Bad Circuit Breaker: Signs, Safety Issues, & How to Fix it

Circuit breakers protect your home’s lighting fixtures, home electrical appliances, and devices from damage. But more importantly, they protect you and your family. Breakers work by disrupting the current flow of electricity. Using a reliable circuit breaker can prevent short-circuiting, which can be harmful and disastrous. But how do you know if a circuit breaker has gone bad?

There are several signs to identify a bad circuit breaker. The signs a circuit breaker is a bad include:

  • if you have flickering or blinking lights in your home.
  • if light bulbs frequently burn out.
  • if your household appliances are malfunctioning or you experience frequent disruptions while using them.
  • if your circuit breakers are frequently tripping.
  • if you detect an electrical burning odor emanating from the panel.

These are just some of the signs you will learn in this article and much more about bad circuit breakers, fixing them and safety issues. But before we get to the others signs, let us start with the basics of a circuit breaker.

What Is a Circuit Breaker?

Ever been at home doing something, then the power just went off? And when you take a look outside, the streets lights and everyone’s house seems to have lights still on! So the first place to look at is the home electrical panel and see if the main switches have tripped.

This mechanism saves you from incurring hefty expenses of buying new switches, bulbs, and electronics. Why?

Because the circuit breaker did what it is meant to do: interrupt abnormal or high current that would otherwise damage all your appliances.

A circuit breaker consists of both fixed and moving contacts. These contacts link to each other to pass on current enabling you to use electricity in the household. This contact point directs electricity supply to each electrical system in the home. These include sockets, lighting, and any other electrical appliances at home.

Types of Circuit Breakers

The main difference in circuit breakers is their voltage rates. In general, a circuit breaker that has a voltage rate of below 1000V is a low voltage circuit breaker. And the ones that exceed that 1000V go by the name high-voltage circuit breakers.

Regardless, here are four of the main types of circuit breakers used in homes:

Single-Pole Circuit Breakers: These circuit breakers monitor the current of a single wire. They trip when there is an overload, surge, or short current. It consists of one live wire with a neutral wire. Their voltage is 120v. 

Double-Pole Circuit Breakers: These breakers monitor two lines instead of one. They are usually two switches that electricians install side-by-side. This system will trip if one or both wires are overloaded or shorted out. They deliver between 120 to 240V.

Ground Fault Circuit Interrupter Circuit Breakers (GFCI): GFCIs protect against a line-to-ground fault. They are the ones that electricians install in wet rooms such as laundry rooms, kitchens, and bathrooms. They protect you from electrical shocks when a current overload occurs.

Arc Fault Circuit Interrupters Circuit Breakers (AFCI): AFCIs are the primary protectors against electrical arcs. Arcs usually spark immense heat, thus burning other elements like wood and other insulators. They trip when the electrical wiring detects the arcing.

How Does a Circuit Breaker Work?

A circuit breaker mechanism immediately breaks the flow of current, supposes it surpasses a certain level. It works similar to a switch where it turns off when this current surge comes.

Circuit breakers primarily operate in this manner using these contacts. When the circuit is closed, all of these contact sites form a continuous link, allowing current flow. These contacts are also known as electrodes, and the system’s spring pressure connects them.

The arms of the circuit breaker can open and close for system switching and upkeep during regular operation. The only requirement for the circuit breaker to be activated is that pressure has to be applied.

These contacts consist of highly conductive metals, the likes of copper and silver alloy. And the higher the voltage is, the longer the arc distance becomes when the switch goes off. Also, the stronger the current is, the hotter the arc becomes before breaking contact.

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What Does a Circuit Breaker Do?

A circuit breaker prevents damage to your appliances and wirings, especially when there is a power surge.

Now here is the exciting part:

When there is a power surge, the trip coil within the system gets engaged. The breaker then disengages, or “trips,” interrupting the electrical current flow creating an open circuit. Resetting the breaker restores the flow of electricity. In a bad circuit breaker, the breaker will not engage.

As a result, there is no more electrical current flowing within the system. When this occurs, lights, receptacles, and any other electrical appliances on the circuit do not work.

What Causes a Circuit Breaker to Trip?

The answer to this question varies depending on several factors. Nonetheless, here are some of the major causes of a circuit breaker tripping:

Overload Circuits

An overloaded circuit happens when an attempted pass of a more significant electrical load above the circuit can carry. It occurs when you have too many appliances or light fixtures all operating simultaneously. 

When this happens, the internal sensor in the circuit breaker heats up and triggers a trip breaking the connection. This ‘trip’ breaks the circuit so that no current flows anymore, so all the appliances go off.

This off has to be reset manually by switching on the breaker lever to restore the connection.

Short Circuits

A short circuit is another common cause of a circuit breaker that is far more fatal than an overloaded circuit. A short circuit happens when the hot wire touches the neutral wire. When this transpires, the heat becomes immense and causes a trip.

Short-circuiting may be a result of faulty wiring or loose connections. You can quickly identify a short-circuit trip because there will be a burning smell in addition to the discoloration of the wires after the trip.

Ground Fault Surges

These trip causes are very similar to short circuits. They occur when a heated wire touches a copper ground wire or the metal outlet box that houses the wires connected to the grounding wire.

The heat generated by this connection is far greater than what the circuit can handle. Thus the trip is a lifesaver. It saves all your appliances from overheating or bursting into flames. 

You can also tell a ground fault surge through discoloration of the wires. Ground trips of this nature, you need a professional to fix them fast; otherwise, they may turn fatal.

ARC Fault

An arc fault is a circuit trip exclusive to the AFCI circuit breakers, resulting from the three causes we have named above, plus one more reason. When the system senses that the power is fluctuating, it causes sparkling, also called arching.

This arcing occurs between the wire connections’ contact points and commonly occurs if there is a loose screw terminal in a switch or an outlet.

What Causes a Circuit Breaker to Fail?

Below are some of the things that may instigate a circuit breaker to fail and trip:

A Worn-out Circuit Breaker

If the circuit breaker is old, then it may malfunction and cause tripping of the breaker often. When these parts wear out, they become overly sensitive. Thus, any current, even the typical voltage, will cause a trip.

Loose Connection

If there is a part of the circuit that has a loose connection, short-circuiting becomes a possibility. Wires can quickly jump from the primary connection and get into contact with others within the metal box. And so this results in a circuit breaker trip.

The trips usually occur when the heat builds up. Then, tiny sparks start traveling between the two contact points. When you touch your metal outlet box housing the wires after a trip and notice some warmness, the likely cause is a loose connection.

The solution to this is relatively straightforward. You should contact a professional electrician to access the connection and tighten the wires and connections accordingly. They must also insulate all the naked wires and earth the metallic casing that houses the wires.

Corroded Connection

Water and moisture do not mix well with electricity and metals. They cause erosion plus the development of rust. Corrosion eats away parts of the wires resulting in an overall deterioration of the wiring and connection tightness.

Tripping is quite often. Homeowners in high humidity areas experience more circuit breaker cases due to corroded wires and connections.

What Are the Signs of a Bad Circuit Breaker?

Makers of efficient and safe circuit breakers design them to trip, so the first sure sign that yours is faulty is if it does not trip, causing appliances to burn. Here are more signs that can help you identify a bad circuit breaker.

A Burning Smell

Whenever there is a burning smell coming from the electrical panel box, there is a likelihood the circuit breaker is bad. When you notice this, you must shut off the main power immediately. 

The next step should be to call a professional electrician who will assess the situation and find out the source of the burn.

When the Panel Feels Hot to Touch

When you touch the electrical panel, and it feels hotter than usual, the circuit breakers may be bad. If light switches in the home are hot, you should approach them the same way. You need to switch the main power supply to the house and call a professional right away.

The electrician will most times access the wattage and voltage passing through the system and advice accordingly. The excess heat might result from the unbalanced power capabilities of the wires and connections within the circuit that the circuit breaker cannot handle the frequent trips.

Discolored Wires

When you open the panel box and notice that some wires are discolored and disfigured from burning, the circuit breaker is faulty.

If you notice this, you must shut down the power supply to the home immediately and get a pro electrician to assess the breaker. They will eventually change it and replace the wires that have some damage on them.

When The Breaker Does Not Stay On Reset Mode

A well-functioning circuit breaker must remain off after it trips. And it should only go on when a person manually turns the breaker’s lever to restore the connection.

But suppose the breaker fosters a reconnect without anyone turning it on; it is best to have it looked at by a professional.

When the Breaker Trips Often

If the circuit breaker is prone to tripping more often than not, then it may be faulty. The most common cause of tripping breakers is a loose wire connection at the appliance, the breaker, or along the wire itself.

In that case, when the electrician comes to assess the situation, they will tell you if the breaker is at fault or the appliance is the one demanding more power. Loose connections might also cause this.

An Old Circuit Breaker

An old circuit breaker, as aforementioned, can become overly sensitive. And so, even when the surge is within the limits a typical breaker can handle, the old one trips. The solution to this is to have a professional replace it.

Safety Issues Associated With a Bad Circuit Breaker

A bad circuit breaker can have the following safety concerns in your home:

Fire Outbreaks

The potential of a fire outbreak is the first safety concern that should worry you. When a circuit breaker fails to terminate a circuit when an excessive surge passes through, it might result in an electrical fire. These are some of the most difficult flames to put out.

Why?

Water will not put out an electrical fire which adds a dimension of peril to the situation. Cut the power source and, if possible, put out the flames with sand. Assuming it is widespread, flee to safety and ask for assistance as soon as possible.

Destroying Home Appliances

A bad circuit breaker can cost you a lot of money in damaged home appliances. If the surge coming through is beyond what the appliance can handle, the device blows.

And this may also be a source of an electrical fire. If so is the case, the first thing is to unplug the cord from the power supply and extinguish the fire.

Electrocution

Since a short circuit can cause a bad circuit breaker, electrocution is also another concern. For instance, if the short circuit bypasses the part of the connection that has the insulation property. When you touch the plug or wire, you get an electric shock.

Electrical shocks may be a minor thing, but they can also be fatal, resulting in severe burns on contact places and even causing fires.

How to Fix a Bad Circuit Breaker

Fixing a bad circuit breaker is relatively straightforward: replace it.

Regardless, you must never do this independently because there may be far more issues than just the circuit breaker. Sure, it might be the only issue, but it is undoubtedly better safe than sorry.

When you notice any sign that could suggest your circuit breaker is bad, contact a professional electrician. They will assess the situation and restore safety and normal electrical usage within your household. It would be best if you never risked postponing an electrical issue like a circuit breaker. The faster you solve it, the better.

Take Away

Unquestionably, a faulty circuit breaker is a ticking time bomb that will cost you money if you do not replace it. Now you know the signs of a defective circuit, the safety issues, and how to fix it.

Power outages can be disastrous and the leading cause of electrical fires. This is why you should hire an expert to inspect the circuit breaker and, if necessary, switch it.

However, before they replace the breaker, they must first determine the source of the trips and correct it. If they don’t, the trips will be just as often, even with a new circuit breaker. To eradicate the problem, a professional should assess the whole system.

HomeInspectionInsider.com is owned and operated by Hubert Miles is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com. HomeInspectionInsider.com also participates in affiliate programs with other affiliate sites. Hubert Miles is compensated for referring traffic and business to these companies.

Hubert Miles

I've been conducting home inspections for 17 years. I'm a licensed Home Inspector, Certified Master Inspector (CMI), and FHA 203k Consultant. I started HomeInspectionInsider.com to help people better understand the home inspection process and answer questions about homeownership and home maintenance.

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