How To Add a Breaker to Your Electrical Panel

Updated: Feb. 22, 2024

Adding a new circuit to your home's wiring seems intimidating, but with the right precautious and our step-by-step instructions, you can easily do it yourself.

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Adding a new circuit can be a daunting and even dangerous job. We show you how to do it with step-by-step instructions and life-saving safety tips.

Tools Required

  • Flashlight
  • Needle-nose pliers
  • Pliers
  • Utility knife
  • Voltage tester
  • Wire stripper/cutter

Materials Required

  • AFCI circuit breaker
  • Cable clamp
  • electrical staples

Circuit Breaker Installation: Know What You’re Getting Into

We believe in safe DIY. That’s why we’ve always been reluctant to show readers how to open a breaker box and connect a new circuit breaker. Even with the power shut off, there’s a chance you could touch the wrong parts and die. But then we figured if we didn’t show you, you’d just go search it somewhere else. And that scared us even more. So we’re going to walk you through the process, showing you the safest way to open the breaker box, wire a new breaker, and test your work.

You might be wondering why you’d even want to try to take on such a dangerous task as circuit breaker installation. There are a couple of situations where connecting a new circuit is beneficial or even necessary. First, the old one may have worn out. While they last a long time, these parts don’t last forever. If the circuit looks or smells burned, it needs to be replaced.

The other reason you might need to connect a new circuit has to do with the electrical load on the house. Certain appliances draw enough power that they need their own load, and the rest of the load is determined by how many things are being plugged in and operated. If you’ve remodeled and added a room to your house, or if you’ve added something big like AC or a hot tub, you may need to add a circuit.

Opening the main electrical panel, also known as the breaker box, and adding a circuit is actually pretty easy. You only have to connect three wires to add a circuit, and each circuit wire is color-coded. But there are some safety precautions, and if you ignore them, you could kill yourself. Really. If you follow our safety steps in order and to the letter, you’ll be fine. But if at any point you’re unsure how to proceed or feel uncomfortable with the project, call an electrician.

Stay away from the large wires and lugs. They’re always live, even with the main breaker (service disconnect) shut off. If you touch them, you could die. Cover the live areas with a cardboard shield to prevent accidental contact while adding a circuit. If you have any doubts about which areas stay live, contact an electrician.

When to call a pro

It’s perfectly okay to leave circuit breaker installation to the professionals if you’re not comfortable doing your own electrical work. It all boils down to your comfort level working with electricity. If you follow these steps and take the safety precautions outlined here, you can do this. But if you open the panel and have second thoughts, reach out to a professional electrician to get an estimate and discuss next steps.

Parts and tools for adding a new circuit breaker

Before you go shopping, open the door of your breaker box and copy the manufacturer’s name, the box model number, and the style numbers of the breakers that are approved for your box. Then buy one of those breakers. If your home center doesn’t sell the right model or brand, you’ll have to go to an electrical supplier. You cannot install a circuit breaker style that isn’t specifically approved for use in your box — even if it fits inside the box.

While at the store, pick up a few 1/2-inch plastic snap-in cable clamps to secure the new cable. They’re safer than metal clamps because you don’t put your hand in the panel to install them. And if you have a second, make sure to brush on the electrical code. This is for your own safety; you don’t want to commit any violations.

You have to shut off the power to your whole house, so you’ll need a powerful work light. An LED headlamp is also a great idea so you won’t have to juggle a flashlight, wire strippers and a screwdriver. Round up a utility knife, wire strippers, electrical tape, a circuit tester (not a voltage sniffer), and a flat-blade screwdriver or No. 2 square-drive tip for your multi-bit driver. If you’ve got those tools on hand, you’re ready to begin.

An Inside Look at Your Breaker Box

Your main breaker box, or electrical panel, might not be exactly like the one here. With any panel, find the large cables and the lugs they’re connected to. They’re the parts that are always live, even when the main breakers are switched off. Here’s how to know what’s what:

  • A: Main lugs. They’re always live — even when the main breaker is off. NEVER TOUCH THEM.
  • B: Main cables. The black ones are always live. And although they’re insulated, avoid touching them.
  • C: Main breaker. Always switch it off before removing the panel’s cover.
  • D: Breaker. The hot wire (usually red or black) from each circuit connects to a breaker. If you’re installing an AFCI breaker (as shown on the following pages), you’ll also connect the neutral wire to the breaker.
  • E: Breaker bus. Distributes power from the main breaker to the individual circuit breakers. Each breaker snaps onto the bus.
  • F: Neutral bus. All ground and neutral (white) wires connect here. If you’re installing a standard breaker, the neutral (white) wire connects here, too. If you’re installing an arc-fault circuit interrupter (AFCI) breaker, you’ll connect the neutral to the breaker and run a “pigtail” wire to the neutral bus.
  • G: Breaker space. This panel has room for three more breakers. You can install your new breaker in any open space.

An inside look at your main breaker panelFamily Handyman

Your Main Breaker Panel Might Look Like This

The photo shows a different configuration where the large cables and lugs are located on the right-hand side of the circuit breaker box, rather than at the center. Take some time to familiarize yourself with these images and then compare them to your box before you attempt to do any circuit breaker installation.

Main Breaker PanelFamily Handyman

Project step-by-step (10)

Step 1

Turn the power off, then remove the cover

  • Turn off all computers in the house before you switch off the power.
  • Then switch off the main breaker (the service disconnect).
  • Remove three of the panel box cover screws.
  • Then hold the cover securely while you remove the fourth screw.
    • Pro tip: If it slips while you’re removing screws, it can damage the breaker handles.

Power down, then remove the cover of the breaker boxFamily Handyman

Step 2

Test the power to make sure it’s off

  • It’s dangerous to assume the power is really off just because you’ve flipped the service disconnect to the off position. Be absolutely certain all the power is off before beginning your circuit breaker installation project.
  • There’s a slim chance that the service disconnect didn’t work properly, keeping power to some breakers.
  • So test each and every breaker to make sure it’s really dead.
  • Touch one lead of a test light to the neutral bus and the other lead to the screw on each breaker.
  • If the test light lights up, stop and call an electrician.

test each and every breakerFamily Handyman

Step 3

Insert a cardboard safety shield

  • You can insert the new cable into any knockout on the top, bottom, or sides of the panel box.
  • Find the least congested area and remove one small knockout.
  • Jam a needle-nose pliers or a short screwdriver into the knockout to bend it down.
  • Then grab the “slug” with your pliers and twist it back and forth until it breaks off.

Insert a Cardboard Safety ShieldFamily Handyman

Step 4

Run the cable through the clamp

  • Snap in a plastic clamp and then feed in the cable.
    • Pro tip: The screw-style ones shown aren’t as easy to use.
  • Hold the cable up to the box to determine how much of the outer jacket you should strip off.
  • Slice off the jacket and remove the paper insulator.
  • Then wrap the ends of the loose wires with electrical tape to prevent them from touching a live portion of the box.
    • Pro tip: Tape the wires together so one doesn’t stray behind the cardboard.

 Run the cable through the clampFamily Handyman

Step 5

Push until the jacket enters the clamp

  • Keep pushing the cable into the clamp far enough to get at least 1/4-inch of the outer jacket inside the box.
  • Then secure the cable outside the box with an insulated staple within 12 inches of the clamp.

 Push until the jacket enters the clampFamily Handyman

Step 6

Route the cable and install the breaker

  • Install the breaker by slipping the tab into the hook.
  • Then snap the breaker into place, forcing the slot onto the bus.
    • Pro tip: We’re using an AFCI breaker.

Route the Cable and Install the BreakerFamily Handyman

Step 7

Strip and clamp

  • Neatly route the black and white wires to the empty breaker space.
  • Attach the wires to the breaker and then snap it into the box, or install the breaker first and insert the wires last.
    • Pro tip: Just be aware that wiring an AFCI-style breaker is different from wiring ordinary breakers.
  • The neutral (white) from the new cable attaches to the AFCI
  • Strip off 5/8-inch of insulation from the white and black wires and insert them into the AFCI terminals.
  • Tighten until snug.

 Strip and clampFamily Handyman

Step 8

Ground and pigtail go to the neutral bus

  • On a main panel, you connect the ground wire from the new cable and the neutral (white) pigtail from the AFCI to the neutral bus.
  • Route the AFCI neutral pigtail and ground wires to empty screws on the neutral bus and tighten.
  • If you’re installing a breaker on a sub-panel, place the neutral and ground on separate bus bars.

 Ground and pigtail go to the neutral busFamily Handyman

Step 9

Test the circuit breaker installation and finish the job

  • Remove the panel box cover plate knockout that corresponds to the slot where you installed the new breaker (bend it back and forth until it breaks off).
  • Then install the cover and turn on the main breaker.
  • Switch the new AFCI to “ON.”
  • Wait a few seconds and press the “TEST” button.
  • The breaker should trip.
  • If it doesn’t trip, refer to the package instructions for troubleshooting or call an electrician.

How to Connect a New CircuitFamily Handyman

Step 10

How to plan a new branch circuit

  1. You can usually mix lighting and receptacles on the same circuit. But it’s not a good idea to place lighting and receptacles in the same room on a single circuit. If the breaker trips, you’ll lose all the light fixtures and receptacles at the same time.
  2. If you’re wiring living areas, you can install 10 to 13 lights and receptacles on a single 15-amp circuit. Locate the receptacles so you’re never more than six feet away from one on each wall.
  3. Run a separate 15- or 20-amp circuit for each of these watt-sucking appliances: garbage disposer, dishwasher, microwave, vent hood, trash compactor, and space heater.
  4. Run a separate 20-amp circuit to each bathroom and laundry room. Install a minimum of two 20-amp circuits for the kitchen. Protect the receptacles with a ground-fault circuit interrupter (GFCI) breaker or GFCI-style receptacles.
  5. Use 12-gauge cable for 20-amp circuits and 14-gauge for 15-amp. Many cable manufacturers color-code the outer jacket of their cable, but the color schemes are not universal. So always double-check the wire itself to be sure.
  6. New branch circuits to all “living areas” (bedroom, living room, family room, den, dining room, library, sunroom, closet, hallway, and similar locations) must be connected to an arc-fault circuit interrupter (AFCI). AFCI breakers are pricey, so you may be tempted to buy an ordinary $5 breaker. Don’t. The electrical inspector will just make you change it out.

How to Plan a New Branch CircuitFamily Handyman