How Long Circuit Breakers Last & When To Replace

breaker test

Electric circuit breakers come in a variety of sizes and types. Circuit breakers protect your home’s electrical system by monitoring and shutting off electricity when problems arise. Because of this important function electrical breakers perform, many people are concerned about how often electric 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.

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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 easily 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 why electrical breakers trip is overloading. An electrical breaker is overloaded when more electricity passes through it than it can handle.

Your breaker will start to overheat when this happens, and any devices connected to the circuit could be damaged. The more overloaded a breaker is, the more it trips and consequently wears out faster. 

Short-circuiting is another reason why electrical breakers trip. A lot of heat is generated when short-circuiting happens, and there is the risk of an electrical fire. Faulty wiring and loose connections are common reasons why breakers short-circuit, and this 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, a very good number. 

However, an electrical breaker can serve you indefinitely if it is 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., then 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 for 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. In essence, 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.

Testing of CAFCI, AFCI, and GFCI breakers should be performed monthly. Testing involves pressing the breaker’s TEST button and resetting the breaker when it trips. If the breaker doesn’t trip when tested, the sensor has probably failed, and the breaker should be replaced.

How Do You Know If You Have A Bad Breaker?

Your electrical breaker may go bad for several reasons. A bad breaker may not trip even when there is too much electricity flowing through it. This 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. 

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  • 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 actually melt or fuse the breaker to the bus bar.

A Hot Breaker May Not Mean the Breaker is Bad

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 own 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 in use 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 circuit 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 Has Gone Bad

1. Look at the breaker and identify the room or appliance it is protecting. You can do this by looking 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 to unplug all appliances and devices on that breaker. Then, be sure to flip the breaker into the OFF position. This is very important. After unplugging the appliances associated with that circuit, you’ll have to rule out a short circuit or overload circuit. If a circuit has more electricity flowing through it than it can handle, it would seem to 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 problem is. A breaker that only trips when your appliances are plugged in and powered up are caused by either a short circuit or electrical overload. You’ll need a licensed electrician to inspect and fix your breaker for you. 

How Much Does It Cost To Replace A Breaker?

According to data from Fixr and Homeadvisor, it will cost about $187 to install a new electrical breaker. The cost of a new breaker could be a 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.

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. On average, 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. If you have an older home that does not have a main disconnect, call an electrician. 

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 home. You can work on the branch circuits but the main circuit breaker should only be worked on by an electrician. Below are the steps on how to replace an electrical breaker.

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

2. The next step is to take the 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 before removing it and how it fits in the panel/lock into position. This allows you to install the new circuit breaker correctly. Then, put in the new circuit breakers. 

4. Before putting in the new breaker, using a flashlight (if needed), inspect the breaker for melting or charring on the back, and then inspect the bus bar for burning. If you see this, STOP and call a licensed electrician to inspect your electrical panel box. It would be best if you considered an electrical panel upgrade 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 the wire or the sheathing is burned, you’ll need to trim off the damaged end and, if needed, install a pigtail to connect the circuit.

Insider Tip: Do not place 2 hot wires on one breaker unless the circuit breaker is rated for 2 circuits. Having two electrical wires on a breaker rated for one circuit can damage the new breaker. This is often referred to as a double tapped breaker.

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

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

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

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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.

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