How to Repair a Circuit Breaker
Time Required: Under 2 hours
Circuit breakers are designed to interrupt power to a circuit when the electrical current flow exceeds safe levels. When they “trip,” breakers prevent electricity from reaching outlets, switches and fixtures. Resetting breakers usually restores power. It’s infrequent, but sometimes a bad circuit breaker needs to be replaced. Faulty breakers cannot be repaired.
This guide outlines the steps to reset a circuit breaker, how to tell if a circuit breaker is bad and offers circuit breaker troubleshooting tips. Resetting a breaker is an easy task and requires no special skills or advanced knowledge. Contact a qualified professional for help if you are uncomfortable working with electricity.
Before resetting the breaker, turn switches off and unplug lights or appliances in the circuit that has lost power. If the circuit is overloaded, attempting to reset it with everything plugged in and turned on could make it trip again right away.
Safety: Electricity can be dangerous. Always use caution when working on electrical panels. Be sure that your hands and the floor you’re standing on are dry before touching the panel.
- Go to the electrical panel in the basement, garage, utility room or hallway.
- Open the panel door and look for an index that tells which area of the home each breaker serves.
- Locate the corresponding breaker. The switch on the tripped circuit breaker will rest between the “On” and “Off” positions.
- Reset the breaker by moving the switch to the “Off” position. Then, turn it to click in the “On” position.
- Check that power has been restored to the circuit and to the room that was interrupted.
When a tripped breaker won’t reset or repeatedly trips after resetting, there could be too many appliances or lights on the circuit. This means the circuit breaker is likely serving its purpose. However, the problem could be from a damaged cord or plug or from a short circuit in a receptacle or fixture. Faulty wiring could also be the cause.
- Turn off the lights and unplug all of the appliances from outlets that are on the circuit.
- As the appliances are unplugged, look for scorched terminals and check the plugs for overheating. If one is hot to the touch, it could be indicating the source of the problem.
- Try to reset the breaker again.
- If the breaker says on, plug in the appliances one by one until the circuit breaker trips again. Discard or repair the appliance that interrupts the breaker.
- Now turn light switches on. When or if the breaker is thrown, there could be a problem with that switch or the light fixture.
- If a particular light or appliance trips the breaker, reset the circuit once again and retry the isolated fixture before any others to help determine if it is the cause.
If you are unable to pinpoint the culprit, it could be a problem the circuit breaker itself.
A breaker itself isn’t made to be repaired, but it can be replaced. If it feels hot, shows evidence of scorching or smells burnt, it needs a replacement. A bad circuit breaker might not show evidence that it isn’t working properly. You can use a multimeter voltage tester to check if current is running through it before replacing the breaker.
Tip: Replacing a circuit breaker is a simple process, but you should work carefully and use extreme caution, even if you have experience working with electricity. Always assume that wires are live.
- Turn off lights and appliances powered by the circuit.
- Remove the metal frame around the circuit breakers by loosening the screws on the electrical panel.
- Locate the circuit breaker to be tested and/or replaced on the exposed panel.
- Set the tester to AC voltage. In the U.S., be sure that the multimeter is capable of handling 120-volts.
- Test the current by placing the red prong of the multimeter onto the breaker’s “hot” terminal screw. Then, place the black prong on the neutral bar.
- The measurement on the multimeter should read around 120-volts if it is working properly. If it's a bad circuit breaker, the display will read zero volts.
- Turn off all branch circuit breakers.
- Then turn off the main breaker.
- Do not assume the power is off. Use the voltage tester to ensure that the panel is not receiving electricity.
- Use a screwdriver to disconnect the wire from the terminal on the bad breaker and move it aside.
- Pry out the old breaker, paying attention to how it fits and locks into the panel.
- Insert the new breaker into the panel.
- Attach the circuit’s load wire onto the terminal.
- Check and tighten any loose terminal screws on other breakers.
- Check that all breakers are in the “Off” position.
- Replace the panel cover.
- Turn on the main breaker.
- Turn each of the branch circuit breakers individually.
- Use the voltage meter to test each breaker.
If the breaker continues to trip, contact a qualified electrician. A professional has the expertise and tools necessary to diagnose problems inside your walls and address underlying issues.