Removing a circuit breaker from your home's electrical service panel is an easy job that takes just a few minutes. However, it's not a suitable project for homeowners who are unfamiliar with electrical systems. The service panel is where the utility's power comes into your house, and portions of it carry deadly levels of electricity at all times. Removing the panel cover exposes the live elements, so you must be very careful not to touch them.
What's Inside Your Service Panel
A household service panel has a main breaker, usually located at the top (but sometimes at the bottom or the side), and two columns of branch circuit breakers. Each branch circuit breaker controls a household circuit. The main breaker controls power to all of the branch breakers. It acts as a switch to energize or de-energize the two hot bus bars that the branch breakers clip into to become energized.
The main breaker itself gets power from two hot utility cables that come in from above or below the service panel (there's also a neutral cable that connects to the neutral bus bar). The hot utility cables and the points where they connect to the panel or main breaker remain live at all times unless the power company shuts off your service. Never touch these cables or connections, even when the main breaker is off.
The main circuit breaker does not shut off the power to the utility cables or the points where they connect to the panel. These parts remain live at all times and carry deadly current.
Equipment / Tools
- Drill (optional)
Turn Off the Main Breaker
Make sure the ground or floor and the electrical service panel are completely dry. Open the door to the panel. Stand to the side of the panel, and use one hand to switch the main breaker to the OFF position. This will shut off the power to all of the circuits in your house.
Standing to the side of the panel protects you from the rare (but very dangerous) event of an arc flash while turning off the breaker. Using one hand helps limit the potential injury an accidental shock can cause.
Unscrew the Panel Cover
Use a cordless drill or a screwdriver to remove the screws of the panel's outer cover. Support the cover with your free hand to keep it in place while unscrewing the last couple of screws, so the heavy panel doesn't drop down.
Note: Some service panels have a cover that includes the door. Others have a door that is mounted directly to the panel box and a cover that is set into the box.
Remove the Cover
Tilt the cover away from the panel, using both hands, and set it aside. Be careful not to touch anything inside the panel. Because you shut off the main breaker, the individual branch circuit breakers and their wiring will not have power, but the power company cables and their terminals remain live—do not touch them.
Test for Power
Use a non-contact voltage tester to confirm the power is off. Identify the breaker you are removing, and touch the tester probe to the wire connected to the breaker. It should not detect voltage. If the tester detects voltage—and you're sure you turned off the main breaker—carefully replace the panel cover and call an electrician; the panel has serious safety issues.
Turn Off the Branch Breaker
Switch the breaker you will remove to the OFF position. This is a redundant step, since the breaker is getting no power from the panel. But it's a good idea to make a habit of always turning off circuit breakers, so that it becomes a rote procedure.
Rock the Breaker Back
Unsnap the circuit breaker from the bus bar by gently rocking it away from the center of the panel. It should come out easily by hand. Do not use tools.
Pull the Breaker Out
Pull the breaker straight out to release it from the bus bar. The breaker body has a tab on its outside corner that fits into a slot on the bus bar. You may have to wiggle the breaker a bit or give it a gentle tug to free the tab.
Unscrew the Breaker Wire
Loosen the terminal screw on the back of the circuit breaker, and pull the wire from the breaker. This is the hot wire from the circuit cable. The cable also will have a neutral wire connected to the neutral bus bar and a ground wire connected to the ground bar (some panels have a combined neutral/ground bar). You do not need to disconnect the other wires unless you are removing the cable from the box.
If you are replacing the old breaker with a new one, install the new breaker now. Otherwise, you must cap and secure the hot wire inside the panel so there is no risk of it touching any other breaker wires or terminals. Completely install the new breaker or secure the hot wire before reinstalling the panel cover and turning on the main breaker. Do not leave the panel uncovered if you are not working on it.