How to Safely Replace a Circuit Breaker

Removing Circuit Breaker
© Lee Wallender

When a circuit breaker trips repeatedly, it is usually because of a problem in the wiring, such as a short circuit or ground fault problem—or because the circuit is overloaded for the amperage rating it carries. But from time to time, a circuit breaker may simply wear out and get weak or fail entirely. Sometimes this happens because a circuit problem has caused it to trip too often, wearing out the internal switch linkage.

Or, breaker failure may occur if you have used the breaker switch to turn the power on and off too many times. This is a bad practice and should be avoided. Use the circuit breaker switches only to turn off the power when servicing the circuit, not to routinely shut a circuit on and off. These mechanical devices will fail due to wear over time, so limit the number of times that you do turn them off and on.

There are instances where power spikes and lightning hits have also damaged circuit breakers. And water damage due to leaks or flooding can also cause failure.

Whatever the reason, when a breaker fails, removing the old one and installing a replacement is the cure. Circuit breakers are relatively inexpensive and are very easy to replace—provided you have a bit of understanding about electrical issues. This is not a project everyone is comfortable performing since it involves working at the main service panel with the safety cover removed.

Although the process is not difficult—in fact, it's considerably easier than many routine wiring projects—the main power buss bars will be exposed as you replace a circuit breaker and there is a danger of serious shock if you're not careful.

If you are not confident of your abilities when it comes to working around electrical equipment, do not replace a circuit breaker yourself, but call a licensed electrician instead. 

The following overview will help you understand the procedure and guide you through the process of replacing a circuit breaker. 

Tools and Materials You Will Need

  • New circuit breaker
  • Screwdrivers
  • Safety glasses

WARNING:  Careful electricians always stand to the side of the service panel when turning a circuit breaker on or off, and they turn their eyes away from the panel until the power is on. Although the possibility is remote, there is a chance of explosion in a circuit breaker panel, and standing to the side and looking away is a safety measure designed to protect vision. Some electricians wear safety glasses whenever working with electrical components and devices. 

Step 1: Identify Breaker Brand, Type, and Size

Before you can begin replacement, you’ll need to identify the brand, type, and size breaker you’ll be replacing. Circuit breakers are proprietary to the manufacturer of the particular circuit breaker panel you have. Square D and Homeline, for example, are two of the major manufacturers of breaker panels, and each accepts only breakers designed for its panel. 

Breakers come in many different shapes and sizes. You should never replace a   breaker with one from a different breaker manufacturer.

  Even if they look identical,  there are differences in tension, the way they connect in the holder, and how deeply they mount to the buss. 

Look carefully at the front of the circuit breaker. A small label near the reset lever contains the identification numbers you need. Note these specifications, and buy a replacement that is exactly the same. 

Step 2: Remove the Breaker Panel Cover Plate

Once you have the new breaker, remove the screws holding the panel cover plate on. It's best to leave the middle two screws in place until last, removing the corner screws first. Loosen the two remaining screws while holding the cover from falling to the ground. Be very careful not to let the cover tip into the panel, because the panel is live and there is a danger of shock or serious damage to the breaker panel.

If you are at all afraid to work on the panel at this point, either turn off the main breaker or call a professional. 

Step 3: Remove the Old Circuit Breaker

  1. Now that the cover is off, locate the breaker to be replaced. Turn off the breaker by flipping the reset lever to the OFF position. 
  2. If the black insulated circuit wire connected to the breaker is folded tightly along the sides of the panel, carefully extend it out from the panel, being fairly careful not to touch any live wires. 
  3. Now, carefully grasp the edge of the old breaker at the inner center part of the panel and pivot it out towards the outer side of the panel. The breaker should snap free and pull out from the panel. Be very careful not to touch the metal buss bar to which the breaker was attached, as it is still energized unless you have turned off the main circuit breaker.  Once pulled free of the panel, the breaker is inactive because it is no longer in physical contact with either of the hot buss bars in the panel. 
  4. Remove the black circuit wire attached to the breaker by unscrewing the screw terminal.
  5. Now attach this black circuit wire to the new breaker by inserting the bare end ​of the wire under the screw terminal and tightening the screw. Set the breaker reset lever to the OFF position before installing it.

  6. Now hook the back of the new breaker into the back holder clip on the breaker panel, and push the breaker forward into place. In some cases, this will require a bit of force. Make sure the breaker lines up with the buss bar as you install it. You should feel a click as the breaker snaps into place onto the hot buss bar. 

  7. Tuck the excess black circuit wire into the panel, neatly folding it along the empty space along the side of the panel. 

  8.  Replace the panel cover and its screws before turning on the power to the circuit by snapping the reset lever of the circuit breaker to the ON position.

  9. Check to see if power is running through the circuit.