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Some of the most important safety devices in your home, the circuit breaker is the unsung heroe of residential fire prevention. In Ontario, a new electrical code has recently been implemented as of May 2016 that affects the types of breakers required in new constructions or home renovations. Let’s quickly discuss the basics of circuit breakers in the home and then how new regulations in Ontario will change the approach to electrical work for your home renovation or addition here in Ottawa.

What are circuit breakers?

Circuit breakers are devices meant to control and protect electrical power systems from dangerous amounts of current. Since equipment and wires can fail, overheat or get damaged, homes need circuit breakers to protect against potential fires caused by the electrical wiring.

How exactly do circuit breakers work? Circuit breakers automatically act to cut power whenever electrical wiring is detected as having unsafe levels of current flowing through it. Conventional household circuit breakers contain a switch that allows current to flow through at safe levels when the contacts are touching. This switch will act to separate the contacts and break the circuit from carrying electricity when current rises to unsafe levels.
Unlike fuses, circuit breakers can be reset and used multiple times and do not need to be replaced after acting.
There are two main types of circuit breakers: GFCIs and AFCIs.

What are GFCIs?

Ground Fault Circuit Interrupters stop the flow of electrical current to the protected wire before it can be touched by anyone. GFCIs are inexpensive safety devices that are designed to protect human beings from dangerous electrical shock rather than prevent damage to materials.

GFCIs act faster than conventional breakers as they break the circuit as soon as a surge is detected in a hot wire, rather than waiting for the surge to lead to unsafe levels as is the case with conventional breakers.

GFCIs can be found in your central electrical panel and they protect any outlets, lights or appliances that are connected to that particular circuit. GFCI protected circuits work well in areas that may come in contact with water and are therefore required in Ontario to protect exterior outlets, bathroom outlets and new kitchen constructions or renovations where outlets are within 1.5 meters of the edge of any sink, bathtub or shower.

What are AFCIs?

Arc Fault Circuit Interrupters are circuit breakers that immediately disconnect power if they detect a dangerous or unintended electrical arc. These dangerous arcs of electricity can start a fire by igniting surrounding materials such as wood, drywall and insulation.

In contrast to GFCIs, AFCIs are designed to prevent fires and damage to materials, rather than prevent shock. Arc faults are dangerous and can be caused by a variety of factors that damage the electrical wire: nails, screws, vermin, excessive heat, aged or bent cords, etc. The advantage of AFCIs is that they detect a wider array of dangerous arcs than standard breakers and work immediately to disconnect power.

Since their requirement by the Ontario Electrical Safety Code (OESC) in 2002, AFCI circuits that supply bedroom outlets have greatly reduced the potential for electrical fires originating in bedrooms. In fact, AFCIs have been so effective that they are now required by OESC code as of May 2016 on circuits in most areas of your home, including outdoors. The exception to this rule is in kitchens and bathrooms where GFCI protected circuits are required due to their ability to protect against the dangerous mix of water and electricity.

The new OESC guidelines also specifically require a specific type of AFCI – combination type – that protect wiring within house walls and connected electrical cords too.

How do circuit breakers affect my home renovation plans?

Since AFCI breakers are mandatory in Ontario as of May 2016, any new home renovation or construction in Ottawa must include them where specified. While AFCIs do provide better protection, they are unfortunately more expensive.

In addition to the cost of the AFCI breakers themselves, an additional cost may come from upgrading the accompanying electrical panel to accommodate them. This is because the old panel may not be equipped to handle the upgrade to AFCIs and replacement of the entire panel or installation of a sub-panel may be required during your home renovation.