How to Tell if a Circuit Breaker Is Bad (and What to Do About It)

Lydia Schapiro
Written by Lydia Schapiro
Reviewed by Tyler Keezer
Updated June 6, 2022
A mother working on her desktop while daughter using a laptop
Photo: Halfpoint / Adobe Stock

Major warning signs for a bad circuit breaker include frequent tripping, a burning smell, and scorch marks

Get quotes from up to 3 pros!
Enter a zip below and get matched to top-rated pros near you.

As a homeowner, your circuit breaker may not be the first thing on your mind, but this is an essential part of your home. Typically found in an electrical service panel, circuit breakers essentially control all electrical appliances in the house. But how can you tell if your circuit breaker is bad? Learn three signs indicating a broken circuit breaker, what it means, and how to fix it.

How to Tell if Your Circuit Breaker Is Bad

Close-up of a finger flipping the circuit breaker
zhihao/Moment via Getty Images

From blow-drying your hair to powering your electronics, circuit breakers play an important role in your house. When your circuit breaker doesn’t work properly, all other electrical appliances could malfunction as a result. 

The circuit breaker serves to protect your home from electrical shortages and fires, so it’s vital to be able to detect warning signs of a failing circuit breaker. Here’s how to tell if your circuit breaker is bad or starting to malfunction.

The Circuit Breaker Has a Burning Odor

If you notice a burning scent coming from the electrical panel, the wires and insulation are likely overheating or something else is malfunctioning. This could mean your circuit breaker is not able to adequately protect your house from a fire, so this is a definite warning sign you should call a professional local electrician.

There Is Visible Physical Damage

Another sign your circuit breaker is not working correctly is visible marks around the breaker, such as scorch marks or tattered wires. This typically indicates that the wiring is melted and thus failing. 

Make sure you unplug anything from the circuit breaker to prevent incidents, and call a professional as soon as possible.

The Breaker Is Frequently Tripping

A circuit breaker that trips means that the circuit shuts itself off after recognizing a malfunction, consequently preventing dangerous problems. In fact, a circuit breaker that trips is actually protecting you by turning itself off to fend off potential fires.

If your breaker trips often, it’s likely time for a replacement. This could also be the result of an overloaded circuit or shorted circuit in the home. Calling an electrician will help you determine whether you can fix the problem, if you should get a new circuit breaker, or if there is something more serious going on with the wiring in your home.

3 Actions to Take After Identifying a Bad Circuit Breaker

A girl blow drying her hair
Photo: Elva Etienne / Moment / Getty Images

1. Identify the Circuit the Breaker Is Protecting

The first thing to do after identifying a circuit breaker issue is to figure out which circuit the breaker is protecting. Your circuit breaker should have a label that clearly indicates this.

2. Unplug all Electric Devices

Next, switch the breaker into the “OFF” position and unplug or disconnect everything from that circuit. This is a preventative measure against electrical surges or other electrical issues occurring.

3. Reset the Circuit Breaker

Reset the circuit breaker by switching it back into the “ON” position. Note: You should hear a click when you do this. If the circuit breaker doesn’t immediately trip, the problem was probably an overloaded circuit, which means the circuit was being used for more electricity than it could handle.

In this case, you should move some of the plugs originally in that circuit to a different one, and then reset the breaker again. 

However, if the circuit breaker trips again, then the problem is either a short circuit or a bad breaker. A short circuit means there is some sort of fault in the wiring. If the circuit breaker trips immediately, this is a sign to call a professional electrician and diagnose the issue.

Upgrade Your Circuit Breaker

If you ignore bad circuit breaker warning signs, serious issues could arise. For instance, the circuit breaker could overheat and result in an electrical fire. Call in a professional as soon as possible to remove and replace your circuit breaker.

Older Homes Often Need Electric Panel Upgrades

Various electrical appliances can cause circuit breakers to trip. This is common in older homes, where the appliances are using too much electricity.

If your circuit breaker often trips while many appliances are running, the circuit breaker is likely overloaded, posing fire hazards and indicating the need for a circuit breaker upgrade.

Need professional help with your project?
Get quotes from top-rated pros.