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Circuit breaker problems

Circuit breakers are designed to trip when a circuit is overloaded. By shutting off the electrical supply, the breaker prevents wires from overheating and potentially starting a fire.

Breakers can also trip when they become old. Occasional tripping can indicate simple overloads. Try plugging the appliance into a different circuit. If a circuit breaker trips frequently, you should consult an electrician.

Working inside an electrical panel requires skill. Even with the main breaker shut off, electrical power is still entering the panel. Leave this type of work to an experienced professional. Never replace a circuit breaker or fuse with a higher rated one because this can cause overheating and fire.

For homes dating from the 1950s to 1990, check your panel to see whether it or the breakers are manufactured by Federal Pacific. The company's Stab-Lok brand breakers are not considered safe. Check with your electrician for a recommendation or replacement.

Replacing an old circuit breaker box merits the expense for a number of reasons.

Most homeowners can sleep soundly knowing their electric panels will protect them by tripping off when a circuit overload occurs.

But many homes built between the 1950s and 1990 still have electrical circuit breakers with Stab-Lok panels, made by the defunct company Federal Pacific. Stab-Lok panels may not trip, thus posing a fire hazard. Alternatively, maybe you've traipsed down to the basement and discovered a different issue, such as faulty circuit breaker or outdated fuse box.

How much can you expect to pay a qualified electrician to replace a breaker box?

Cost to replace circuit breaker box

We contacted several Angie's List Super Service Award–winning electricians about how much it costs to replace circuit breaker boxes. All have experience working on potentially unsafe Federal Pacific breakers with Stab-Lok panels.

“It depends on how many circuits you have, the existing conditions, whether it’s a single-family dwelling, multi-family dwelling and the amperage of the panel — whether it’s a 100, 150, 200 amp,” says Mike Volpe III, owner of All City Electrical in Kenilworth, New Jersey. “It could range anywhere from $500 to $1,300, depending on site conditions.”

“Our price to replace a breaker panel ranges from $660 all the way up to $2,900,” says licensed master electrician Reed Chambers, who owns Peerless Electric in Euless, Texas.

Angie’s List members who had similar jobs where they've installed, replaced or upgraded breaker boxes in 2014 reported paying an average of $1,932 with a general range of $1,625 to $2,225, not counting discounts many service providers offer to Angie’s List members.

“I don’t tend to take extreme measures using the F-word — fire — when talking to my customers about their breaker panels,” Chambers says. “Personally, I’ve never seen a Federal or really any other breaker panel that actually caught on fire itself, but I do agree that they should be replaced.”

Instead, Chambers advises homeowners to upgrade a circuit breaker box because it protects electronic devices and the data contained within them.

“I tend to go with that logic that almost everyone has something electronic in their home with valuable information inside that electronic equipment," he says. "Whether you’re a video game person or a stock market trader or you collect family photos, whatever your area of interest, that’s the best reason to have up-to-date, functional electrical equipment protecting your home.”

How prevalent are Stab-Lok breakers?

Federal Pacific circuit breaker panels, with their faulty Stab-Lok breakers, still lurk in many older homes, says Volpe who replaces at least 300 each year.

“We see a lot of them in Jersey because they [Federal Pacific] were actually based in North New Jersey, so they were a local company,” Volpe says. “Each electrical supplier is going to sell a manufacturer that they support. When you have a company that’s producing them three towns over from where your supply houses are, most suppliers sold Federal Pacific electrical panels, and that’s why everybody had them.”

The Dallas-Fort Worth area is similarly saturated with the dangerous circuit breaker boxes, according to Chambers. When American Airlines moved its headquarters from New York City to Texas in 1979, the influx of jobs created a housing boom in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, he explains.

“The Federal Pacific breaker panels were cheap and if you were a builder and building homes in a building boom in the Dallas/Fort Worth area, you were trying to make every dollar you could,” Chambers says. “One way electricians could save a few dollars is instead of installing Square D or Cutler Hammer — which is the best there is — they would install Federal Pacific.”

Both electricians report trying to help customers who stubbornly decline service to replace their old breaker boxes. “I have Federal Pacific panels in customers’ homes who are not willing to replace them," Chambers says. "And these are multimillion-dollar homes!”

When Volpe works for homeowners who refuse to replace their Federal Pacific circuit breaker panel, he takes legal precautions. "I do a signed affidavit because I just don’t want to be responsible for it,” he says.

Things to consider when replacing your electric panel

When replacing that circuit breaker box, don’t assume you’ll need to upgrade your capacity. Most modern homes actually use less amperage, Chambers says, so unless you’re planning a big addition to your house, you should be good with the amps you have now.

"When they first came out, computers with hard drives were energy hogs,”Chambers says. “New computers and televisions are actually using less energy. An LED wall-mounted flat screen TV uses less energy than a 30-inch tube-type TV from 1980. If you use a laptop, you just charge those things up and off you go.”

If your old 100-amp breaker box goes kaput, Chambers recommends a 100-amp replacement because, for instance, “Your stove is gas-fired, your water heater is gas, your heating is gas, and you really only need electricity for air conditioning and lights and 120-volt outlets, so a 100-amp breaker panel is plenty for a house like that," he says.

You also want to steer clear of reconditioned breakers that you can find online or in a local supply store, according to Volpe. “Say one of your breakers goes bad,” he says. “You can’t go to the store and buy that. You would have to use an original used circuit breaker in order to pass inspection. The reconditioned ones that they sell online won’t even pass inspection.”

Make sure the electrician you hire has good working knowledge of the National Electrical Code and how it varies with the rehab codes in your city and state. “Some electricians — especially those who haven’t been around for a while or who aren’t really savvy with the code — will steer customers in a different direction just for not having the correct knowledge,” Volpe says.

Reasons to replace those Stab-Lok breakers

If your home has a Federal Pacific breaker box, you definitely need to replace it. Here’s why:

  • They’ve been implicated in more than 2,800 house fires each year.

  • It can nullify your homeowners insurance policy or increase your rates. “Once they see that Federal Pacific, they’re either going to deny your insurance or they’re going to [make you] pay another $500 to $800 a year premium just to have that particular panel inside your house because they don’t want the liability," Volpe says.

  • Selling your home will be more difficult. “When people go to purchase a home, it’s a red flag for the insurance company,” says Volpe.