Avoiding Faulty-Connection Circuit Overloads

Man opening fuse box, rear view
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Your circuit breaker has numerous electrical connections. Over time, these connections can come loose, corrode or become damaged. Faulty connections can result in overloads and consistently tripped breakers. Here’s how to spot bad circuit connections:

Signs of a Bad Connection

The signs of loose or faulty connections will vary. The most common signs include:

  • Melted Housing. Charred or melted plastic is a sign of excessive heat. Loose connections that melt housing, switches, wire insulation or receptacles are a serious fire hazard.
  • Corroded Wires. Discoloration around a wire’s connection can affect its efficiency and safety. This is usually a sign of old age or excessive moisture.
  • Burning Smells. A burning odor is the sign of a serious problem. Turn off your power and call a professional immediately.
  • Hot Hardware. Noticeable heat around switches, breakers or outlets is the sign of an inefficient connection. It’s important to call a pro to take a look. Warm hardware is the sign of potential combustion.
  • Loose Wires. Unsecured wires provide subpar connections and can cause circuit overloading. Gently tug on each wire to ensure it’s firmly in place.

What Causes Bad Connections?

Poor circuit connections can stem from a variety of problems, including:

  • Mismatched Breakers. Mismatched breakers are a common problem. Most breaker boxes are designed to hold 15-amp breakers. Some homeowners, accidently or in an effort to avoid regular overloads, replace their 15-amp breakers with higher-amp models. Using a breaker with increased amperage will allow your circuits to overload without tripping a breaker. This can result in fires and severe damage to your home’s electrical system. Check your breakers to ensure they match your breaker box’s amp rating. Replace any over- or under-powered breakers.
  • Aluminum Wiring. Aluminum was popular in residential electrical systems during the 1960s and 70s. Unlike copper, aluminum expands and contracts with temperature changes. The contraction and expansion of aluminum can cause loose connections and present fire hazards. Have a professional examine your wiring if you have an older home.
  • Leaks. Breaker boxes are usually located in basements, laundry rooms, utility rooms and other areas of the home containing high levels of moisture. Over time, water can collect on exposed wires and cause corrosion. Inspect any visible wires for rust or other corrosion. Moisture can also affect the interior of your breaker box. Have a professional inspect the inside of your breaker box for moisture-related deterioration. 
  • Age. Age also causes connection problems. Old wires can erode and come loose from connections. Dated breakers sometimes have faulty hardware like aluminum wire or mismatched breakers. As a rule, it’s a good idea to schedule a professional inspection if your breaker box is between 10 and 15 years old.
  • Faulty Installation/Repairs. Damage from poor installations and DIY projects can affect your connections. Poor installations and repairs can result in loose connections, broken wires and subpar insulation. Hire a professional take a look at your breaker if you notice signs of neglect or poor repairs. Loose connections aren’t always located in your breaker box. Problems with fixtures, outlets and internal wiring can also cause circuit overloads. In many cases, these problems stem from age- or usage-related problems.

    Fixing Faulty Connections

    Working with electrical systems can be dangerous. It’s a good idea to hire a professional to address any connection-related problems. Fortunately, there is one repair you can make without the help of a professional. Swapping out faulty or mismatched breakers is a simple job that doesn’t require working with dangerous electrical systems. Here’s a quick how-to:

    Helpful tools

    You'll need a Flat-head or Philips-head screwdriver.

    Stick tester

    • Remove the panel cover. Remove the screws holding the panel cover in place. As you loosen the screws, be careful not to damage any wires resting on the screws themselves. This can cause a short circuit.
    • Cut the power. Flip the main breaker to turn off the power to your breaker box.
    • Test the breaker. Use a stick tester to test each wire attached to your breaker. Only continue working if both wires are without power.
    • Loosen the terminal. Use the flat-head screwdriver to loosen the terminal screws. Pull the wires away from the breaker terminal. 
    • Remove the breaker. Push on the front of the breaker handle to remove the breaker from the slot.
    • Install the new breaker. Line up the new breaker with the clips on the side of the bus bar. Push down firmly to snap the breaker in place. Reconnect the terminal wires and screw them in place.
    • Turn on your breaker. Flip your breaker switch and test the terminal wires with the stick tester to make sure your breaker has power.