Overcurrent protection devices are designed to protect equipment and structures from fire. They do not protect you from electrical shock! Overcurrent protection devices stop the flow of current in a circuit when the amperage is too high for the circuit. A circuit break- er or fuse will not stop the relatively small amount of current that can cause injury or death. Death can result from 20 mA (.020 amps) through the chest (see Section 2). A typical residential circuit break- er or fuse will not shut off the circuit until a current of more than 20 amps is reached!
But overcurrent protection devices are not allowed in areas where they could be exposed to physical damage or in hazardous environ- ments. Overcurrent protection devices can heat up and occasionally arc or spark, which could cause a fire or an explosion in certain areas. Hazardous environments are places that contain flammable or explosive materials such as flammable gases or vapors (Class I Hazardous Environments), finely pulverized flammable dusts (Class II Hazardous Environments), or fibers or metal filings that can catch fire easily (Class III Hazardous Environments). Hazardous environments may be found in aircraft hangars, gas stations, storage plants for flammable liquids, grain silos, and mills where cotton fibers may be suspended in the air. Special electrical systems are required in hazardous environments.
If an overcurrent protection device opens a circuit, there may be a problem along the circuit. (In the case of circuit breakers, frequent tripping may also indicate that the breaker is defective.) When a cir- cuit breaker trips or a fuse blows, the cause must be found.
❚ Find the cause of an overload.
A circuit breaker is one kind of overcurrent protection device. It is a type of automatic switch located in a circuit. A circuit breaker trips when too much current passes through it. A circuit breaker should not be used regularly to turn power on or off in a circuit, unless the breaker is designed for this purpose and marked “SWD” (stands for “switching device”).
A fuse is another type of overcurrent protection device. A fuse con- tains a metal conductor that has a relatively low melting point. When too much current passes through the metal in the fuse, it heats up within a fraction of a second and melts, opening the circuit. After an overload is found and corrected, a blown fuse must be replaced with a new one of appropriate amperage.
Only circuit breakers marked “SWD” should be used as switches.