Let's look at the truth about reconditioned breakers, including when to use them and how to ensure reconditioning provides a safe and reliable breaker.

Many facilities managers use reconditioned and retrofitted circuit breakers with complete confidence. Reconditioning can decrease the number of unplanned facility outages while increasing personnel safety. This would seem obvious since you're replacing worn or damaged parts with new components. What is not so obvious is you can also add technology the breaker didn't originally have.

How to ensure a good reconditioning job. Let's put one myth to rest. You are not taking a risk to save a few bucks by reconditioning a breaker - provided you find the right firm to do the job. However, the manufacturer is not your only source of high-quality reconditioning work. You can also use a reconditioning center. Ideally, a reconditioning center will have a history with a variety of power breaker manufacturers, database of all manufacturer information, quality control process, testing program per ANSI/IEEE standards, and technician training/certification program.

What is reconditioning? The IEEE says power breaker reconditioning is "the process of maintaining existing power switchgear equipment in operating condition as recommended by the manufacturer's instructions, using only the original manufacturer's designed parts." A list of such parts could include add-ons developed since the purchase of your breaker.

High-quality reconditioning should include complete disassembly of the power breakers, component-specific cleaning and analysis, reassembly, and a final inspection and test. Then, you should log the entire testing profile into the reconditioning company's database for future breaker reference.

Depending on who does your reconditioning, you'll encounter different pricing standards and different results. A good reconditioning shop will be able to loan you a breaker while reconditioning yours. Depending on the status of the breakers, reconditioning can take anywhere from three days to three weeks.

Because reconditioning isn't just about cleaning, but also about installing the latest technology to the power breaker, a reconditioning center should be able to add diagnostic capabilities to the breakers. By installing system communications, a facility can gather trending and usage information on its entire system. Another practical purpose for power breaker communications is the ability to ensure all equipment is working efficiently, and one particular machine is not wasting energy or producing at a slower rate than others.

You know your first step is to select a qualified party to recondition your breaker, but your responsibility doesn't end there. There are many other factors to consider before you decide to ship the breaker off, including:

- Assess the breaker for suitability. Reconditioning can't always make a breaker like new. Ask the reconditioning shop how to look for signs that the breaker needs replacement rather than reconditioning. For example, a charred arc chute indicates probable damage to the breaker's structure. Reconditioning this breaker would be inappropriate.

- Consider its application. Does the interrupting rating meet the system requirements? Do the trip unit functions provide the ability to meet current system demands?

- Consider upgrades. What features would help you monitor conditions at the breaker, customize its response to conditions, or monitor equipment that breaker serves?

- Have documentation ready. You'll need one-lines, detailed drawings, maintenance procedures, process operations information, and sign-offs granting you sufficient downtime.

- Plan ahead. Arrange downtime with your operations department for all equipment served by that switchgear. Arrange to have a tested spare put in place of the breaker you're reconditioning.

Ensure adequate clearances, sufficient lighting, sufficient workspace, and sufficient expertise are all available for this project. If you are arranging for small generators to power lighting while the power is off, arrange for adequate ventilation.

- Consider other breakers. Circuit breakers more than five years old are likely candidates for reconditioning. It would be embarrassing if you reconditioned one breaker, only to have another one in the same switchgear fail a week later.

- Coordinate other maintenance. While equipment is down, test the grounding system, check the bus connections, schedule repairs and inspections you can't do without downtime, and arrange for the necessary contractors and equipment (both rented and purchased) to make it happen.

With proper preparation, reconditioning will go smoothly. Now let's look at the major reasons for reconditioning breakers.

Maintenance. On the one hand, it's not economical to completely replace circuit breakers because some key components experience wear through normal use. On the other hand, it's dangerous to assume an electrical system is safe and operating effectively just because the facility hasn't experienced an outage. But, adding breaker reconditioning to your regular maintenance plan can save you major expense.

You can compare the requirements of maintaining low- and medium-voltage breakers to the requirements for maintaining a car. Just as you would not keep driving a car with worn tires, so you would not keep running breakers with pitted contacts.

The enclosure requires little more than keeping the exterior clean and free of scratches and dents. Under the hood, though, maintenance requirements get serious. Interior components of power breakers include racking mechanisms, operating mechanisms, a frame, electrical components, and electric current feeders. These pieces need cleaning and lubrication. The charging motor of a power breaker needs testing and reconditioning to provide continual protective service. All of the steel parts require cleaning and replating. Some reconditioning centers merely "repaint" the steel parts, as opposed to cleaning and replating them. Don't settle for that: Paint can chip and crack and eventually create mechanism problems.

Legacy hardware. You might need to recondition breakers simply because of hardware constraints. Aside from the large capital expenditure that prevents facility managers from completely replacing existing switchgear and breakers, size and space requirements may play a role in your decision to recondition breakers.

For example, your old breakers may not have direct replacements. You may be able to stretch your budget to purchase a whole new switchboard, but then what about that old bus that runs to it? Rather than open a Pandora's box of electrical work, you can save time and money by reconditioning.

New construction. When doing new construction, use new breakers. New construction is a capital investment, while maintenance is an expense - savings from applying used breakers to new construction are not sufficient economic justification to go that route.

You also must consider the performance difference. Reconditioning a breaker can bring it back to a "like-new" operating condition. However, it cannot eliminate all signs of aging. Just as a car frame ages regardless of maintenance, so do breakers. While a reconditioned breaker is superior to the same breaker unreconditioned, a properly specified new breaker is superior to either.

Once reconditioned, power circuit breakers will serve their protective function while increasing the safety and uptime of the facility - as well as your peace of mind.

In the 1980s, engineers traced the sudden rash of breaker malfunctions to reconditioned breakers from certain firms. Suddenly, buyers everywhere were skittish about using any reconditioned breakers. Those few offshore companies who did the bad reconditioning didn't follow industry practices or manufacturer guidelines. These companies mislabeled their breakers, didn't test them, and often sold them as new.

The resulting furor left a stain on the breaker reconditioning industry. It's a classic "guilty by association" problem, but one that results in a lower safety level than when you use properly reconditioned breakers as part of your overall maintenance program.