Safety Switch vs. Circuit Breaker (What are the differences?)

Safety switch and circuit breaker are terms that are often used interchangeably. 

Generally, people just put them in the category of ‘the thing that keeps my electricity safe’.

This is true - they both work to protect the electrical system in your property and prevent dangerous faults, electrical hazards and fires. 

However, they serve very different and important parts in this process. Essentially, what we are saying is, unfortunately, to be adequately protected you NEED BOTH. 

Here’s why:

What is a Safety Switch?

Safety switches work to protect people from electrical fires, faults and hazards.

They do this by constantly monitoring the current flowing in the live and neutral wires in an electrical system. 

If a problem such as a large surge or overload in the electrical current is detected that may pose a risk to a person or be indicative of a hazard, the safety switch will turn off the power in 0.03 of a second. 

For example, if someone accidentally pokes something conductive (ie. a metal fork or knife) into something conductive like a power point or toaster, the safety switch will cut off the power to prevent injury or electrocution.   

Safety switches, also known as RCDs (residual current devices), are now required by Victorian law to be installed in all new builds and all rental properties (and are highly recommended in all other properties). 

This is what they look like if you’re not sure if you have one in your switchboard: 

(Safety switches have a test button next to them while circuit breakers don’t) 

While by law you are only required to have one safety switch installed per 3 circuits, it is best to have a safety switch installed for each electrical circuit in your property to ensure adequate protection. 

What is a Circuit Breaker?

Modern life often includes many appliances that require high loads of electricity and are therefore vulnerable to overload or short circuiting.

Circuit breakers (also commonly referred to as fuses) in your switchboard, are there to protect the wiring in each of your electrical circuits from overloads which can cause damage and electrical fires. 

They also work by monitoring the electrical current running through each electrical circuit and will abruptly cut the power to a specific circuit when an overload or high current is detected. 

However, in this case they are detecting loads that will cause damage to your electrical system including wiring, the switchboard itself or electrical appliances that are currently plugged in (not preventing the potential risk of a person being harmed or electrocuted). 

For example, if someone plugged too many appliances into the one electrical circuit and it required more electricity than that circuit can handle, the circuit breaker would cut the power to prevent damage to the wiring in that circuit. 

Similarly, if there is damage to the wires in an electrical circuit that could pose the risk of electrical fire or an arc flash, the circuit breaker would recognise the abnormal voltage output and cut the power to prevent serious electrical and property damage.  

It is important to note: Circuit breakers cut off electrical supply to a particular electrical load to protect your property but do not prevent harm to people.  

Here is what a circuit breaker would look like in your switchboard:

The easiest way to tell the difference between a circuit breaker and a safety switch visually is that a safety switch will have a test button next to it but circuit breakers do not. 

Why do you need both?

Constant access to reliable electricity is something that most of us take for granted in the modern world. 

However, this familiarity can blind us to how dangerous this source of energy can be. Indeed, when not installed, used or maintained properly electricity can potentially be lethal.

That is why it’s important to take all available precautions to ensure your electricity supply is safe, both for your property and every person who uses the electricity in said property.

RCBOs combine both safety switches and circuit breakers into one modern compact unit. Having RCBOs installed on every circuit (and properly maintained) in your switchboard is the best way to achieve peace of mind as RCBOs will offer you all the electrocution protection you need. 

Still confused as to why you need both? The simple way of breaking it down is: 

Safety switches protect people against electrical hazards (including shocks and electrocution).

Circuit breakers will protect your electrical system and property against electrical hazards (against wiring damage and potential electrical fires or arc flashes).

RCBOs are a compact modern version combining safety switches and circuit breakers into one unit.

Do you need safety switches or circuit breakers installed in your property?

Fire brigades in Victoria respond to more than 300 domestic electrical fires each year, most of which are caused by old wiring that has degraded or is unable to cope with the requirements of modern appliances. 

In response to this worrying figure, as of 2017 the Victorian government requires all new builds and old buildings undergoing extensive renovations to have at least one safety switch installed in the switchboard. It also requires all rented premises to have at least one safety switch installed in the switchboard. 

This is a pretty clear sign as to how important and effective they are in protecting people against electricity related harm. 

If you do not have any safety switches in your switchboard you will need to call a licensed electrician to get at least one installed as soon as possible to avoid a fine from the Victorian Government. 

Furthermore, new minimum standards being added to Victorian legislation as of March 2023 also require all power outlets and lighting circuits in rented properties to be protected by a compliant circuit breaker. 

Further evidence of how important and helpful these small devices are! 

In fact, getting safety switches and circuit breakers installed is one of the easiest ways to protect yourself against an electrical emergency

So why wait?… 

Book a 181 Electrician Today!

All safety switches and circuit breakers must be installed by a qualified electrician (it’s actually illegal in Victoria to perform electrical DIY but that’s a story for another day!).

At 181 Electrical we pride ourselves on providing high quality results, clear communication and excellent customer service for a reasonable price. 

Our number one priority for our Melbourne electricians is ensuring the safety of you and your property meaning we never cut corners or do things by halves. 

Our qualified electricians are skilled in both commercial and domestic installations.

Book an appointment with one of our friendly team using the button below and rest easy knowing the safety of your electricity is one thing you don’t have to worry about!

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