Surge Protector vs Circuit Breaker: 5 Main Differences

Ensuring your home is kitted with the correct safety equipment when it comes to home electronics is extremely important. A sudden spike in current or voltage can lead to your devices breaking, your home electrical system catching fire, or, even worse, you could get shocked.

Two of the most common devices we use for electrical safety are the surge protector and circuit breaker. Yet even though we use these daily, there is quite a lot of confusion about what these devices do. Are they just two different devices that serve the same function?

There is a crucial distinction between how a surge protector and circuit breaker function, as these, are critical components to home electronics safety.

The main difference between a surge protector and a circuit breaker is that a circuit breaker is designed to keep your home writing system from catching fire due to having too much current flowing through it.

These are a mandatory part of a home’s electrical system. If a circuit breaker should break, it will need to be replaced immediately.

Surge protectors, on the other hand, are more optional and ‘absorb’ a voltage surge to protect a device such as a hair dryer or laptop from damage. 

A good example of a voltage surge is a lightning strike that sends a sudden and unexpected high voltage surge through your home, which can end up damaging your appliances.

What is a surge protector?

As the name might suggest, a surge protector is designed to protect an appliance from an unexpected ‘surge’ in voltage that might damage a piece of electrical equipment. It’s commonly found in a power bar, meaning you can run multiple appliances through it.

One of the main distinctions between this and a circuit breaker is that it does not monitor the current of the electrical system. It specifically only responds to voltage. 

Much like a water current, the current is the rate at which an electrical charge flows down a wire. Whereas the voltage is the amount of force that current carries, so when that voltage increases for any reason, that added force can damage appliances and even cause them to pop and break.

Voltage spikes can be triggered by many things, such as lightning strikes, a broken power line, or bad/faulty wiring in your home. Something as simple as a large home appliance turning on, such as a big freezer, can be enough to produce a voltage surge.

With that being said, surge protectors are considered optional. As they are designed to ‘absorb’ the excess voltage and reduce it before it hits your appliance, they don’t always work, and many people don’t even think they are worth using at all.

What is a circuit breaker?

While a circuit breaker is still there to protect your home from electrical issues, the exact kind of electrical issue and how it functions is very different from the surge protector.

The circuit breaker monitors the amount of current (rate of flow, instead of voltage which is force) passing through your home wiring. When that current is too high for the wire to handle, it risks overheating and catching fire. 

So the circuit breaker will literally ‘break’ the circuit when the current increases above a certain threshold, for example, if it detects a 15 amp circuit with 20 amps flowing through it. This will then trip the circuit breaker severing the connection.

So what can cause an excessive current to be used?

Too many high-powered appliances running through a single circuit will draw more current than the wires can handle. Or if a device becomes faulty and overheats, it will often try to draw additional current. Other electrical faults, such as bad grounding or short circuits, can cause an abnormally high current.

Your main takeaway from this should be that the circuit breaker is mandatory for the safety of both you and your home. A high voltage may put your appliances at risk, but an electrical fire puts you and your home at risk.

What are the differences between a surge protector and a circuit breaker?

While both of these devices contribute to the safety of your home electronic systems, what they protect, how they do it, and their level of importance is pretty different.

Here’s a deeper look at their differences to help you understand their functions better.

1. Voltage vs. current

One of the best analogies to understand the difference between voltage and current is to think of a garden hose with water flowing out of it.

The current is the amount of water from the hose, and the voltage is the force or pressure it is coming out. 

When we think of this in terms of electricity, a higher current flowing through a wire not rated to handle it may overheat and set it on fire.

So the circuit breaker is designed to deal with this high current by physically breaking the circuit should it detect a high current. This, in turn, protects the wires from overheating and potential fire.

The surge protection is designed to take some of the ‘force’ out of an electrical surge and redirect it to your home’s ground; this protects the appliance from a sudden ‘impact’ that might break it.

2. Installation locations

Circuit breakers can be installed in different areas depending on the home’s layout. But generally, they are placed in ‘low traffic’ areas such as a basement or garage. Or if you live in an apartment, they could be in a more central location, such as a hallway.

Surge protectors can come in two primary forms. The most common type is built into a power strip, helping to protect any appliance plugged into that strip.

But you can also find ‘whole house’ surge protectors installed in the main switchboard. But they can also be installed onto sub-boards too.

3. Causes behind voltage/current problems

A voltage spike, which the surge protector helps against, can be caused by a buildup of static electricity, a problem with the national grid where people turn on their air conditioning en masse after work, or the most common cause, which is a lightning strike.

A high current, which the circuit breakers help with, is usually caused by an overload, a short circuit, or a ground fault causing too high of a current to pass through the home’s wiring system.

4. What they protect against

If you didn’t have a circuit breaker, there would be too much current flowing through the wire, and it would overheat to the point where it would catch fire—putting your entire home in danger.

But a surge protector only protects against a voltage spike, meaning your appliance would probably break, but your home wiring should remain intact.

5. Mandatory vs. optional protection

A circuit breaker is a mandatory part of your home electronic system as it is vital to the safety and protection of you and your home. 

But surge protectors are optional as voltage surges are relatively rare and even more dangerous. Many people opt not to bother using them at all.

Surge Protector vs Circuit Breaker: Are they the same?

So as you can see, while they both fall under the category of electrical protection devices, their functions in the home and what they protect against are pretty different.

  • A surge protector is designed to protect an appliance against voltage spikes, whereas a circuit breaker will protect your home’s electrical system from high currents and potential fire.
  • A circuit breaker is usually installed in your home’s main electrical panel. At the same time, a surge protector is generally built into a power strip, although you can also have a ‘house surge protector’ installed in your main/sub-power boxes.
  • A high current is commonly caused by a problem with your ground, an overload, or a short circuit. But a voltage spike is more commonly caused by external factors such as a lightning strike or national grid problem.
  • A voltage spike will cause an appliance to break, whereas a high current will increase the heat generated by overloading the wire and potentially causing a fire.
  • A circuit breaker is mandatory for home electrical safety, whereas a surge protector is optional and can provide peace of mind.
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