how to check for a bad circuit breaker


How to Check for a Bad Circuit Breaker

Electricity is an essential component of our daily lives, powering everything from our appliances to our electronic devices. However, with the convenience that electricity brings, comes the need for safety precautions. One crucial safety measure in any electrical system is the circuit breaker. A circuit breaker is designed to protect the electrical circuit from damage caused by an overload or a short circuit. Over time, circuit breakers can become faulty or worn out, potentially compromising the safety of your electrical system. In this article, we will explore the various ways to check for a bad circuit breaker and ensure the continued safety of your home.

Common Signs of a Faulty Circuit Breaker

Before we delve into the methods of checking for a bad circuit breaker, it is vital to identify the common signs that may indicate a faulty breaker. By being aware of these indicators, you can take prompt action to address any potential issues. Here are the signs you should look out for:

1. Frequent Tripping of the Circuit Breaker

A circuit breaker is designed to trip when it detects an overload or a short circuit, cutting off the flow of electricity to the affected circuit. However, if you notice that your circuit breaker trips frequently, even without any discernible reason, it may be an indication of a faulty breaker.

2. Burning Odor or Strange Sounds

If you detect a burning odor, a fishy smell, or hear unusual popping or crackling sounds coming from your electrical panel, it could be a sign of a deteriorating circuit breaker. These issues should never be ignored, as they could potentially lead to electrical hazards, including fires.

3. Hot to the Touch

Circuit breakers are designed to operate safely within a certain temperature range. If you notice that your circuit breaker feels excessively hot to the touch, it is a red flag that something is wrong. Overheating can be a sign of a failing component within the breaker, such as worn-out contacts or loose connections.

4. Visible Damage

Inspect your circuit breaker panel for any visible signs of damage, such as burn marks, discoloration, or melting plastic. These physical signs are clear indications that the breaker has experienced significant stress and may be compromised.

5. Intermittent Power Issues

Experiencing intermittent power issues, such as flickering lights or outlets that work sporadically, can also be attributed to a faulty circuit breaker. These issues occur when the breaker is unable to maintain a consistent flow of electricity due to internal defects.

If you observe any of these signs, it is crucial to take immediate action to determine whether your circuit breaker is indeed the source of the problem. However, it is essential to proceed with caution and prioritize your safety while attempting any troubleshooting methods.

Testing the Circuit Breaker

Now that we have identified the warning signs of a bad circuit breaker, let us explore the step-by-step process of testing the breaker to confirm its functionality.

1. Turn Off All Appliances and Unplug Devices

Before proceeding with any testing, ensure that all appliances and devices connected to the suspected circuit are turned off and unplugged. This precautionary measure will prevent any potential damage or electrical shock during the testing process.

2. Locate the Circuit Breaker Panel

Identify the circuit breaker panel in your home. Circuit breaker panels are usually found in utility rooms, basements, garages, or other designated areas. Open the panel cover using a screwdriver or by following the instructions provided by the manufacturer.

3. Visual Inspection

Begin by visually inspecting the circuit breaker for any visible damage, such as burn marks, discoloration, loose wires, or other signs of wear and tear. Ensure there are no loose connections or obvious signs of stress.

4. Reset the Circuit Breaker

If the circuit breaker is not currently tripped, you need to reset it before testing. Locate the switch for the suspected circuit and flip it firmly to the "Off" position and then back to the "On" position. A tripped breaker will be in the middle position, between "Off" and "On."

5. Single-Pole Breaker Testing

To evaluate a single-pole breaker, which controls 120-volt circuits, you will need a digital multimeter (DMM) set to the voltage range suitable for your electrical system. Ensure that you are using appropriate safety precautions and following the manufacturer's instructions for the DMM.

a. Remove the panel cover and locate the terminals on the circuit breaker where the wiring is connected.

b. Place one lead of the DMM on the terminal screw where the hot wire (black or red) is attached and the other lead on the neutral bus bar. The DMM should display the voltage reading corresponding to your electrical system's voltage.

c. If the DMM shows the appropriate voltage, the circuit breaker is likely functioning correctly. However, if the DMM does not display any voltage or a significantly lower voltage, it indicates a faulty breaker.

6. Double-Pole Breaker Testing

For double-pole breakers, which control 240-volt circuits, the testing process is slightly different. Again, ensure that you are using appropriate safety precautions and following the manufacturer's instructions for the DMM.

a. Switch off the main circuit breaker to cut off power to the entire electrical panel, ensuring your safety during the testing process.

b. Locate the terminals on the double-pole breaker where the wiring is connected. These breakers usually have two hot wires (black and red) and a neutral wire.

c. Use the DMM to test the voltage between one hot wire and the neutral wire. Then, test the voltage between the second hot wire and the neutral wire. The DMM should display the appropriate voltage for your electrical system.

d. If both voltage readings are within the expected range, the double-pole breaker is likely functioning correctly. However, if the DMM does not display any voltage or shows an incorrect voltage reading, it indicates a faulty breaker.

7. Consulting a Professional

If you are unsure about performing the testing process yourself or if you do not have the necessary tools, it is always recommended to consult a licensed electrician. A professional will have the expertise and equipment to accurately diagnose the issue and safely repair or replace the faulty circuit breaker.


Regularly checking the condition of your circuit breakers is crucial for maintaining a safe electrical system in your home. By being aware of the signs of a faulty breaker and following the step-by-step testing process outlined in this article, you can quickly identify and address any potential issues. Remember, your safety should always be a priority, so do not hesitate to seek professional assistance if needed. By taking proactive measures, you can ensure the continued reliability and safety of your electrical system for years to come.


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