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Why is there a 3-phase breaker in a single phase electric panel with only two bus bars?

Thursday, June 14, 2018

A Short History of The High-Leg Delta Service

It’s now just an interesting bit of electrical history, but in the 1950s and ‘60s residential air conditioning was in its infancy and a type of 3-phase service called  “HIgh-Leg Delta” was used for homes with larger air conditioning compressors. Three phase motors are more efficient than single phase and use less current. High-Leg Delta provides 240 volts phase to phase, and the third “High Leg” (center-tapped on the transformer) delivers 208 volts. Each of the other two phases are 120 volts to ground, as shown in the transformer diagram below.

    The way they accommodated three phases with only two bus bars is by using a “Delta Breaker.” Here’s a description by Schneider Electric, a major manufacturer of electric panel components: “A Delta Breaker is a load-center breaker with 2 plug-in stabs and a wire from the third terminal that goes to the third leg of a transformer. This allowed you to use a single-phase loadcenter and get three-phase power by running a third wire back to the transformer. The breaker is no longer available, and any replacement breaker will require installation of a 3-phase load center.”

High-Leg Delta Banned By NEC

    In fact, it is more than just “no longer available.” Delta Breakers have been banned by the National Electrical Code (NEC) for many years now. The 2017 edition of the NEC states at 408.36(C) “Delta Breakers - A 3-phase disconnect or overcurrent device shall not be connected to the bus of any panelboard that has less than 3-phase buses. Delta Breakers shall not be installed in panelboards.

   Replacing a complete panelboard can get pretty expensive. An electrician friend of ours, Craig Eaton of Eaton Electric, says he finds that many High-Leg Delta electric services no longer have a 3-phase condenser connected to them. “The condenser has been replaced with a modern, high-efficiency 240-volt, single phase unit, and the high leg is capped in the outside disconnect, with only the two single phase wires connected,” according to Craig. 

    This is a once-in-a-blue-moon old house thing that might otherwise leave you mystified, but now you know why. Also, for how to recognize three-phase service, see our blog post What is a reliable way to tell if the electrical service is 3 phase or single phase?

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Field Guide for Home Inspectors, a quick reference for finding the age of 154 brands of HVAC systems, water heaters, and electrical panels, plus 210 code standards for site-built and manufactured homes, and the life expectancy rating of 195 home components. Available at for $19.95.
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Here’s links to a collection of our other blog posts about ELECTRIC PANELS:

What causes copper wires to turn green or black in an electric panel?  

What is the maximum number of circuit breakers allowed in an electric panel?

When should a corroded or damaged electric panel cabinet or disconnect box be replaced? 

What is a tandem circuit breaker? 

When did arc fault circuit interrupter (AFCI) breakers first become required?

Can an electric panel be located in a closet? 

Can an electric panel be located in a bathroom? 

Can you add circuit breakers by different manufacturers to an electric panel if they fit?

My circuit breaker won't reset. What's wrong?  

What is a split bus electric panel?

How do I identify a combination AFCI (CAFCI) circuit breaker? 

What does a circuit breaker with a yellow or white test button indicate? 

What is the maximum gap allowed between the front of a recessed electric panel box and the wall surface surrounding it? 

What are the requirements for NM-cables entering an electric panel box?

Why is a fuse box/panel an insurance problem for homebuyers? 

Why is bundled wiring in an electric panel a defect?

What is the difference between GFCI and AFCI circuit breakers? 

Why are old electrical components not always "grandfathered" as acceptable by home inspectors?

Why is an old fuse panel dangerous?  

Who is the manufacturer of those "bad" electric panels?

Why is the circuit breaker stuck in the middle? 

What is a double tap at a circuit breaker?

What is the right electric wire size for a circuit breaker in an electric panel?

What is the life expectancy of a circuit breaker? 

My circuit breaker won't reset. What's wrong? 

Why do some breakers in my electric panel have a "TEST" button on them?

What is the right size electric panel for a house? 

• What do I need to know about buying a whole house surge protector? 

   Visit our ELECTRIC PANELS page for other related blog posts on this subject, or go to the INDEX for a complete listing of all our articles.

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