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Tips from an Electrician: Understanding the Difference Between Circuit Breakers and GFCI

By September 13, 2023October 17th, 2023Blog
An electrician checks the circuit breaker switches in a home

While an electrician or electrical contractor knows the difference between these two types of safety systems, the average homeowner may not.  If you’re a homeowner, it’s essential to have a basic understanding of your electrical system. Two common terms you might have come across are “circuit breaker” and “GFCI.” But what exactly are they, and how do they differ? In this blog post, we’ll break down the difference between circuit breakers and GFCIs in a way that’s easy to grasp, even if you’re not an electrician.

Circuit Breakers: The Guardians of Your Electrical System

Imagine your home’s electrical system as a complex network of wires and circuits. These circuits deliver electricity to various appliances and outlets throughout your house. Now, here’s where the circuit breaker comes into play.

What is a Circuit Breaker?

A circuit breaker is like a vigilant guardian for your electrical system. Its primary job is to protect your home from electrical overloads and short circuits. When there’s an excessive flow of electricity, which could be due to a faulty appliance or a wiring issue, the circuit breaker springs into action.

Where is My Circuit Breaker?

Every home is different, but circuit breakers are usually found in low-traffic areas. Areas such as basements, garages, or utility closets are common places in which you will find circuit breakers. Before a breaker is tripped, be sure to know where your breaker box is located and if possible, label the switches in case fuses are blown.

How Does a Circuit Breaker Work?

Picture a circuit breaker as a switch connected to a bungee cord. When there’s a sudden surge of electricity, like when you plug in too many devices into a single outlet or there’s a fault in the wiring, the circuit breaker detects it. It instantly “trips,” which means it opens the circuit and stops the flow of electricity.

This action prevents overheating and potential fires caused by overloaded circuits. Once the issue is resolved, you can simply reset the circuit breaker to restore power to that specific circuit.

GFCIs: Safeguarding You Against Electrical Shocks

Now, let’s turn our attention to GFCIs, which stand for Ground Fault Circuit Interrupters. Unlike circuit breakers, GFCIs serve a different but equally important purpose in your home’s electrical safety.

What is a GFCI?

A GFCI is like an electrical superhero that protects you from electric shocks, especially in wet areas of your home like bathrooms, kitchens, and outdoor outlets. It’s designed to detect even the tiniest irregularities in electrical current.

How Does a GFCI Work?

Imagine you’re using a hairdryer in your bathroom. Accidentally, the hairdryer falls into the sink filled with water. Without a GFCI, this could lead to a potentially deadly situation. But with a GFCI in place, it quickly senses the mismatch in electrical current, shuts off the power, and prevents you from getting a life-threatening shock.

In essence, GFCIs monitor the flow of electricity in a circuit and will trip if there’s even a slight imbalance, as small as 5 milliamps. This level of sensitivity ensures your safety when dealing with electrical devices in moisture-prone areas.

Key Differences: Circuit Breakers vs. GFCIs

Now that we’ve covered the basics, let’s summarize the key differences between circuit breakers and GFCIs:


  • Circuit Breakers: Protect against overloads and short circuits.
  • GFCIs: Guard against electric shocks in wet or damp areas.


  • Circuit Breakers: Detect high current flow.
  • GFCIs: Detect small imbalances in current.


  • Circuit Breakers: Typically found in your main electrical panel. Panels could be located in your basement, garage or utility closet.
  • GFCIs: Installed in outlets or as part of the outlet itself in specific areas such as bathrooms, kitchens, and laundry rooms


  • Circuit Breakers: Can be reset after a trip.
  • GFCIs: Require manual reset after a trip.

Electricians, Circuit Breakers, and GFCIs

In a nutshell, circuit breakers and GFCIs play distinct but complementary roles in keeping your home safe from electrical hazards. While circuit breakers guard against overloads and short circuits, GFCIs are your defense against electric shocks, especially in areas where moisture is present.

As a homeowner, understanding the difference between these two essential components of your electrical system can help you troubleshoot minor issues and ensure the safety of your family and property. However, when it comes to installation, maintenance, or any electrical work beyond basic troubleshooting, it’s always best to consult a licensed electrician such as Raceway Electric. Our electrician has the expertise and experience to handle your electrical needs safely and effectively. Stay safe, and if you need to replace GFCI outlets in your home, or have another electrical project, contact Raceway Electric.