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Pushmatic electrical panel (C) Daniel Friedman Used or Re-conditioned Circuit Breakers
Safety Advice, Circuit Breaker Reconditioning Standards, Procedures

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Using re-conditioned, re-built, or used circuit breakers:

This article describes about possible performance and safety concerns expressed by manufacturers and other professional sources who discuss the purchase, installation, or use of used or re-conditioned or "rebuilt" circuit breakers used in residential electrical panels. We include references to circuit breaker reconditioning standards & procedures.

Possible concerns include un-listed, un-warranted electrical products that may have been modified in ways that may make their performance less reliable or unreliable. In turn, a circuit breaker that does not perform as it should increases the risk of a building fire, electrical shock, injury, or other losses.



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Used or Re-built Circuit Breakers & Electrical Panel Safety Warnings

Pushmatic electrical panel (C) Daniel Friedman Matt Steger Reader Question: questions about using re-built circuit breakers

I recently had someone try to sell me a rebuilt circuit breaker and I declined the offer. I mentioned this to the inspector who told me that used breakers of any type are not allowed I have since been told that the NEC doesn't say anything about rebuilt or used breakers and that OSHA does allow rebuilt breakers.

Now, I'm not concerned with OSHA as this was a residential installation, but I am curious about used or rebuilt breakers. I didn't ask for written evidence that certain breakers aren't allowed, but I am curious what other jurisdictions might say about this.
I'm also curious as to how one would rebuild a standard sized residential breaker; it doesn't seem that it would be cost-effective.

This is mostly out of curiosity and thanks in advance.- Anon [by private email] 15 Aug 2015

PS: From e-bay on a $15.00 breaker, plus $14+ for shipping:

"Seller refurbished: An item that has been restored to working order by the eBay seller or a third party not approved by the manufacturer. This means the item has been inspected, cleaned, and repaired to full working order and is in excellent condition. This item may or may not be in original packaging. See the seller’s listing for full details."

Reply:

I have not found a national or model code prohibition on use of used electrical equipment; after all, if I am working on an electrical panel and remove a circuit breaker that has been in use for a time, then do some repairs, then replace the breaker and return it to use, I'm "installing" a used breaker into the panel. But if I had reason to suspect that the used breaker may not perform safely, such as if it has been wet, flooded, corroded, burned, overheated, modified, or if it were a specific product about which there are particular field failure reports, I would not use it.

There is a large industry of electrical switch and circuit breaker re-conditioning and there are voluntary industry standards that we cite below. These appear to pertain principally to commercial electrical installations rather than the usual homeowner electrical panel.

In my view the gray area is so-called "re-built" circuit breakers used in residential electrical panels, exacerbated by a lack of actual information and certification for specific used and re-conditioned circuit breakers sold for residential use.

  1. What does "re-built" circuit breaker mean? As far as I know, at least residential-use circuit breakers are not designed to permit reassembly and replacement of internal parts. Typically the breaker case is molded and perhaps even riveted together. I doubt that any circuit breaker manufacturer is going to be comfortable with promising the performance of one of these life-safety critical products that has been modified in any way by a third party.
  2. What performance testing is performed on a used circuit breaker before re-selling it? There are circuit breaker performance test standards (such as UL 486) but those were not written with a used or re-built product in mind. I doubt that we can find a standard for testing used breakers for return to service.
  3. Some used, flooded, re-built, modified circuit breakers are probably unsafe: Some, or at least one brand of circuit breaker, in the FPE line, "testing" the breaker can significantly increase the probability that it will fail in subsequent use when installed. For example producing an over-current on one leg of a 2 pole breaker (something that does occur in real life as well) jams the breaker so that subsequently it is unlikely to trip at all. Circuit breakers that have been exposed to water, fire extinguishment, or flooding may look fine externally but may be heat damaged, water damaged, or corroded internally and thus unsafe.

What effects, good or bad, might be had on breakers that are inspected, tested, or opened and "re-built" to some un-specified standard and procedure, are at the very least, unclear, undocumented, and so in my view uncertain.

There has long been a market for used electrical components, bought either by a price-conscious consumer or by someone who does not want to replace an obsolete circuit breaker panel when one of its breakers has failed.

Certainly some circuit breaker manufacturers are concerned enough about "counterfeit" or modified, or second party circuit breakers that may be installed in their equipment that they issue warnings

Eaton Cutler Hammer is among manufacturers publishing warnings about using "used" or "reconditioned" circuit breakers who list a number of concerns about "used" and "reconditioned" circuit breakers that is in my view quite credible and not simply self-serving-marketing as a few objecting readers (or vendors of those products) argue in comments or correspondence.

Excerpts of ECH's concerns with installing used or reconditioned breakers include [excerpting and paraphrasing from Eaton Cutler Hammer, "Hidden Risks of Reconditioned and Used Circuit Breakers", Eaton Cutler Hammer, 2010 cited below]:

Used / Reconditioned circuit breakers use [or may employ] or have these attributes

Water damaged circuit breakers may be re-sold as "used" without external signs of problems.

What appears to be in good condition on the outside may not be on the inside. Water damage, corrosion or undetected cracks may lurk just below the surface. - Op. Cit.

Reconditioned circuit breakers may have used materials that the original manufacturer would not have found acceptable.

Any change in materials can result in inferior performance. Counterfeit silver contacts can weld closed, erode prematurely, or detach from contact arms.- Op. Cit.

Reconditioning may have removed required lubricants inside the breaker and / or may have used un-approved lubricants.

Removed by solvents or sandblasting. Improper lubricants harden when cold or run when hot, collect contaminants, have the wrong electrical properties, and can even ignite. - Op. Cit.

Reconditioning may have used lacquer to make the product look new and clean but that may interfere with proper breaker operation.

To create the illusion of new, lacquer is often applied inside and out. This practice is DANGEROUS and may slow or prevent operation, result in hot spots, or lead to volatile reaction during arc interruption. - Op. Cit.

Disassembling a circuit breaker for any reason may involve un-approved (or no) sealant when the device is reassembled.

Original sealant removed to replace stationary contacts. Silicone rubber does not protect against arcing and ionized gases.- Op. Cit.

Besides CIRCUIT BREAKERS RE-CONDITIONED USED several other InspectApedia.com articles discuss the use of used or re-conditioned circuit breakers and safety or performance questions that have been raised, usually by manufacturers. Those are included in the citations given below. A scholarly search for "Performance of re-built circuit breakers" and similar terms did not find much that was interesting but we will continue to research the topic and will add updates here.

Research on Used or Re-Conditioned Circuit Breaker Performance & Safety

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