Circuit Breaker Safety — What You Need to Know

Circuit Breaker

Overview

Circuit breaker (electrical) panels are designed to take incoming electricity and safely distribute it throughout your property through circuits. A proper circuit breaker panel protects your building from external power surges, circuit overload and short circuiting by cutting off the power to a circuit and “tripping” when it detects an overload or surge. Old or outdated circuit breaker panels have a history of failing to trip when there is an overload or a surge. This can then lead to electrical wires getting overheated. 

The Danger of Outdated Panels

If your rental property or building was built between the 1950s and 1960s, you could have an outdated or obsolete electrical panel. These panels are dangerous because overheated electrical wires can lead to fires, property damage, injuries, fatalities and/or a loss of business income. It is estimated that these panel failures result in as many as 2,800 fires, 13 deaths and $40 million in property damage annually.

Current research indicates that obsolete circuit breaker brands fail to trip under overload or short-circuit conditions at a higher rate than comparable equipment by other producers. They are considered a “latent safety hazard,” as these breakers can work seemingly fine until they suddenly don’t, without warning.

Many outdated electrical panel brands gained popularity in the 1960s and 1970s and were installed across North America. They stopped being made years later because they were found to be unsafe. They are prone to overheating and arcing, which can lead to a serious hazard. They also have a high failure rate.

Past overcurrents that have gone undetected also increase the chance a breaker will fail to trip again. The number of years your circuit breaker panel has been working without failing should not be trusted as an indication a problem will not occur at some point.

Identification: How Do You Know if You Have an Obsolete Panel?

  • Research the brand name listed on your circuit breaker panel (note: keep in mind panel doors can be switched out or removed, or stickers may be affected by wear and tear over time)
  • These panels will often have distinct, colorful breaker switches
  • Look for a blue and silver  label on the inside panel
  • Look for the serial number, panel nameplate and manufacturer information on the breaker panel and check with your electrician to see if the panel may have an increased risk for malfunction
  • Check to see if the panel has unusual or mixed breaker switch designs; if unsure, check with your electrician to help identify any potential problems
  • The breaker switches tend to have a red stripe across them

Signs of damage:

  • Burn or scorch marks on the panel or panel door
  • The panel is hot to the touch
  • Rust or corrosion is visible
  • The panel makes buzzing noises
  • Breaker switches trip frequently or are loose to the touch
  • There is exposed wiring or missing breakers
If your building was built between 1950 and 1990, you do not see any of the above indicators, and the circuit breaker panel has not been replaced, your safest route is to have a licensed and insured electrician look at your panel to determine the brand.

 

Repair or Replace?

Repairing a panel that is 50 or more years old is not a viable option. A visual inspection by an electrician cannot predict whether one of these circuit breakers might fail, so a defective or outdated breaker can only be identified by first removing it and then testing it. This can be more expensive than the cost of installing a new, less risky panel. Testing the panel can also be dangerous, as placing an overcurrent on an electrical circuit in the building could cause a fire to occur. Most building inspectors will write up these panels as needing to be replaced, and a number of insurance companies will not write a risk that contains one.

A complete replacement would not only help you avoid the risk of a fire, a loss or an injury, but also protect you, your property, your loved ones, your employees, your tenants and others from these perils. We recommend you retain the services of a licensed and insured electrical contractor to replace circuit breaker panels to reduce both fire and liability hazards.

It is hazardous to have tape on/over your circuit breaker panel switches. USLI requires that you remove the tape and install dummy inserts to avoid a hazard.

 

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