Circuit breakers play a critical role in helping to distribute current from the main power grid to your home. As a modern-day replacement for the now outdated fuse box, a circuit breaker essentially protects your home from overloads, surges in power, and disconnects power when a fault occurs. This could be something as simple as disconnecting power when a toaster short circuits or as major as a fault in the local electrical grid.

What Are The Different Types Of Residential Circuit Breakers?

Most homes have an array of 120-volt circuit breakers and one or two 220 volt circuit breakers. A 240-volt circuit breaker is most often used for things like an electric dryer or an electric oven. Though there are some power tools, like large table saws that also need to run on a 240-volt circuit breaker.

The 120-volt circuit breakers are more popular in most residential electrical panels. They are used for standard outlets to plug in things like lamps, small toasters, televisions, and other small electrical appliances. It’s also worth noting that 120-volt circuit breakers can have 15 amp or 20 amp ratings. This is a handy metric for determining the number of watts that the circuit can handle before the circuit exceeds the rating and breaks the circuit at the panel. Which is sometimes referred to as “Tripping” or “Flipping” the circuit breaker as the switch itself typically moves when the amperage or wattage limited is exceeded.

A Ground Fault Circuit Interrupter or GFCI is a special type of outlet with a sensor built into it. You typically see them in laundry rooms, bathrooms, or near kitchen sinks. If there is a risk of water or high humidity affecting the electric outlet, it should have a GFCI built into it. That way when water contact the electric components a small internal sensor is tripped. This pops out a button and prevents further electric current from flowing through the outlet until the GFCI is reset.

While they are meant to be incredibly durable, it is possible for time and repeated use to affect a circuit breaker. Sometimes even basic metal fatigue can degrade the components of a circuit breaker leaving it prone to failure.

Signs Of A Failing Circuit Breaker

There are a few things to look out for if you suspect one or more of your home’s circuit breakers are having a problem. This includes the following:

The Electrical Panel Gives Off A Burning Odor

A burning odor, that is somewhat similar to dust or hair getting sucked into a space heater element is often a sign of a circuit breaker that is in distress. It’s most noticeable near the electric panel and using indicates that the insulation in the panel or around the circuit breaker is failing. This can cause overheating, as well as electric shorts. In a severe situation, it could even cause a small fire at the electrical panel.

If you notice a burner odor near your electric panel you need to turn off the offending circuit breaker immediately. If you aren’t sure which circuit breaker is failing, you may have to resort to disconnecting it from the main. Then you should call a licensed electrician to diagnose the problem and repair it properly to code.

The Breaker Trips Or Flips Even After Being Reset

A circuit breaker that trips repeated over the course of a day or weeks, with no other obvious sign is also a symptom of a failure somewhere in the system. This might be an issue with the internal wiring of the circuit, a failure in an electric appliance that has gone undetected, or a sign of an internal problem in the circuit breaker itself.

If you have a circuit breaker that keeps flipping after being reset and you can’t determine why it’s best to leave the circuit off and seek the services of a licensed electrician. They can comb through your system to find the fault and affect any necessary repairs. This might include removing a faulty electrical appliance, replacing an outlet, upgrading the wiring of the circuit, or a wholesale replacement of the circuit breaker itself.

Obvious Signs Of Physical Damage, Smoke, Or Burning

Scorch marks, signs of smoke damage, or melted plastic should be taken as an obvious sign of a failure that leads to a serious overheating incident. In a situation like this, it might be that one circuit breaker failed, but the resulting heat could very easily damage other circuit breakers and panel components. If you see a problem like this, or there is obvious smoke, you need to disconnect all appliances and possibly use an electric-rated fire extinguisher

This is a definite sign of a major fault in the electric panel and not the sort of thing you should attempt to repair yourself. A licensed professional electrician may need to replace one or more circuit breakers or fully replace the panel. If the damage is extensive other electrical components in your home might also need to be repaired, replaced, or upgraded.

The Circuit Breaker Trips Immediately After Reset

This might be a sign that you have one too many electric appliances active on that particular circuit breaker. It’s even more common in 15-Amp circuit breakers that can only handle 1,800 watts at a time.

In a situation like this, try unplugging one or two appliances or devices from the circuit breaker. Then reset it. If the circuit breaker continues to flip then it’s likely a problem with the circuit breaker or the wiring connection inside the electric panel. An electrician can identify the problem and may need to replace the bad circuit breaker.

Can I Replace A Bad Circuit Breaker Myself?

If you are mechanically handy and have the right tools you could theoretically replace a circuit breaker in your home. Though this is rarely a good idea. Not only is there a very serious safety risk, but you could also leave yourself vulnerable to a denied homeowner’s insurance claim if your handiwork results in a fire later on down the line. A future problem with a real estate inspection could also come up later when you try to sell your home.

Ultimately, it’s better to have a professionally licensed electrician replace the bad circuit breaker and inspect your home’s electric wiring for any less-obvious signs of a fault. They can usually do this in a relatively short amount of time and at minimal expense.