Colored Circuit Breakers (Bryant)
Updated: Dec 9, 2021
One of my first emergency service calls in SLO county, after moving my business from San Diego in 2007, was to a UPS store in San Luis Obispo, the panel was literally melting. I had never seen that type of damage before, the breakers had melted. The busing and breakers had started fusing together. It was fortunate the panel contained the heat and no fire started. Working at night we were able to put in the new panel and get the store back up and running for the next day. What stuck in my head about this panel was the colored breakers from a manufacturer I thought had not worked with before. The breakers were labeled Bryant and colored. Bryant breakers have handles that are red, blue, yellow, black and green.
Over the years I have worked on similar issues in other panels, though not as severe. From what I have seen, this type of damage is more common in panels with the Bryant colored breakers. It has nothing to do with the color on the breakers, rather the color indicates when the breakers were made. The colors were used to identify the different amp ratings seemingly found originally on fuses. Blue for 15 amp, Red for 20 amp, Green for 30 amp and so on. Zinsco panels also used this identification for their circuit breakers, but unlike Zinsco, Bryant panels do not have a bad reputation. Bryant was a major manufacturer of electrical components that became part of Westinghouse and is now owned and made by Eaton.
What Caused The Meltdown?
The melted panel and the many other similar issues I have found in Bryant breakers seem to be a result of a loose connection between the circuit breaker and the bus bar. The loose connection causes a very small but consistent arc between the metal of the breaker and the metal of the bus bar. When large or continuous loads are used the arcing is also more intense. You may have seen an arc when you unplugged something in the dark or when flipping a switch in the dark. They seem small and very short, but did you know arcs can exceed 10,000 degrees Fahrenheit? That is not such a big deal if it happens once or twice, as in the case of flipping a switch in the house, but in a panel between the bus bar and breaker this happens continually and can heat up the bus bar and the surrounding breakers. Eventually this is what causes the breaker to melt the bus bar.
I believe the defect is in the breakers that were made during this time and used in this area. To my knowledge there are not other articles pointing out this issue or making this recommendation. This advice comes from my experience here in San Luis Obispo County (SLO). Here is what the breaker looks like out of the panel, this is the view you will see if you look at one in the panel. The next photo is of this same breaker from the view of where it connects to the bus bar. You can see the effect the arcing has had on the breaker(this is a mild case).
The breaker shows no signs of damage from the front, was not tripped and had been providing power until recently. It is actually a blessing it stopped working. Many times I see this and the breaker is still powering the circuit. You can see how the overheating was spreading. If left alone this breaker could have caused similar damage to more of the breakers next to it ending up in a melt-down. As it is, this breaker did damage to the bus bar.
In the next image you can see where this breaker was attached to the hot bus bar. This bus bar is made of aluminum and aluminum melts at 1,221 degrees Fahrenheit. That little arc was very hot, this client is lucky that the breaker broke contact with the bus bar. I have to ask myself why this breaker didn't trip?
Standard everyday circuit breakers are designed to trip under two conditions. First, breakers trip in the event of a massive overload in amps. Residential circuit breakers trip at 10,000 amps. This high amperage would be caused instantaneously by a dead short. The second reason they trip is an overload that causes the breaker to overheat. This could be caused by adding a plug-in heater to a bedroom or by running the coffee pot and toaster at the same time. So I ask myself, how could these breakers not trip in this scenario? I conclude that it has to be something in the breaker not functioning properly. Because I see this type of damage most frequently with the Bryant colored breakers, I believe they are the problem. It could have been a bad year, a bad batch or the metal could have been defective. I am not sure why the breakers cause this but I do know it is serious and preventable.
The damage in the panel above seems small, but the damage to the panel is permanent and the only way to repair it is to replace the panel. I have seen when other people have gotten a new breaker and sanded down the bus and put a breaker back in the same spot. The problem with this method, other than that it is an electrical code violation, is that the rough surface of the bus will start the arc again on any breaker installed and your panel will only get worse. If there is room, and a panel replacement is out of the budget, moving the circuit to a new breaker on a different part of the bus bar will get you by. Once the bus is overheated and damaged the only permanent repair is a complete panel and breaker replacement.
What Can You Do?
I think that the electrical panel is the most important element in protecting you and your family from electrical safety hazards. The first thing you can do is have your panel evaluated by a qualified electrical contractor. Then you can have your panel serviced regularly. If your home has colored circuit breakers put it on your to do list to have your panel inspected. You cannot see this damage even by removing the cover. The breakers have to be taken out and inspected. If there is damage, and you find it early, you can avoid an emergency and plan your repair.
What if your panel and breakers are inspected and no damage is found? GOOD NEWS! In most cases these panels are in great shape and can last for years with new breakers. They still make the circuit breakers for them, so your electrician can replace all of your Bryant breakers with Eaton Cutler Hammer BR breakers and your panel can be like new. You can even update from standard circuit breakers to AFCI and/or GFCI circuit breakers for added safety.
A little maintenance can go a long way. Do not neglect your electrical panel. If you have colored Bryant circuit breakers I recommend having your panel inspected and cleaned up(panel clean up is a neatening of the wiring where possible, tightening of all connections, sealing any openings and removing any debris). If damage is found make a plan to replace your panel. If no damage is found have your electrician replace the colored breakers with new Eaton Cutler Hammer BR type circuit breakers. I believe this could save you from an emergency or possible fire and extend the life of your panel for many years.
For even more safety ask your electrician about and consider the benefits of AFCI (Arc Fault Circuit Interrupter) circuit breakers.
Elect Electric works on, repairs and replaces hundreds of panels every year. Call us today to get your home's electrical panel maintenance off of your to-do list and on to your done list. (805) GET-HELP 438-4357. You can also schedule online at www.ElectElectric.com. Hassel Free Guarantee!