How to Tell If a Circuit Breaker is Bad

Maybe your circuit breaker trips always and you are wondering if it has gone bad!

It can go bad, but not as often as you think.

A tripping breaker can be a sign of overload, short circuits, wrong wiring, ground faults, and a bad breaker.

You need to understand the working principle of your electrical breaker, to know when it goes bad.

The primary function of the breaker is to protect a circuit from faulty current, and whenever it detects one, it trips to prevent electrical hazards.

While a breaker box may go bad, always confirm from a licensed electrician before changing them.

Tools and materials required for the task

To test an electrical circuit protector, you need the following tools:

  • A screwdriver
  • Digital multimeter
  • Safety gloves
  • Wire stripper to strip and dress the wire
  • A new circuit breaker in case you want to replace the old one.

How to tell if a circuit breaker is bad

Before you conclude that your electrical panel has failed, do these preliminary checks.

Locate the breaker box that leads to the room where you are having the problem

  • Unplug all the appliances connected to the branch circuit to make sure you did not overload it.
  • Check if the switch is still functional.
  • Reset the breaker by turning it OFF and ON.
  • After resetting, monitor the light to see if it still trips. If it does, continue with the following steps:

Step 1: Unplug all appliances connected to the circuit

As a general rule, you should first unplug all devices on the circuit you want to test

This is to protect your appliances from power surge which may arise during the test.

Step 2: Remove the breakers panel or cover

After unplugging the device from the circuit, switch off the breaker and lose the cover.

Handle the whole process with care to avoid damaging the screws or allowing the panel to fall down.

But before embarking on the work, make sure you put on your personal protective equipment such as safety gloves, boots and also make use of insulated tools.

Step3: Test the circuit breaker with a multimeter

You can easily detect a faulty breaker by measuring its voltage using a multimeter. 

Depending on the type of breaker you are using, the voltage reading should be around 120 Volts for a single-pole, and 240 V for double pole breakers.

A voltage reading of zero or anything less than 120 V for a single-pole, and 240 for double poles, shows a faulty service panel and should be replaced.

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Signs of a faulty circuit breaker

Apart from short circuits and overload that cause breakers to trip most times, there are some indicative signs you should watch out for to know if your breaker is faulty. These include:

Burning smell from the breaker box

The burning smell from your electrical panel is a clear sign that something is wrong. Always power off the control switch to the house each time you notice this and call a professional for troubleshooting. 

Circuit breaker hot to touch

If your breaker is hot to touch, it may be a sign of overload. Check to see if you are overloading the circuit. If not, call a professional electrician to prevent an electrical accident.

Frequent tripping

If your breaker keeps tripping and you have ruled out overload, short circuit and ground fault as the cause, the breaker might have gone bad.

Related article: Why your circuit breaker trips even without a load

Visible damage on the outlet

Visible damage such as burned parts or broken switches may mean that your receptacle is bad.

If you notice such in your house, call a professional for emergency services.

Aged receptacle

According to the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), a circuit breaker has a lifespan of 30-40 years.

If your breaker has lasted for so many years and is showing faulty symptoms such as flickering, smoke coming out of it, or frequent malfunctioning, change the device.

FAQ

1. What are the signs of a faulty panel?

Signs of bad circuit breakers include:

  • Flickering light: This means a shaking light. Flickering light can damage electrical appliances if you do not contain it in time. It is a sign that something is wrong with your electrical system, which may be the breaker, short circuit, over-current, and others.
  • Poor performance from your device: A weak breaker can make your appliances behave as if they have gone bad. For example, your dryer might trip off mid-way.
  • Burning smell: A burning smell can arise from faulty wiring, partial contact, or faulty breaker. Always contact a professional electrician for troubleshooting.
  • Signs of damage: If some parts of the safety switch are no longer functional, for example, a faulty switch, you will need to change it.
  • If it trips continuously.

2. Can a circuit breaker fail without tripping?

A safety switch can fail in several ways, some may fail without tripping, others may trip.

But to make sure it is the breaker that is causing the problem, check their voltage level with a digital multimeter.

3. Can a breaker partially go bad?

Yes, this can happen when the voltage level is less than the required 120 V for single poles, and around 120, instead of 240 V for double poles.

4. Can a bad circuit breaker cause low voltage?

This depends on what you call enough voltage. If it is slightly lower, then it could be a resistance from the cable. If the supply cable is long, the same would apply. The supply voltage could also be low because of high demand from a large power user. You will need to check those things before suspecting your service panel. The low voltage may not come from your breaker.