Bad Circuit Breaker

Bad Circuit Breaker

What is A Bad Circuit Breaker

The circuit breaker is a fantastic little piece of equipment that is meant to keep your electrical system safe and ultimately prevent fires. Newer Arc Fault and Ground Fault breakers do just that and can protect against electrical shock/electrocution! If at any point you are not comfortable with resetting a circuit breaker, call an honest, licensed electrician. There are plenty of us out there. What one homeowner feels comfortable doing, another may not. Under no circumstance should you remove the cover from the electrical panel.  Safety is the number one priority, specifically when it comes to electricity.

A “Bad Circuit Breaker” can refer to a few things, most of which are misconceptions.  This is an educational article that aims to clarify some of the reasons behind a circuit breaker tripping.

Burned breaker and bus bar
Burned circuit breaker

I can’t tell you how many times a customer calls and says something along the lines of “I have a bad circuit breaker, I need you guys to change it out”. When I ask why, I get a few responses such as “it won’t reset” to “I think its bad” to “it smells”. If I had to guesstimate, I would say an actual bad circuit breaker accounts for the culprit only about 5-10% of the time.

Common Breaker Problems

1.       Breaker tripped:

This bit may save you the cost of a service call so pay close attention! A tripped breaker will have the handle in the middle position most frequently (unless you have old pushmatic breakers, more on that later). Occasionally, the breaker will internally trip and the handle will appear to be in the ON position. To reset a tripped circuit breaker, the breaker NEEDS to be TURNED OFF before it can be turned back on. Otherwise it will simply keep reverting back to the tripped position. This even applies to old Pushmatic breakers, sometimes you need to push them pretty firmly to turn them off and then back on. Our article on Resetting a Circuit Breaker covers the various different types of circuit breakers and how to properly reset them.



Here’s the part where I try to save you money and make you a better homeowner. Before assuming you have a bad circuit breaker, you need to ask yourself, “Why is the circuit breaker tripping?” I advise you unplug everything in the circuit. Anything plugged in may be causing the breaker to trip. Space heaters/fans/air conditioners/lamp cords, etc. love to trip circuit breakers when they go bad or are on their way out. If the breaker immediately trips after it is reset, read on below.

2.       Breaker will not reset:

A breaker that will not reset does so for only a handful of reasons.

a.       There is a short: A short or “dead short” as it is commonly called is when the ungrounded “hot” wire, is at some point directly touching the grounded “neutral wire” or grounding “ground wire”. In this case, a breaker will abruptly trip or make a buzzing sound and then trip. It is accompanied by a popping sound and sometimes the discharge of a noticeable white/blue arc. Again, make sure you unplug everything on that circuit that could possibly be faulty. I’ve seen everything from bad toaster ovens to television power strips cause a dead short. More than likely in this case you will need a professional. Accidentally cut wires, damaged switches and receptacles, and damaged outdoor wiring are common causes.

b.       Broken breaker: When a breaker is actually broken, usually the handle is very loose or snapped off completely. Sometimes, less common, the breakers fail internally. An internally failed breaker is more common with a GFCI breaker specifically for pool and spa equipment.

3.       Breaker/panel smells:

When a breaker genuinely does malfunction, many times it smells. I’ve heard the smell described as anything from burning plastic (which it actually is) to rotting fish. In this scenario, an electrician will need to replace the breaker and inspect the bus bar of the panel (where the breaker makes electrical contact). If you’re lucky, only the breaker has burned. The next step is to figure out why it had burned. Most often it is faulty equipment or a loose connection on the breaker itself. If you’re less fortunate, this could compromise the bus bar. In this scenario, the bus bar (and possibly the whole panel) and surrounding breakers will also need replacement. This scenario is more likely with heavy loads such as hot tubs, toaster ovens, ranges, etc.

Bad Breaker, burned
Burned bad breaker from poor contact with the bus bar

4.       Breakers and panel are Federal Pacific or Pushmatic:

These both are cause for concern and warrant replacement.

Pushmatic panels can last very long but parts are scarce. If the main breaker should fail in the midst of winter or heat of summer, you’re going to be due for an emergency panel change. Nobody wants to do that.

Federal Pacific Panels: Commonly installed in the 1980’s, some of the breakers do not function properly to protect a circuit in the event of an overload. Federal Pacific falsified test data, the state of New Jersey sued them, and they lost. Needless to say, if you have a panel that says “Federal Pacific,” get in touch with a licensed electrician sooner than later.  You can find more panel change information here in our articles “Do I need a Panel Change?” and “What’s involved in a service change/upgrade?”.

Federal Pacific Breakers
Federal Pacific Panel and Breakers


In a perfect world, a faulty appliance or something else quick an easy listed above caused your breaker to trip. If not, you’re going to need an electrician because you do have an actual bad circuit breaker. This is more than likely the case. Please don’t fool around with this stuff and become a story for your local news station. You need someone who is experienced and licensed. See our National Electrical Registry to find a prescreened, licensed, insured electrician near you. Thanks for reading!

How to tell if a circuit breaker is bad?

Ultimately you’ll need a licensed electrician. Try to reset the breaker, turn if off and then back on

Can a circuit breaker go bad?

Absolutely. Water damage or poor contact with the bus bar can cause a breaker to burn and cease functioning correctly.

How to replace a bad circuit breaker?

Call an electrician! Please do not attempt to do this yourself as it is potentially very dangerous. is your best bet at finding someone nearby to do this for you.

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