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I went on a breaker flipping binge the other day because the panel at my house wasn't labeled and I had a doorbell transformer to replace. After I got the doorbell finished I realized the fridge wasn't running. Investigated and found that the issue is the breakers have some wiggle to them, not flopping around but if you apply slight pressure to top or bottom they move a fair bit. Can reliably get fridge to turn off by wiggling that breaker.

The Wiggle (animated gif but seems to only go if clicked on):
enter image description here

I'm not super comfortable with fussing in the main panel, I'm just wondering if I should expect an electrician to want to replace the whole panel? Does replacing the whole panel seem reasonable for something like this? Should I just swap out this one breaker for now and see if that helps?

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    It looks like the method you've used to generate the GIF has a built-in repetition limit. I've rebuilt the GIF for you without the timeout: i.stack.imgur.com/mU2Ru.gif – uhoh Aug 9 '17 at 8:00
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    For what its worth, a refrigerator isn't something you want to turn on and off repeatedly. Don't do this more than necessary, and if anything plug in a lamp instead of the fridge when testing. – JPhi1618 Aug 9 '17 at 14:16
  • I think the way you have it originally is best. I love to add GIFs to my questions but sometimes people report that they find it unpleasant and distracting. – uhoh Aug 9 '17 at 14:26
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Boy, that's a classic. Is it a GE?

It's fine, just replace the offending breaker, and have your electrician check the others while he's there. The looseness is in the breaker, not the panel itself.

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    You got it, GE ~1978. I've swapped out breakers before, so think I'll swap this one out, no 'main' switch on this one but it's a split bus so I think I can kill the lower half easily. – Hart CO Aug 9 '17 at 1:40
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    Swapped out the offender and also replaced one that had a broken foot (or whatever the pegs that slide in opposite the rail are called). Has significantly less play than the old one. Now that I've seen the difference I think I'll replace most of the others too. Thanks! – Hart CO Aug 9 '17 at 3:14
  • My electrician just did a "panel refresh" for us where they replaced all of the breakers. The base panel was fine and not worth replacing. – chicks Aug 10 '17 at 18:05
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Replace it (and check the others while you're there)

This sort of wobbling is a symptom that the contact jaws on the breaker have loosened up and are no longer making good contact with the stab "tab" on the busbar. Replacing the breaker will fix the problem -- you should check the others though as a loose connection like this will not get better with time!

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If the panel was made 40 to 50 years ago, I would replace the whole panel. Newer panels have better grounding and main breaker. Other problem you may run into no new breakers or even used breakers. The older panels don't have any GFCI breakers and today's code you need them in the bathroom and/or kitchen (Any where water and electric circuits meet.) -- 30 plus years as electrician.

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  • The OP's panel is a GE Q-line so the breaker sourcing issues aren't a problem -- today's THQLs and THQPs will still fit his panel – ThreePhaseEel Aug 9 '17 at 11:40
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    Thanks! I looked briefly at the cost to replace, and it seems worth avoiding if possible, we have GFCI outlets in all the right places, and Home Depot carries the breakers. We might have some projects down the road that require some electrical work that I'm not comfortable doing myself, so I'll keep this in mind for then. – Hart CO Aug 9 '17 at 14:28
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It not unusual for plug in breakers to "jiggle" a little. The question would be; Is it making a secure electrical connection. You can test this two different ways.

First get out an appliance with a substantial load. Use a toaster or hair dryer or I used to carry along a small 1500W unit heater. Plug it into the circuit in question and turn it on. Let it run for a while.

Second use an infrared thermal detector (they can be purchased for less than $40.00). Take a heat reading at the base of the breaker and see if it has an unusual rise in temperature. Or you can use a multimeter, it has to be able to read fractional voltages. Check the voltage between the line side of the breaker and the load side. What you are looking for is a substantial voltage drop across the breaker. Check across other breakers without a load for a normal drop, then see how much is building up with a load.

If you're up to it do both tests and evaluate if the breaker is burning up or is it holding a circuit just fine.

Good luck

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    Thanks for this, will definitely keep in mind for future troubleshooting, in this case, since the jiggle was enough to disrupt power to the circuit, I didn't need much testing, and was glad to have it be as easy as swapping out some breakers! – Hart CO Aug 9 '17 at 18:25
  • Volt meter across with a load is a great way to test instantly. 40$ for IR camera wow my latest cost 399$ but it is a pro version used for detecting bad connections. – Ed Beal Aug 9 '17 at 19:00
  • @EdBeal I thought the same as you at first but the $40 was in reference to using a non-contact IR thermometer to look for hot-spots instead of actually getting a picture – nvuono Aug 10 '17 at 15:17
  • Ok got several of those also but rely on voltage drop for a quick check. – Ed Beal Aug 10 '17 at 15:50
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It's a "rule of six" panel. It has a top area of 8-12 spaces, containing legally a maximum of 6 breakers. One of them powers the rest of the panel. In effect it has its own subpanel.

So replace the "subpanel" area of the panel. Install a new real subpanel somewhere convenient, and power that from a double breaker in the upper area. Move all the lower (subpanely) loads from the old panel to the new one.

If you can get a 100A (?) breaker, you could hypothetically move every single load to the new panel, with the old rule-of-six panel having only one breaker. This is GE Q-line, which is still a current product, but "Rule of Six" panels have been outlawed for decades.

If you are extra clever, choose the new "sub" panel's spec and location so at some point in the future, the power feed could be cut over to it, promoting it to main panel.

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  • Thanks! I learned about the rule of six idea after boggling for a moment that there seemed to be no way to kill all the power. Since I'm not likely to do the migration myself, do you think there's any benefit of doing this sub-panel first approach vs just biting the bullet and having someone replace the whole deal at once? – Hart CO Aug 9 '17 at 18:54
  • @HartCO Sorry for late reply... Depends how much you are into DIY. Beauty of the subpanel is you can cut over one circuit at a time, no pressure or rush. A whole panel replacement means you are dead, cold and blind for the duration. GE Qline is pro grade and reliable, it's the "Rule of Six" that is undesirable, I would leave it in-place with one fat breaker feeding a new sub. – Harper - Reinstate Monica Feb 15 '18 at 19:03
  • Hey thanks! I'm going to leave it be for a while, sub-optimal though it may be, but good to know for when I do take it on. – Hart CO Feb 15 '18 at 19:07
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I'm surprised that no one has mentioned this, but most of the time you can fix the wiggle just by pulling out the breaker and narrowing the contact jaws a bit using needlenose pliers.

Usually I also check if there is any carbon buildup (caused by arcing from the loose contacts to the busbar) and remove it with an emery fingernail board or sandpaper if necessary.

Finally, in really bad cases of prolonged arcing, then the busbar itself might be carbonized or pitted in which case I'll power down the whole house at the master breaker panel outside, remove all the breakers and either sand or replace the busbar.

Of course, the zero-risk answer is "Replace the breaker and/or panel", but a lot of times that is overkill if you know what you are doing and can intelligently evaluate the risk of repairing vs. replacing.

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    Sanding the buss is not safe it removes material and makes the problem worse. – Ed Beal Aug 9 '17 at 18:58
  • Thanks! Looking at one of the old breakers, it does seem like I maybe could have just tightened it up a bit and saved $4. Might give this a whirl for other ones that are a bit loose. – Hart CO Aug 9 '17 at 19:10
  • @EdBeal - Yes, if the busbar is severely pitted from arcing then it is generally better to replace it rather than sanding it. But if there is just a layer of carbon on it, then lightly sanding it doesn't remove enough material to significantly affect its function. And if people aren't comfortable with evaluating the risk, then it is better to replace than repair. – Psi Labs Aug 9 '17 at 20:32

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