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WHAT IS THE LIFE EXPECTANCY OF A CIRCUIT BREAKER?

The Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) estimates a circuit breaker’s life expectancy at
30 to 40 years, and 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.
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

Copper wire should last 100 years or more, but the insulation around it will deteriorate sooner and is
the determining factor in lifespan. Each era of electrical wiring has a different expected life, and he
earliest type still around in a few older houses is knob-and-tube. It was standard up until the early
1940s and, as the name implies, depends on knobs at changes in direction of the wiring and tubes
at penetrations of flammable material like wood, along with air space around the wiring for
insulation.
Part of the problem with knob and tubing wiring that is still functional in a home is simply it’s age.
The insulation is at least 70-years old, brittle, and flaking off. Another problem is the low current-
carrying capacity compared to modern wiring, and difficulty in safely splicing K&T with modern NM-
cable. Also, all knob and tube wiring systems are “two-wire,” meaning that they do not contain a third
wire for grounding, which has been required for residential electrical systems since about 1960.
While K&T is now obsolete, and requires replacement when found during a home inspection, it’s
worth noting that it was once state-of-the-art technology.

The next type of wiring was insulated with a rubber-like material and embedded fabric, shown in
the photo above. It was used up through the 1950s. The insulation has not held up well in hot attics
of North Florida, especially in areas near the attic hatch opening where it has been walked on
repeatedly or pushed around by stored Christmas decorations. The wiring is at the end of its
serviceable life now in most cases, with cracked insulation flaking off the at bends and splayed
fabric; however, sometimes it is still in marginally satisfactory condition, with the expectation of
replacement very soon.
WHAT IS THE LIFE EXPECTANCY OF ELECTRICAL WIRING IN A HOUSE?
Plastic wire insulation with good resistance to thermal deterioration followed next in the mid-
1950s, and the formulation of the plastic was upgraded in the 1980s for better heat resistance. The
newer wiring is expected to have a lifespan of 80 years or more...but only time will tell.

Many of our customers buying older houses are concerned about the possibility of a fire due to
arcing of damaged or deteriorated wiring in the walls or attic. Two options to consider are wiring
replacement or installation of AFCI-breakers in the panel for the general household circuits. AFCI
stands for Arc Fault Circuit Interrupter, and an AFCI breaker does double duty: it protects against too
much current flowing through the wires, just like a regular breaker, but also recognizes any sparking
in wiring, and trips when either problem occurs. We recommend discussing your options with a
professional electrician, who can evaluate the current condition of your house wiring and discuss the
pros and cons of the two alternatives.

Although old wiring remains the #1 bugaboo for buyers of vintage homes, other older electrical
components are more likely to be a fire problem. To read more about this subject, see our blog post

“Is the old wiring going to burn down this house?” rates as the most often asked question when we
inspect a home that’s 50-years old or more. Decrepit wiring with frayed insulation is visualized as the
bugaboo hiding behind the walls, ready to start a middle-of-the-night fire. But, while original wiring can
possibly be a problem in pre-1940 homes, the bigger issue in all older homes is an electrical system
that was not designed for the increased load imposed on it by today’s lifestyle.
The post-World War II economic boom began a continually expanding growth in popular, electricity-
guzzling home appliances. Wiring designed to support a refrigerator, radio, and a few lights began to
accumulate extras, like a black-and-white television, electric range/oven, washer, dryer, wall air
conditioner, dishwasher, chest freezer, and a cluster of new-fangled kitchen countertop appliances.
The futuristic world of push-button gadgets that got laughs in the 1960s Jetsons cartoon show
gradually became a reality as even more appliances became must-haves, such as central air
conditioning, a microwave oven, big-screen color TV, desktop computer, stereo system, personal hair
dryers, jacuzzi tub, exercise treadmill, and dad’s power tools in the garage. Electricity use has
increased at a rate of about 5% per year for the past 30 years, and each new year puts additional
demands on an old home’s wiring.

HOW DANGEROUS IS OLD ELECTRICAL WIRING?

Is the old wiring going to burn down this house?” rates as the most often asked question when we
inspect a home that’s 50-years old or more. Decrepit wiring with frayed insulation is visualized as the
bugaboo hiding behind the walls, ready to start a middle-of-the-night fire. But, while original wiring can
possibly be a problem in pre-1940 homes, the bigger issue in all older homes is an electrical system
that was not designed for the increased load imposed on it by today’s lifestyle.
The post-World War II economic boom began a continually expanding growth in popular, electricity-
guzzling home appliances. Wiring designed to support a refrigerator, radio, and a few lights began to
accumulate extras, like a black-and-white television, electric range/oven, washer, dryer, wall air
conditioner, dishwasher, chest freezer, and a cluster of new-fangled kitchen countertop appliances.
The futuristic world of push-button gadgets that got laughs in the 1960s Jetsons cartoon show
gradually became a reality as even more appliances became must-haves, such as central air
conditioning, a microwave oven, big-screen color TV, desktop computer, stereo system, personal hair
dryers, jacuzzi tub, exercise treadmill, and dad’s power tools in the garage. Electricity use has
increased at a rate of about 5% per year for the past 30 years, and each new year puts additional
demands on an old home’s wiring.

Also, the lack of wall receptacles in an older home, due to the low level of use of the era, contributes
to the problem. Often there is just one receptacle in a bedroom and none in the dining room, for
example. So homeowners make do by using extension cords strung around the perimeter of rooms or,
even worse, under rugs to get power to where they need it.
Plus, the average electric service in a 1950 home is 100 amps. An amp, short for ampere, is a
measure of the working power that can be delivered to the home through its electrical system. Most
new homes require 200 amps, double the old standard.
The undersize electric service of an older home is safeguarded by circuit breakers that are
supposed to trip when too much current is flowing through any circuit, but circuit breakers are
mechanical devices with an approximately 40-year life. When they cease to functional properly, circuit
breakers don’t shut down or give any outward sign of failure. Instead, they simply no longer trip when
the wiring is overloaded. Many older homes have the original electric panel and breakers still in place.
Then, add to this mix a few badly-done homeowner electrical repairs over the years and the
likelihood of a problem soars. While we note many of these defects during a home inspection, some
safety issues—such as whether the circuit breakers are still functioning properly or the condition of
wiring inside the walls—are beyond the scope of our inspection. But there are a number of things you
can do, short of replacement, to make the electrical system of your older house safer:
1. •Extension cords are meant for temporary use only. Ditch them anywhere they are
permanently installed, and have a licensed electrician run wiring to additional new receptacles.
2. •Replace any damaged switches and receptacles. Also, change out any receptacles that can
no longer securely grab the prongs of an appliance cord. This is most likely to occur at locations
where cords are repeatedly plugged in and out, like at the kitchen counter. A loose connection between
receptacle and cord can cause arcing. Any receptacle where an electric cord can be pulled out with no
resistance should be replaced.
3. •Consider replacing the 100-amp panel with a new 200-amp one. The change-out will require
an electrician to run new service wires to the home. Because new panels are required to have special
AFCI breakers for most circuits, you gain an added level of protection for the aging wires still in the
wall. Arc Fault Circuit Interrupter breakers sense when any wiring in the circuits they protect is frayed
or otherwise damaged and arcing/sparking is occurring between two disconnected pieces of the same
wire or two adjacent wires in a cable—and they cut off the power to the circuit.
4. •If replacing the electric panel is more than you can afford, think about having an electrician
replace the breakers in the panel. The panel box typically has a longer life than breakers anyway, and
you will get AFCI-breaker protection for the 120-volt general purpose circuits. The only problem with
this strategy is that it’s hard to find replacement breakers for some old panels.
5. •Shut off the circuit at the panel and call an electrician at the first sign of an electrical problem,
such as lights that blink, appliances that work intermittently, breakers that keep tripping, or the acrid,
burning smell of a short circuit.
6. •Look for evidence of amateur electrical repairs and have a professional electrician fix it. To
learn about how to recognize shoddy electrical work, go to our blog “What are the most common
homeowner electrical wiring mistakes?”
Insurance companies are concerned about the safety of electrical systems in old homes too, and
almost always want a 4-point inspection report by a licensed contractor or home inspector, that
includes an evaluation of the electrical system, before issuing a policy. Some insurers even want a
separate electrical inspection, signed off by a licensed electrician, in certain circumstances. If the
electric panel has screw-in type fuses (like in the photo at the top of this blog), you will have replace it
with a new circuit-breaker panel in order to get homeowner’s insurance nowadays.
But don’t let electrical safety worries scare you away from considering the purchase of an older
home. One third of the homes in America are over 50 years old, and they are often located in desirable
neighborhoods. Many are also a good value. Just be sure to get it evaluated by a licensed home
inspector and make any recommended electrical safety upgrades once you move in