All new homes today have an electrical panel full of circuit breakers, but many years ago we used fuses.  I don’t see fuses very often in the homes I inspect, but when I do the question arises: are fuses safe?

Fuses can work with today’s most modern and up-to-date wiring, and in some ways they’re safer than circuit breakers because nothing has to actually move for them to work – they’re kind of fool proof.  We still use fuses in many applications – our cars use fuses, and the branch circuits of many fire alarm systems are required to be protected by fuses.

But there are downsides to using fuses in our homes.  There’s the inconvenience of needing to keep fuses on hand, maybe several different sizes (15 amps and 20 amps).  There’s the hassle of changing them if needed.  There’s the ease of replacing a blown fuse with one of a higher amperage rating (a very dangerous thing to do).  There’s the ability to completely bypass them by sticking a penny in the fuse socket (an even more dangerous thing to do).  All of these things have made fuses very rare.  I probably see only two or three electrical panels each year that use fuses and not circuit breakers.

Circuit breakers are very convenient.  They’re easy to reset after one trips off, and it’s very hard (though not impossible) for a layman to replace one with a higher amperage rating.  And today we have Ground Fault Circuit Interrupter (GFCI) protection and Arc Fault Circuit Interrupter (AFCI) protection built into some of our circuit breakers, so there’s really no going back.

The real problem with seeing an electrical panel with fuses is that it’s a sign that very little electrical updating has been done to the house.  So there might be old wiring, with old and deteriorated insulation.  There might be very old knob-and-tube wiring.  There might be very old two-prong receptacle outlets that aren’t grounded.

So if you’re looking at a house and you see fuses instead of breakers in the electrical panel, be aware that the old electrical system needs to be a point of emphasis for your home inspector and you should expect to find more old electrical components.

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