How Long Do Circuit Breakers Last? (And When to Replace Them)

Ryan Womeldorf
by Ryan Womeldorf

Circuit breakers are one of, if not the most, essential parts of your home. Without an effective breaker, you would have no power for anything in the house. No appliances would work, you would be without heat or air, and you wouldn’t be able to have internet or entertainment.

It is important to know not only if a circuit breaker can wear down but just how long it is good for. Circuit breakers can indeed wear out. There are differing theories about their longevity. Some experts estimate that a breaker can remain effective for 15 to 20 years. Others, including certain safety commissions, estimate the life span is really in the 30 or 40 year range. The more the breaker trips, the greater the wear and the shorter the life span.

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Can Circuit Breakers Wear Out?

If you think that your circuit breaker will seemingly work forever, think again. Circuit breakers can definitely wear out. If yours is constantly tripping, it is only enhancing the wear and tear that your breaker is experiencing.

Overloading is one of the main reasons that your circuit breaker will trip. When your breaker is overloaded, even temporarily, it is taking in more electricity than it is meant to handle. In the short term, the breaker can overheat and even damaged devices that are plugged into that circuit.

Over time and frequent use, coupled with those frequent trips, your circuit breaker will wear down. Short-circuits also play a substantial role in the wearing down of your circuit breaker. Shorts usually happen due to loose connections or faulty wiring, which will only wear out the entire unit faster. Ensuring that your breaker is not routinely overloaded is crucial to the life of that breaker.

The Life Span of a Circuit Breaker

The life span of a circuit breaker is not an easy answer to give. For one, it depends on the type of breaker that you have. For two, it depends entirely on who you ask. Some experts estimate that 15 to 20 years is the actual life span of a circuit breaker. But the Consumer Product Safety Commission estimates that may be closer to 30 or 40 years.

There are huge differences partially because it all comes down to the conditions in which electrical safety devices may be stored in. That 30 or 40 year mark is under ideal circumstances with few outages, lightning strikes, or shortages that could wear the breaker.

Additionally, you are going to get a different life span if you have a Ground Fault Circuit Interrupter ( GFCI) and Arc Fault Circuit Interrupter (AFCI). Their life span is right around that 15 to 20 year mark. But again, environmental conditions can drastically impact the longevity of a breaker.

Signs That It Is Time to Replace Your Circuit Breaker

Now that we know that there is a shelf life for any circuit breaker, it is important to be able to recognize the telltale signs. How do you know when it is time to look into a new breaker? There are more than a few signs, in particular, that stand out.

1. It’s Old

First and foremost, your breaker may be behaving normally. But if it has been decades since your circuit breaker was replaced, you may be coming to the end of the road whether you like it or not. Breakers that have not been serviced in ten years or more is a greater candidate for failure.

Having a professional out to inspect your breaker every few years is a worthwhile investment. They will not only get to any potential issues that may be underlying but can give you a general overview on the condition of your breaker.

If you have had your breaker for more than 20 years, a professional will be able to tell you if you are nearing the end of the road. Trying to get the most out of your breaker is definitely understandable. That said, sooner or later, the old unit will have to go.

2. Breaker Trips Often

When there is too much power drawn through the breaker, it trips and shuts off in order to protect the home and the breaker from further damage. But if the breaker trips any time an appliance – a vacuum cleaner, a microwave, or a washing machine – turns on, then it could be right on the edge of failing.

Even if the breaker is not about to fail, it is undergoing greater wear and tear than it was meant to. The greater the levels of wear and tear, the shorter the life span. If your breaker trips often, there could be another issue at play that could be resolved and safe your breaker the undue beating.

3. Burning Smell

Have you started to notice a burning smell in your home or even coming right off the panel? Don’t just ignore that smell or assume that it will go away. It means that the insulation and the wires within are experiencing overheating.

When those wires fail to do their job and protect your home, it means that there is potential for an electrical short. Shorts can be potentially dangerous without the right protective measures in place. You should shut the power down immediately and call in an expert right away.

Ignoring the problem could result in further damage to the wiring and breaker. It can also become a fire hazard that puts the very safety of the home into question. Don’t ignore that burning smell.

4. Breaker Will Not Reset

When a breaker trips, it needs to be reset into the on position to work properly again. With frequent tripping comes frequent resets. Perhaps you have noticed that you have had to reset the breaker frequently over a short period of time and it won’t stay on.

When your breaker will not stay reset, it is entirely possible that the breaker has simply failed. Having an electrician inspect the breaker is the first step. They will check the condition of the breaker first and foremost to see if it is salvageable. From there, the electrician will also see if damage has been done to any of the wiring.

In this situation, you are most likely staring down a replacement of the breaker and potentially some of the wiring. Still, it is better than leaving your home at risk of fire with a malfunctioning breaker in place.

5. Damage

Perhaps the most tell-tale sign that there is something wrong with your circuit breaker is if there is physical evidence. You may notice that there are scorch marks either at an outlet or at the breaker itself. Appliances may also be failing due to melted wires.

Getting to this point is serious and you should not attempt a DIY fix. Having melted wires means you are just one bad spark away from a fire. It goes without saying that fire is a very, very bad thing to have happen in your home.

6. Poorly Performing Appliances or Electronics

You might notice that your appliances are not performing as they normally would. Maybe they flicker on and off, for instance. This can be a bit harder to notice when compared to physical damage but can be an indication no less.

Try plugging the appliance into another breaker. It can be a good indication that there is something wrong with the former breaker, not the device itself. Bulbs may also burn out far more quickly than they otherwise normally would.

How to Tell if Your Breaker is Bad DIY Style

If you are having inclinations that your circuit breaker may be bad, there are steps you can take before calling in the pros. Obviously, any of the signs listed above are clear indications that something is wrong if not a totally failing breaker.

First and foremost, take a look at the breaker and what it is protecting. There should be a label sheet on the inside of the panel door. You can tell which areas are covered by which breakers effectively. Unplug all of the devices and appliances on that breaker and flip it into the off position.

Next is to rule out a short circuit. When there is more electricity flowing through it than it can handle, that indicates that the circuit is bad. Finally, resent the breaker back into the ON position. If it only triggers when you have appliances plugged in, you have a short or an overload. You would then need to either lighten the load on that breaker or have an electrician repair the issue.

A Quick Note About Hot Breakers vs. Bad Breakers

So, you’ve gone down to the circuit breaker itself and it is hot to the touch. But knowing just how hot a breaker can be before it is in dangerous territory is important. Temperatures on a standard circuit breaker can get up to 122 to 140 degrees F for a breaker that is 100% rated.

For AFCI, GFCI, and CAFCI breakers, those temperatures will be anywhere from 15 to 20 degrees warmer. This has to do with the built-in sensors. So, before you just jump to concluding that your breaker is bad, consider that you might have a more common issue like overloading circuits or short-circuiting happening.

Replacing a Circuit Breaker the DIY Way

Maybe you are staring down a faulty circuit breaker. For most of us, dollar signs would be flashing before our eyes. Whenever a home emergency like this comes up, it is going to cost to get it done professionally and a lot of us don’t have that kind of coin.

It is possible to replace a circuit breaker on your own but only if you know what you are doing. If you are completely new or don’t really have experience to circuit breakers, the potential danger is nothing to mess with.

How to Replace a Circuit Breaker on Your Own

You have decided that either the costs could not be bared or you feel confident enough to get the job done yourself. However you got here, you need to know how to properly replace your circuit breaker. More importantly, you need to know how to do so without doing harm to yourself or your home.

Step 1: Turn Off the Main Breaker

Before you get started, safety first. Make sure that the main circuit breaker to your house is off. That will shut off power to the house entirely and ensure that you don’t get shocked. Never, ever, ever assume that your breakers are off. Switch them off on your own and use your voltmeter to check the voltage on any adjacent breakers.

All of this is done to ensure that your breaker panel is dead. If you are not 100% certain that the breaker panel is dead, do not proceed. Should they be dead, you can move on to the next step with confidence.

Step 2: Branch Circuit Breakers

With the power completely shut off, you can take the panel cover off. Doing so will give you access to the branch circuit breakers, though it won’t give you access to the meter base compartment. Never, ever attempt to take the cover off of the meter base.

The meter base compartment of your electrical panel should only be handled by a professional. Taking off the cover panel gives you access to each of the breakers. From there, you can pull the wiring out of the faulty breaker and remove the defective breaker from that position.

Note the position of the breaker before you take it out and how it fits into that lock/panel position. Noting the position means that you will install the new breaker properly.

Step 3: Look for Damage

Prior to putting the new breaker in, you should inspect for visual damage. If you need to, grab a flashlight for this. Look for charring or melting on the back and then check the bus bar to see if there has been any burning.

If you notice damage like burning or charring, do not proceed. You need a licensed electrician to take a closer look at the panel box. It could be that the panel box needs replacing (which should be done every 40 or so years at the most).

Step 4: Installing the New Breaker

Don’t notice any damage? Proceed with installing the new breaker. It should seat securely to the bus bar. Make sure that it is properly connected before moving forward. When it is properly latched, connect the electrical wire directly to the new breaker.

Should the sheathing or wiring itself be burned, you will need to trim the damaged end off. From there, you can install a pigtail in order to properly connect to the new circuit. With the branch circuits exposed, make sure that they are not only properly positioned but tightened as well. A loose connection can be just as problematic as anything else.

Step 5: Cover and Test

When you are certain that all of the connections are secure and properly in place, it is time to close everything back up again. Make sure that the branch circuits are still off before turning the main breaker back on.

After turning the main circuit breaker on, turn each of the breakers on separately. Test each of them out to ensure that they are working properly. If they are, you have properly installed a new breaker. But if the problem persists, a professional electrician is the best way to go.

What Does Replacing a Circuit Breaker Professionally Cost?

For most of us, we have no prior experience with circuit breakers. That means bringing in an electrician to sort out the problem. The good news is that despite sounding expensive, replacing a breaker is not all that expensive.

It obviously varies on where you live but the average cost is about $185 to install a brand new breaker. It could be about $300 for a 200 amp breaker, though. Normally, it is recommended that only those with electrical licenses perform the installation.

Most standard circuit breakers will run you about $30. But an AFCI or GFCI breaker can be as much as $100. It is the labor where you can really start to rack up the costs. Labor can vary greatly depending on your area. Labor in major cities can run into more than $100 per hour, for instance. You can expect at least a few hours to perform the installation, which heightens your costs substantially.

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Conclusion

Needing to have work done to your circuit breaker can be a troubling endeavor. If you are facing the prospect of needing to replace a breaker or notice that there is damage done to your panel, a professional is the best way to go.

There are only some situations where you can implement a DIY fix. It isn’t about a lack of knowledge or experience it more has to do with the potential safety hazards. An electrician knows how to keep the situation safe and prevent hazards like fire from happening. It is a worthwhile investment that will not only save you time and hassle, but a potentially dangerous situation from happening.

Ryan Womeldorf
Ryan Womeldorf

Ryan Womeldorf has more than a decade of experience writing. He loves to blog about construction, plumbing, and other home topics. Ryan also loves hockey and a lifelong Buffalo sports fan.

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