Everything You Need to Know About Replacing Your Circuit Breaker

by James Fitzgerald
Electricians identify a 20 amp breaker that has gone bad and replace it.

Like anything in your home, circuit breakers won’t last forever. On average, they’re good for 30 to 40 years. So, if you’re lucky (or move homes frequently enough), you’ll never have to replace one.

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If you’re unlucky, though, you’ll have to have it replaced. That comes with a host of associated costs, ranging anywhere from $100 for a simple breaker replacement to thousands to replace a circuit breaker panel (according to data from HomeGuide).

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What Is a Circuit Breaker?

A circuit breaker is one of the most important safety devices installed in modern homes. Their purpose is to prevent electrical fires and damage to electronics by disrupting the flow of electricity to circuits that are overloaded or shorting out. Circuit breakers accomplish this essential function by “tripping” when they detect a fault in the circuit they control, which shuts off the power to that circuit.

What Are the Signs a Circuit Breaker Needs to Be Replaced?

If a circuit breaker trips repeatedly, can’t be reset or shows signs of damage — such as visible burn marks, a burnt smell or being hot to the touch— it needs to be replaced.

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How Much Does It Cost to Replace a Circuit Breaker?

There are two main costs involved in installing a replacement circuit breaker: labor costs for installation and the new breaker itself.

Circuit Breaker Cost

Not every circuit breaker will work in every electrical panel, so the breaker you purchase needs to be the exact same type as the one you’re replacing. That means that it needs to have the same amperage rating, be of the same brand and have the same identification numbers. Before going to the store to purchase your new breaker, it’s a good idea to take a photo of the defective breaker so you’ll have all the necessary information on hand.

If you opt to have an electrician do the work, they will likely be able to source a new breaker for you.

You can expect to pay between $5 and $250 for a new breaker, depending on the type.

Labor Costs

Electricians base their prices on a number of factors, but they’ll usually either charge you a flat fee for the job, or they’ll go off of an hourly rate. For a circuit breaker replacement, you’ll pay in the ballpark of $100 to $350. That said, some electricians will charge a callout fee or diagnostic fee that will cover their visit to figure out what’s wrong with your system. These fees are typically about $100.

Replacing a Circuit Breaker: Safety First

Working inside an electrical panel poses an inherent risk of electrocution, so if you’re not experienced or comfortable working around electricity, you should hire a licensed electrician instead.

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Overview: How to Replace a Circuit Breaker

To help you decide whether this is a project you want to tackle on your own, here’s an overview of the project’s steps.

Note: Working with electricity — especially if you’re inexperienced — is dangerous. The following steps are intended to be an overview of the process. If you intend to DIY this project, you’ll want to consult more detailed how-to instructions than those provided here to ensure your safety.

Things You’ll Need

  • Replacement circuit breaker
  • Electrical safety equipment
  • Non-contact voltage tester
  • Screwdriver
  • Light source

Step 1: Prepare Your Workspace

Since you’ll be shutting off the power to your entire home while you’re replacing the circuit breaker, you should have an alternative light source available, like a flashlight or headlamp, so that you can clearly see what you’re doing.

Safety note: It’s also highly recommended to take some additional safety measures to reduce the risk of electrocution while working inside your electrical panel. This includes using rubber-insulated footwear, tools and gloves. You can also place a rubber mat underneath the breaker box for an additional layer of protection.

Inside your home’s electrical panel, locate the main circuit breaker and switch it to the OFF position.

Step 2: Remove the Panel Cover

Use a screwdriver to remove the screws securing the metal plate that houses the individual circuits. Don’t allow any portion of the cover to contact any of the components inside the panel after all the screws are removed and the cover is loose.

Safety note: Even though the main breaker is off, there are still live, high-voltage electrical lines coming into the top of the panel. Do not, under any circumstances, touch these wires. Although they’re covered with rubber insulation, accidentally contacting an uninsulated portion of these wires has the potential to fatally electrocute you.

Finally, confirm that the power is off at all the individual circuit breakers with a non-contact voltage tester.

Step 3: Remove the Defective Breaker

Circuit breakers are secured to a “busbar” (the metal bar or strip that runs down the middle of the panel with circuit breakers connected to it on both sides) with a hook on its back edge that clips into a corresponding tab on the busbar. Grasp the breaker and pivot it out and away at a slight angle until it’s fully dislodged.

Step 4: Remove the Wire(s)

Use a screwdriver to loosen the terminal screw(s) until all the connected wire(s) are loose, and then remove them from the terminal.

Step 5: Attach the Wire(s) to the New Breaker

Insert the bare end of the wire between the two terminal plates. If necessary, loosen the terminal screw to separate the plates enough to insert the wire. Ensure that only the bare wire is touching the plates since the rubber insulation covering the wire can melt and damage the wire if it’s contacting the terminal plates. Repeat these steps for any additional wires. With the wire in place, tighten down the terminal screw until it’s firmly secured in the terminal.

Step 6: Insert the Breaker Into the Panel

Line up the hook on the breaker with the corresponding tab on the busbar, and press it into place at roughly the same angle you used to remove the old breaker. You should be able to feel and hear it snap into place.

Step 7: Reinstall the Panel Cover and Restore Power

Reinstall the panel cover onto the electrical panel, being careful not to contact any portion of the cover with any of the components inside the panel. Use a helper if you need to.

Turn all the individual circuit breakers inside the panel to the OFF position. This will prevent any damage that could result from a sudden surge in electrical demand when you restore power to the panel. Flip the main breaker to the ON position, then turn on each individual breaker.

If your new breaker continues to experience the same problems that led you to replace the old one, call a licensed electrician to have them identify and correct the underlying issue.

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