Circuit Breaker Replacement: How Long Breakers Last (Complete Guide)

breaker test

Electric circuit breakers come in various sizes and types and protect your home’s electrical system by monitoring and shutting off electricity when problems arise. Because of this critical function electrical breakers perform, many people are concerned about how often electrical circuit breakers last and when to replace them. 

Modern circuit breakers have a life expectancy of 15 to 20 years. While some circuit breakers can last longer, arc fault (AFCI) and ground fault (GFCI) type breakers have a shorter 10- to 15-year life because the internal sensors wear out quicker than the breaker itself. Circuit breakers should be replaced every 15 to 20 years or as issues arise.

Electrical breakers are automatic switches that protect your home from electrical faults caused by electricity. Without electrical breakers, household electricity would be impractical as simple wiring problems and equipment can quickly become fire hazards and life-threatening hazards.

In this article, we’ll discuss how often you should replace your electric circuit breakers, how to know if you have a bad or weak breaker, and more. 

Do Circuit Breakers Wear Out?

Electrical breakers can wear out, especially if they’re constantly tripping—one of the main reasons electrical breakers trip is overloading. Circuit breaker overloads happen when devices draw more amperage than they can handle.

Your breaker will start to overheat, damaging devices connected to the circuit. The more overloaded a breaker is, the more it trips and consequently wears out faster. 

Short-circuiting is another reason why electrical breakers trip. Short-circuiting generates a lot of heat, and there is the risk of an electrical fire. Faulty wiring and loose connections are common reasons why breakers short-circuit, which will wear out your breaker fast. You’ll need an electrician to correct short circuits. 

Your electrical breaker will also wear out when there are ground fault charges. Ground fault charges can potentially cause serious problems as they cause electrical surges. 

How Long do Circuits Breakers Last?

Yes, electric circuit breakers protect your home from potential fires and injury. But there is the question of how long they last. 

The Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) is a standard that estimates the expected life of consumer products. According to the CPSC, electrical breakers can last between 30 to 40 years. Other standards specify 30 years as the expected life span of circuit breakers

However, an electrical breaker can serve you indefinitely if properly installed, not overloaded, and if there are no electrical problems in your area. You may never have to replace your electrical breaker in this situation.

However, this is under ideal conditions, and we all know ideal conditions don’t exist. If your area has issues like frequent power outages, power surges, lightning strikes, etc., your breakers will need to be replaced in due time.

More modern arc fault and ground fault circuit breakers have built-in sensors that detect either arc or ground faults (some combo breakers monitor both) in the electricity flowing through the circuit.

The problem with these breakers is that the sensors don’t last as long as the breaker themselves. Once the sensor fails, the sensor no longer performs as intended and will no longer monitor and trip the breaker when an arc or ground fault exists. The breaker loses this protection and reverts to being a standard breaker.

The sensors inside CAFCI, AFCI, or GFCI breakers typically fail in 15 to 20 years, at which point an electrician should replace the breaker.

You should perform testing of CAFCI, AFCI, and GFCI breakers monthly. Testing involves pressing the breaker’s TEST button and resetting the breaker when it trips. The sensor has probably failed if the breaker doesn’t trip when tested, and you should replace the breaker.

How to Know if You Have a Bad Breaker?

Your electrical breaker may go bad for several reasons. A bad breaker may not trip even when too much electricity flows, which is a serious problem that can cause an electrical fire in your home. Thankfully, there are several signals you will receive if your breaker goes bad and needs a replacement. 

A circuit breaker can be bad regardless of age. A circuit breaker can be bad If you have flickering lights, buzzing, arcing, or smoke smell is present, or a breaker routinely trips or won’t reset.

  • Blinking or flickering lights in your home are indications that there could be something wrong with your electrical breaker.
  • Buzzing, sparking, or smokey smell coming out of switches or appliances. If you notice your appliances getting damaged or are not working efficiently, you should check your electrical breaker. 
  • The breaker trips frequently. Breakers that trip frequently could have an internal failure, or maybe loose and not making a good connection inside the electrical panel, causing the arcing along the bus bar. This creates burning that can melt or fuse the breaker to the bus bar.

Can a Circuit Breaker go bad?

Electrical circuit breakers protect your home’s lighting fixtures, electrical appliances, and devices from electrical 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 you have a faulty breaker?

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

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

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

A Hot Breaker may not be a Bad Breaker

Sometimes, the electrical breaker will be hot to touch, and there will be obvious signs of wear when you look at the side or back of the breaker (looking at the back of the breaker requires removal of the breaker and should only be done by a trained electrician).

We separated breaker temperature into its section because it can be deceiving. Before you get hung up on breaker temperatures, you should know that breaker temperature thresholds will vary between breakers.

Standard circuit breakers can have a temperature rise to 122 degrees F (50 degrees C) and up to 140 degrees F (60 degrees C) for a 100% rated breaker. CAFCI, AFCI, and GFCI breakers will run about 15-20 degrees warmer than standard circuits and 100% rated circuit breakers because of the built-in sensors.

Table 1: Summary of temperature rise and maximums for a standard rated breaker (breakers are calibrated in 40 deg. C ambient)

SurfaceTemp. Rise above ambientTem. Max at 40 deg. C ambient (104 F)
Termination on a standard rated breaker50°C (122°F)90°C (194°F)
Termination on 100% rated breaker60°C (140°F)100°C (212°F)
Handles, knobs, other user contact surfaces – MetallicN/A60°C (140°F) Maximum
Handles, knobs, other user contact surfaces – NonmetallicN/A85°C (185°F) Maximum
Source: Proface.com

Before concluding that your electrical breaker is bad, you should rule out other common electrical problems like short-circuiting and overloading circuits. 

How to Determine if Your Circuit Breaker is Bad?

1. Look at the breaker and identify the room or appliance it protects. You can look for the label sheet on the panel’s door or the identification label next to the breaker. From these labels, you’ll be able to tell the circuit your breaker is protecting as long as they are labeled correctly. It’s not uncommon to see mislabelled panels. 

2. The next thing to do is unplug all appliances and devices on that breaker. Then, be sure to flip the breaker into the OFF position. After unplugging the appliances associated with that circuit, you’ll have to rule out a short circuit or an electrical circuit overload. If a circuit has more electricity flowing through it than it can handle, it would be a bad circuit. 

3. You’ll have to reset the circuit by firmly flipping the breaker in the ON position. What the breaker does next will determine what the electrical issue is. A breaker that only trips when your appliances are plugged in and powered up, causing either a short circuit or electrical overload. You’ll need a licensed electrician to inspect and fix your breaker

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

Loose Connection

If a part of the circuit has a loose connection, short-circuiting is possible. Wires can quickly jump from the primary connection and contact 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. Due to corroded wires and connections, homeowners in high humidity areas experience more circuit breaker cases.

What are the Signs of a Bad Circuit Breaker?

A faulty circuit breaker does not trip when an overcurrent happens. 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 Circuit Breaker Panel Feels Hot to Touch

It feels hotter than usual when you touch the electrical panel; a breaker 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 immediately.

The electrician will often access the wattage and voltage passing through the system and advise 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 immediately shut down the power supply to the home and get a pro electrician to assess the breaker. They will eventually change it and replace the wires that damage 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, 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.

When the electrician comes to assess the situation, they will tell you if the breaker is at fault or the appliance demands 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 power 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.

Electrical 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 challenging 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. The electrical device blows if the surge is beyond what the appliance can handle.

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 electrical 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 Much is a Circuit Breaker Replacement?

It will cost about $187 to install a new electrical breaker. The cost of a new breaker could be as low as $130 for 15 amp to 30 amp breakers. Breakers could also be as high as $280 for 200 amps breakers. You should only install your breaker yourself if you have an electrical license. (Fixr & Homeadvisor)

The actual cost of a standard circuit breaker is usually under $30. However, AFCI or GFCI breakers can cost $30 to $100 or as much as 10x the cost of a standard breaker.

Labor is the major expense when installing an electrical breaker. The average cost to hire an electrician will depend on their training. The cost of labor will depend on your area. In small towns in the Midwest and South, labor rates for licensed electricians start below $90/hr. The rate will be higher in major metro areas. You can expect between $40 to $120 or more per hour.

Electrician GradeAverage Hourly Rates
Apprentice$40 – $50/hour
Journeyman$50 – $70/hour
Master$100 – $120/hour
Source: Fixr

Can You Replace a Circuit Breaker Yourself?

electric panel

Working with electricity is dangerous and can be deadly. Do not attempt to work on a circuit breaker without turning the main breaker off first and confirm power is off with a voltage detector or multi-meter. Call an electrician if you have an older home with no main disconnect. 

You can replace your electrical breaker if you know what you are doing. Most homes have a main circuit breaker and separate branch circuit breakers that connect to different parts of the house. You can work on the branch circuits, but experienced electricians should only work on the main circuit breaker. Below are the steps on how to replace an electrical breaker.

1. First, you need to turn off the main circuit breaker to the house to kill all power to the electrical panel. For safety purposes, never assume that the breakers are off. You need to switch them off yourself and check for voltage on adjacent breakers to ensure that the circuit breaker panel is dead. You can then proceed after confirming the breakers are dead. 

2. The next step is to take the circuit panel cover off to gain access to the branch circuit breakers but not the meter base compartment. Under no circumstances should you attempt to remove the cover from the meter base. The meter base compartment should be accessed only by a licensed electrician. 

3. Removing the cover to the panel will let you access the circuit breakers. After that, you can disconnect and pull out the wire from the faulty breaker and carefully remove the defective circuit breaker from its position. It’s important to note the breaker’s position and how it fits in the panel/lock into position, allowing you to install the new circuit breaker correctly.

4. Before putting in the new breaker, use a flashlight (if needed), inspect the breaker for melting or charring on the back, and inspect the bus bar for burning. STOP and call a licensed electrician to check your electrical breaker box if you see this. It would be best to consider electrical panel upgrades every 40 to 50 years.

5. After inspecting the electrical panel, put the new breaker in place. The breaker should securely latch to the bus bar. Connect the electrical wire to the new breaker. If scorching on the wire or sheathing exists, you’ll need to trim off the damaged end and if the wire is too short, install a pigtail to connect the circuit.

Insider Tip: Do not place two hot wires on one breaker unless the circuit breaker rating is for two circuits. Two electrical wires on a one-pole breaker, often called a double tapped breaker can damage the new breaker.

6. While exposed, check the other branch circuits to ensure they are correctly positioned and tighten any loose parts. The next step is to put the panel cover back while ensuring that all the switches of the branch circuits are off.

7. Finally, turn the main circuit breaker on and then turn the individual breakers separately. Check that the circuits are working correctly. And if this is the case, you are done. 

If there is still a problem, it’s time to call in a licensed electrician. 

Frequently Asked Questions

What Kind of Replacement Breaker do You Need?

You should purchase a replacement breaker of the same amperage and brand. Under some conditions, you may need to switch out a standard circuit breaker for a GFCI or AFCI breaker, depending on the circuit type. If the bad breaker is sized correctly, you shouldn’t need to increase or decrease the breaker amperage.

When to Replace a Circuit Breaker?

Circuit breakers can last a long time, and you shouldn’t need to replace the breaker unless it has scorching damage or won’t reset. A frequently tripping breaker is not necessarily a bad breaker. There may be a loose wire connection causing the breaker to trip. It’s important to call a qualified electrician to troubleshoot a tripping breaker.

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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.
DISCLAIMER: The content published on HomeInspectionInsider.com is not professional advice. You should consult with a licensed professional and check local permit requirements before starting any project.
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