How to Replace a Circuit Breaker Safely

How to Replace a Circuit Breaker Safely: A home’s entire electrical system passes through a distribution center: the electrical panel. An electrical panel, or breaker box, is filled with individual circuit breakers that control circuits or branches of the electrical wiring throughout the home. One circuit breaker can control all the outdoor lights, another your kitchen outlets, and yet another individual appliance like a washing machine or air conditioner.

A circuit breaker’s job is to trip if the circuit is drawing too much power, as this can be dangerous for several reasons. However, circuit breakers don’t last forever and eventually need an upgrade, so learning how to replace a circuit breaker can be a handy skill. This guide will explain how to safely handle this potentially dangerous—but surprisingly easy—task.

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The main breaker can shut off power from the utility pole, but in homes with solar panels or automatic generators, the electrical panel can provide additional power. If so, it may still activate with the main breakers. Be sure to check the voltage before touching anything in the panel.

Step 1: Mark the breaker that needs to be replaced and turn off the main power.

Use a flashlight or work light to illuminate the electrical panel. Before removing the panel cover, identify the circuit breaker in question. If the breaker doesn’t trip automatically, you can plug a radio into one of the circuit’s outlets and turn up the volume until it’s heard. One by one, flip the breakers to the “off” position until the radio is silent.

Once the music or static stops, test the shorted end with a non-contact voltage tester or multimeter to make sure it’s off. Then, close the breaker before marking it with a piece of electrical tape (a bright color like orange is best for convenience, but any color is fine). Before proceeding, turn off the main breaker and the breakers of any auxiliary equipment such as solar circuits or backup generator circuits.

You can also use a circuit breaker finder for this process, but when only replacing a breaker that you already know needs to be replaced, this may not be necessary.

Step 2: Remove the panel cover and test the circuits.

With the main breaker off, remove the electrical panel cover using a suitable screwdriver. The cover is heavy and will fall, so follow this procedure:

  • Remove the top two screws completely and then thread them back in a turn or two. Some panels have large holes that fit over the screw head before sliding down to the smaller hole. If so, loosen the screw slightly rather than completely.
  • Remove the screws from the bottom of the cover completely.
  • Hold the panel with one hand while removing the top screws with the other hand, bracing for the weight of the panel cover.
  • Carefully set the panel cover aside.

Once the panel cover is off, use your non-contact electrical tester to check each circuit breaker. If the tester lights up and beeps, there is still power feeding into that circuit — do not proceed, as the panel may still be energized. If it is not possible to identify where the power is coming from, call a professional electrician.

Step 3: Remove the wire from the breaker.

Look for circuit breakers marked with electrical tape. After making sure the main breaker is still closed, use a screwdriver to loosen the black wire connected to the screw-down terminal on the side of the breaker. It is not necessary (and usually not possible without force) to completely remove this screw. Simply loosen the screw until the wire comes straight out of the breaker.

Once removed, bend the wire outwards from the panel. This will prevent the new breaker from being accidentally clamped after it is installed.

Step 4: Remove the old breaker from the panel.

No bolts or screws are holding residential breakers in place. The circuit breakers fit frictionally into the panel, but learning how to remove the circuit breaker can be a little confusing for first-timers.

Starting on the opposite side of the breaker from the wire terminal, use a thumb to apply firm pressure, pushing toward the side of the panel. This hot end of the breaker will start pulling the bus bar (the copper bar that distributes power to the breakers) with a slight twisting motion. Once the breaker is completely off the bar, it will open and pop right out of the panel.

Step 5: Install the new breaker in the panel.

Set the new breaker to the “off” position and make sure the wire removed in step 3 is dead. Notice that the circuit breaker has a bent shape at one end and a set of copper contacts at the other end that are covered in lubricant. Do not wipe off the grease.

Place the hook portion of the circuit breaker into the panel. Push the breaker into the panel, seating the contacts on top of the busbar. It should feel good and line up with the other breakers. Push the breaker outwards slightly to make sure it is secure on the bar.

Step 6: Wire the new breaker.

Locate the terminal screw on the new breaker. Use a screwdriver to loosen this screw but do not attempt to remove it. Underneath the screw is two terminal plates that will stick to the wire so they need to stay in place.

If you are installing an AFCI (Arc Fault Circuit Interrupter) breaker, it will have a white pigtail that needs to be connected to the neutral bar, which is the bar to which all the other white wires in the panel are connected. To do this, pick a nearby unused terminal and loosen the screw with a screwdriver. Pull the pigtail so the open end of the wire can slide into the terminal before closing with a screw.

Locate the wire removed from the old breaker and bend it so it lines up with the terminal on the new breaker. Place the bare end of the wire between the two terminal plates up to the jacket (coating around the wire). Use a screwdriver to tighten the terminal screw and clamp the wire.

Step 7: Replace the panel cover and turn on the power.

With the new circuit breaker installed and the wires connected, take a moment to make sure all other wires are tucked neatly inside the panel box. Then, carefully lift the panel cover back into place and thread the top two screws by hand to hold it in place. Install the bottom screws before fully tightening the top screws.

Once the panel cover is back in place, flip all circuit breakers to the “OFF” position. Next, flip each circuit breaker one by one to the “ON” position before flipping the main breaker. Doing so prevents your home from receiving too much electricity at once, which can be potentially harmful. If the installation was successful, the new circuit breaker should now be up and running.

Final thoughts

Learning how to change a breaker is not that difficult, but it does require care and attention. The electricity in the panel can be very dangerous, but as long as DIYers respect that power, have the right tools, and take the proper precautions, they should be able to handle the job without issue.

What are circuit breakers and their function?

A circuit breaker is an electrical switch designed to protect an electrical circuit from damage caused by overcurrent/overload or short circuits. Its basic function is to interrupt current flow after protective relays detect a fault.

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