To start this blog about circuit breakers (and broken circuits), let’s start in Borneo. Obviously. See, there’s this ant in Borneo, the Colobopsis saundersi, that blows itself up whenever it’s seriously threatened. Seriously. Let’s say there are a bunch of these ants, just hanging around the treetops of Borneo, doing “ant stuff.” If they’re attacked, several ants bite the attacker and their butts toward it. Then they’ll flex so hard, their abdomens will literally explode. During the explosion, the attacker gets covered by a yellow, sticky goo. Oh, and the goo is toxic. Threat stopped!!! Mission…. accomplished?
So, circuit breakers are just like those ants in Borneo. When circuit breakers are “attacked” (by excess electricity) they ‘trip’ or ‘break’ themselves. By “breaking” themselves, circuits block the flow of current through your system to places where it could hurt you. That’s how they protect you and your home from fires and electrical shocks. Unlike fuses, which literally break when they trip, you can re-set and re-use a breaker. Unless you can’t. Sometimes, circuit breakers just stop working. That’s a very bad thing, because as we just explained, breakers are important.
How do you fix breakers if they’re not working?
Well, first some bad news. You don’t. You get a new breaker. If you try to cut costs, you may end up with a circuit breaker that won’t work when you need it. Don’t take that chance. Get a new circuit breaker (they’re really not that expensive)!
Of course, that brings up the question; how do you know when you need a new one? Circuit breakers usually last up to 40 years but they do die. Here’s how to check to see if it needs to be replaced:
How to test a circuit breaker.
First, if you’re not comfortable working with electricity, call in a licensed, qualified electrician. If you are willing to tackle this job, be careful: you’ll be working with live electricity. Before you start, make sure the area is dry and wear rubber shoes. The first step is testing the breaker with a multimeter or voltage tester. If you don’t have a multimeter, buy one and make sure it’s rated for up to 500 volts. Unplug anything connected to the circuit the breaker controls.
Next, remove the panel (the ‘door’) from the breaker box and set it aside. Leave the screws somewhere you can find them when you put the panel back later. Make sure the breaker is in the “on” position. Turn the multimeter on and set it to “read voltage.” The multimeter will have two wires, a black one and a red one. Both wires have a probe connected to the end. Use the probe at the end of the red wire to touch the screw feeding power into the breaker. Touch the grounded box with the black or neutral probe. While you’re touching both wires with these probes, read the voltage on the multimeter. It should read either 120 or 220 volts. If there’s no voltage reading, the breaker is bad and needs to be replaced. Here’s how to do that:
How to replace the circuit breaker.
First, buy a new breaker with the same voltage and size as the one you’re replacing. Before you start working on it, turn off the breaker you’re replacing by pushing the switch to “off.” If you really want to be careful, turn off the main circuit switch, too. Be warned: this will completely shut down all the electricity in your home. Make sure everyone at home knows what you’re doing before you get started.
When you’re sure it’s safe to start working, loosen the terminal screw until the wires loosen. Use a pair of needle-nose pliers with rubber insulated handles to pull the exposed wires out from the terminal. Make sure they don’t touch any other wires or breakers. Pull up on the side of the breaker to pop the clips out of place and remove the breaker. NOTE: If you didn’t shut off the main power, do not touch the metal bars in the back of the box. They are live.
Next, flip the new breaker to the off position. Then, slide the clips of the new breaker in place and push it in. Maneuver the side with the terminals into place first so the clips latch onto the bar. Push the opposite side down to lock the breaker into place. Use needle-nose pliers to hold the wires while you tighten the terminal screw. Make sure the screw is snug but not overly-tight, or you could strip it. Turn your breaker on and reattach the panel to the breaker box.
…That’s it! Your new breaker should work just fine. Good job!
We’ll end with a cold, hard truth. Circuit breakers have one more thing in common with those exploding ants from Borneo. The ants can explode without reservation because there are always more ants right behind them. No matter how many give their lives for the colony, the colony will live on.
Circuit breakers are the same way. No matter how many circuit breakers trip to stop electrical threats, you can always replace them. If you ever need help replacing your circuit breakers, give Early Bird a call. We’re always happy to help, and unlike Borneo’s ants, we never bite. Or explode.