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What is the life expectancy of a circuit breaker?
Saturday, September 29, 2018
The Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) estimates a circuit breaker’s life expectancy at 30 to 40 years, with an average of 35 years. It is the same for GFCI, AFCI, and standard breakers. Because a breaker is a mechanical device, a humid outdoor location or the corrosive atmosphere of a room where pool chemicals are stored, for example, will shorten the lifespan. And, conversely, an indoor and dry location with only modest temperature variations will extend it. Also, frequent tripping due to repeated overcurrent events will hasten failure.
Here’s a graph comparing the life expectancy of circuit breakers to other electrical components in a home.
The primary purpose of a circuit breaker is to protect your home from a fire caused by overheating of the wires due to too much current flowing through them. When the current flow exceeds its marked amperage rating, the breaker is supposed to trip, cutting off the electricity to the problem circuit. A malfunctioning breaker fails by doing nothing—NOT cutting off the electricity. There is no outward indication that anything is wrong until wire insulation starts melting and you smell smoke.
So you may want to consider having an electrician replace the breakers in your electric panel if it is more than 40-years old as a safety precaution. The panel box itself lasts longer, and typically remains in good shape for 60 years or more. If the troubleshooting of a problem with your electrical system turns up a bad breaker in an older panel as the culprit, that would be a good indication that it is time to replace them all.
Circuit breakers for popular brands like Square D and GE are not expensive, costing between $4 and $20 each for sizes up to 30-amps, with GFCI or AFCI breakers at around $40. But, if your panel was made by a company that is no longer in business, such as Zinsco or Federal Pacific, replacement breakers are much more expensive: up $100 each in some cases.
One way to extend the life of your circuit breakers is to “exercise” them once a year by flipping each breaker on and off three times. Because appliances with compressor motors can be harmed by repeated power interruptions, you should first shut off or unplug any freezers, refrigerators or air conditioners in the home before exercising the breakers.
Also, see our blog posts My circuit breaker won't reset. What's wrong? and How often should I exercise the circuit breakers in my electrical panel? Go to our blog post What is the average lifespan of the parts of a house? for rating of other house components.
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Field Guide for Home Inspectors, a quick reference for finding the age of 154 brands of HVAC systems, water heaters, and electrical panels, plus 210 code standards for site-built and manufactured homes, and the life expectancy rating of 195 home components. Available at amazon.com for $19.95.
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