short-circuit, the magnetic element trips the circuit breaker with no intentional additional delay.
Large power circuit breakers, applied in circuits of more than 1000 volts, may incorporate hydraulic elements in the contact operating mechanism. Hydraulic energy may be supplied by a pump, or stored in accumulators. These form a distinct type from oil-filled circuit breakers where oil is the arc extinguishing medium.
In the USA, where split phase supplies are common, in branch circuits with more than one live conductor, each live conductor must be protected by a breaker pole. To ensure that all live conductors are interrupted when any pole trips, a "common trip" breaker must be used. These may either contain two or three tripping mechanisms within one case, or for small breakers, may externally tie the poles together via their operating handles. Two-pole common trip breakers are common on 120/240-volt systems where 240 volt loads (including major appliances or further distribution boards) span the two live wires. Three-pole common trip breakers are typically used to supply three-phase electric power to large motors or further distribution boards.