Signs Your Electric Panel Needs An Upgrade: Plus Pros/Cons & Costs to Replace
The electrical system in your home is one of those things that get very little attention until something goes wrong. Unfortunately, when something does go wrong, the results can be rather spectacular. In too many instances, the results are also deadly. It is important to recognize the signs that your electrical panel needs an upgrade.
The electric, or service panel, is where the main power lines enter your home and are distributed to the various circuits. The service panel typically holds fuse receptacles or circuit breakers to protect your home. Like any other appliance, the electrical system in your home needs regular maintenance and inspection. New technologies may make an upgrade necessary.
Evidence accumulated over many years shows that the most serious electrical system problems in our homes originate in the service panel. Understanding why you have an electric panel; circuit breaker panels and fuse boxes will help you understand what problems to look for in your electrical system.
Why Do I Have a Service Panel Box?
The service panel serves as the entry point of the electrical service from the main power grid into your home. In fact, service panels or circuit breaker panels are often called distribution panels. This is a safety feature to protect you and your home from mishaps in the electrical system that can cause unsafe conditions.
Roles of the Service Panel Box
Your service panel box serves several roles in your electrical system. Each of these roles is critical to delivering power throughout your home safely and efficiently.
- A Single Entry Point and Master Switch – Electrical service to your home first passes through the meter box and electric meter. From the meter box, the electric service line runs to your service entry to the service panel. Most electrical codes in the US require a single 100 or 200 amp breaker on this service line. This allows a convenient place to turn off all the electricity to your home in an emergency. This circuit breaker also is the last-ditch defense for your home if the other circuit breakers fail to operate properly.
- Distribution to Your Homes Electric Circuits – Your home’s electric circuits are divided to reduce the amount of electricity each circuit must provide. This allows the use of smaller and less expensive gauge wires in your circuits. By creating separate circuits or zones, you can turn off the electricity to a portion or area of your home when repairs need to be made.
- Safety In Your Home – A circuit breaker protects each branch circuit in the service panel box. Circuit breakers protect your family, and your home should a sudden overvoltage or short circuit in the system occur. This helps prevent potentially dangerous shocks and fires if the circuit breakers are not in the system.
Many older homes don’t have main cutoff circuit breakers. Older homes may still have fuse boxes that require screw-in types of electric fuses. While these types of service panels were once state of the art, new technologies have surpassed the protection this older equipment can provide.
How Do I Know if my Service Panel Needs Replacing?
There are several things to consider when deciding if a service panel needs to be replaced. We have compiled a list of things to look for when you are inspecting your service panel box. We also include some signs or symptoms that all are not well with your electrical system.
How Old is the Electrical System in Your Home?
Typically, if your electrical system in your home is more than 25 years old and has never been upgraded, it may be time. Electrical panels and their components don’t last forever. Like every other appliance in your home, a service or circuit breaker ages and may not operate properly when it is needed.
While there is no definitive timetable for replacing electric service panels, a good rule-of-thumb considers upgrading every 20 to 25 years. Technology advances rapidly, and the safety of your family and your home can benefit from better protection and more efficient operations.
Do a Visual Inspection of Your Service Panel Box?
Regardless of how old your electrical system is, you should make a habit of giving it a routine inspection annually. To inspect your electrical service panel, first, locate your service panel or circuit breaker box and do a visual inspection. Some of the things you want to look for during your inspection include the following items.Check The Labels on the Panel
If you have never inspected your service panel box, now is a good time to start. One of the first things to look at is the manufacturer’s labels attached to the service panel box. This is important because several brands of service panels and breakers that were widely installed several decades ago are now known to be unsafe.
You should look for labels from Federal Pacific and Zinsco. If you find a Federal Pacific or Zinsco circuit breaker panel, consult with an electrician about a replacement panel for your home. There were thousands of this type of equipment installed in homes in the past. These types of service panels and circuit breakers are known to fail.Check the Panel Cover
It is not uncommon to find the panel door that protects the circuit breakers in your service panel box missing. In some instances, replacement doors can be ordered and installed. In any event, a missing service panel door leaves the circuit breakers exposed to accidental trips or interference from other objects.Inspect the Cover Panel of the Circuit Breaker Box
If the cover panel is entirely missing from your service panel box, the internal wires are exposed. This is an extreme hazard and must be addressed. Young hands or pets may inadvertently reach into the box and receive a deadly shock. Dust and other debris can accumulate in the service panel box rendering it unable to operate properly. If a replacement panel cover cannot be purchased. In that case, the service panel box should be replaced and properly installed with a cover panel.Look for Rust on or in the Service Panel
Water and electricity are not good partners. Rust on or in your circuit breaker panel indicates major problems. The first thing to do is determine where the water came from that caused the rust. If there is a leak, that problem should be addressed immediately. If there is rust inside the box and the circuit breakers have been wet, you should consult with an electrician. More than likely, the entire service panel and all the breakers need to be replaced sooner than later.Smoke Marks or Burns
If the surface of your electrical service panel shows signs of smoke or electrical burns, call an electrician immediately. Arcing inside a service panel box is a serious situation that can have catastrophic results. Many home fires are caused by electric shorts and arcing. Don’t take chances. Get a professional to look at the panel immediately. If you can do so safely, turn off the main circuit breaker on the panel to shut down all the electricity in your home.Check the Service Rating of Your Electrical System
Your service panel is rated for the amperage it can carry safely into your home. Most modern home electrical systems are rated for either 100 or 200 amps. If your electrical box is rated for less than 100 amps, it is probably time to upgrade your service panel. Modern electronics and appliances require more power. Many older homes can’t safely provide the power needed as we add more and more load to the electrical circuits.If There Are Fuses Instead of Circuit Breakers
If your home’s electric service panel still has glass screw-in fuses, it is time for an upgrade to the system. If your system is old enough to have fuses instead of circuit breakers, the entire electrical system is suspect and should be thoroughly inspected by a licensed electrician. More than likely, not just the service panel needs an upgrade to continue to operate safely.
Should I Inspect the Inside of the Service Panel?
We never recommend that a homeowner remove the cover panel of the circuit breaker box in their homes. Opening the box exposes the wiring on the panel. A wrong move while the panel is uncovered can result in short circuits, damage to the panel, and injury to you. In the worst case, you may spark a fire that can damage or destroy your home.
Call a licensed electrician to inspect the circuit breakers and the panel if you suspect problems behind the service panel cover. Licensed electricians are trained and have the tools to test and diagnose problems in your electrical system. Licensed electricians are also knowledgeable about local electrical codes and what upgrades or additions to your electrical system to recommend.
What Other Indications May Signal a Need to Upgrade a Service Panel?
Even a visual inspection may not show signs that you need to replace an aging or damaged service panel. However, your electrical system will often give you signals that things are not as they should be with the electric service and equipment. Some of the things that can point to a problem with a service panel are included below.
The Age of Your Electrical Panel
Any panel that is over 25 years old is suspect. In many cases, this puts the electric service panel in an era when some suspect electrical panels and circuit breakers were routinely installed. Equipment from Federal Pacific and Zinsco have proven to be unreliable and, in some situations, dangerous.
Any home more than twenty-five years old that hasn’t had an upgrade to the electrical system should be inspected by a professional. There are other situations in homes of this era that can lead to potential problems. Some homes were wired with aluminum wiring, which is now prohibited. A qualified licensed electrician can perform an inspection of your home and help you decide if upgrades are needed in your electrical system.
I Sometimes Smell a Burning Odor in My House
Anytime you smell a burning odor in your house is a cause for concern. This is especially true if the odor has an electrical or plastic smell. Electrical fires are nothing to take lightly. More home fires are caused by electrical faults than almost any other cause.
Some circuit breakers installed in the past are known to melt and become inoperative. The smell of burning plastic can indicate a problem with this type of circuit breaker. Electrical shorts can also cause the plastic insulation on the wiring to melt, giving off a distinctive plastic odor. Hotwires or an electric arc can also scorch wood or insulation that smells like burning wood or paper.
A circuit breaker that fails to operate properly can be the cause of these types of smells. If the circuit breaker overheats, the same sorts of smells may result. In any case, consult with a licensed electrician as soon as possible. For the safety of your home and your family, if the odors persist or you see visible smoke, call the fire department immediately for assistance.
Related Guide: Is There An Electrical Smell In The House?
I Have Several Breakers that Trip Consistently. Is That a Problem?
A breaker that routinely trips is sure that the circuit protected by the circuit breaker is overloaded. However, there are instances when circuit breakers wear out and don’t reliably operate. In any case, the first step is to determine if the circuit is overloaded.
Suppose you have recently replaced a major appliance such as a refrigerator, freezer, or washing machine. In that case, the new equipment may be overloading the circuit. Making a list of everything plugged into the suspected circuit and adding up the current draw of these items can show if the circuit is overloaded.
Most residential branch circuits are rated for 15 amps. If appliances or other tools are plugged into the circuit and draw more than 15 amps, the circuit breaker will trip and open. This problem often happens when new appliances are installed on circuits that were near the maximum before.
If reducing the current draw on a circuit doesn’t solve the repeated circuit breaker tip problem, you should suspect a faulty circuit breaker. Find a good electrician to make a house call to replace the circuit breaker or further diagnose the problem.
I Noticed That My Service Panel Is Warm to the Touch. Is This Normal?
Circuit breakers are designed to not only protect against over-voltage but also overheating of the electrical circuits. Some heating of an electrical circuit or a service panel is expected when using large amounts of electricity. This can occur during the summer months when AC units are running or in the winter if you have electric heat. Minor warming is not a problem.
However, a circuit breaker or service panel that becomes noticeably hot to the touch is not a good sign. Several things can cause this type of heating in a circuit breaker panel.
- The wiring may be too small or inadequate for electricity you need to deliver
- The circuit breakers may be faulty
- The wiring in your home may be aluminum and not up to code
No matter the cause, a circuit breaker panel that is hot to the touch is abnormal and requires the attention of a licensed electrician. In many cases, the circuit breaker panel and circuit breakers must be upgraded to handle the larger electrical loads demanded in today’s homes.
My Electrical Panel is Making Noises. What Should I Do?
Your electric panel should operate without making any sounds or noises. If you hear anything from your electrical panel, you should pay attention and seek professional help. The types of sounds you may hear if there is a problem include:
- Arcing or popping
- Frying bacon sounds
In some instances, these noises coming from an electrical panel may be accompanied by burning or melting plastic odors. If you both hear these noises and smell burning plastic or wood, call the fire department immediately for assistance.
Any sound coming from your electrical service panel and circuit breakers is a bad sign. An inspection by a competent electrician is almost always the best way to go in these situations. In some cases, the best option is to upgrade your electrical panel with new equipment.
Sometimes the Lights in My House Flicker or Go Dim
Turning on or off a simple appliance should not cause the lights in your home to dim or flicker. Many homes with large HVAC systems will experience a slight dimming of the lights when the AC condensing unit comes on. This is due to the large draw of electricity to start the powerful motor on the compressor.
However, a refrigerator cycling on or starting a vacuum cleaner should not cause dimming or flickering of the lights. Suppose you routinely notice the lights in your home dim or flicker when you start a microwave or plug in a hairdryer. In that case, there could be a problem with the circuit breaker panel that needs attention.
Dimming and flickering lights should be investigated and diagnosed by a licensed electrician. You may have problems with the circuit breakers, the connections and wiring in the circuit breaker panel, or the wiring itself may be faulty. An electrician can locate and repair these types of problems. If the fault is in the circuit breakers or service panel, upgrading the system is usually a good idea.
I Damaged My Circuit Breaker Accidentally
Service panels in some older homes are in strange places. Often the placement of the service panel makes accidental damage easier. This can be especially true if the circuit breaker panel is in the garage.
Hitting the wall below a circuit breaker panel may not seem like a big problem. However, many times wiring runs down the wall and not up toward the attic space. In this instance, you can severely damage the wiring and the circuit breakers by hitting the concealed wires. The damage may not be visible but may exist, nonetheless.
If you suspect that your service panel has been damaged, immediately call a qualified electrician. Have the electrician survey the damage and determine if your electric service panel is damaged as well. Many times, the damage is severe enough to warrant replacing or upgrading the circuit breaker panel.
What Are Some Things an Electrician May Find to Indicate an Upgrade is Needed?
Often, a layperson without specific training and experience won’t know what to look for, which indicates a problem with an electrical circuit breaker panel. Only a licensed electrician may recognize these hazards. Some things that your electrician will look for are included in the items below.
An Undersized Service Panel
New homes in the US are routinely outfitted with service panels rated at 100 or 200 amps. The proliferation of electrical appliances and tools means modern homes use more electricity than ever. An older home may be equipped with service panels that aren’t rated for the necessary amount of electrical power needed by today’s conveniences.
Any service panel in a home rated for less than 100 amps is a candidate for replacement. Unfortunately, replacing a circuit breaker panel with a higher rated panel often means running a new service wire from the utility connection. A new meter base may also be required.
Double-Tapped Circuit Breakers Must Be Addressed
A double-tapped circuit breaker has two or more separate circuits wired to the same circuit breaker. This is a dangerous technique that was often used when additional circuits were added to a service panel not adequately rated or when there were no more openings for additional circuit breakers.
Homes that have had additions or extensive remodeling often have double-tapped circuit breakers. If an electrician finds this type of installation, they will almost always disconnect the double-taps and advise the homeowner that the circuit breaker panel be replaced.
Additions or Remodeling to Your Home
Adding on to your home or doing extensive remodeling almost always involved adding electric circuits to the system in your home. Most municipalities require this type of work to be permitted before the work begins.
Under most building codes, if you add an electrical system that requires a permit before the inspectors will pass on the work, the entire electrical system must be brought up to code. You may find that your addition or remodel means upgrading other parts of your electrical system, including the service panel and circuit breakers.
Don’t be surprised if most of the electrical system in your home must be upgraded when you add on or remodel. Homes more than 25 years old may have undersized electrical wiring or wiring that no longer meets the electrical code.
Adding additional circuits can require a higher-rated service panel and more electrical service than your current electrical system can handle. This requires upgrading the service panel, circuit breakers, and meter base. The service wiring that brings electricity to your home may also need an upgrade to a larger or different type of wire.
Homes With Multiple Sub-Panels
In the past, it was not uncommon for one or more sub-panels to be added to a home when more electrical service was required. Most electricians will recommend that sub-panels be eliminated and upgrade to a single electrical service panel with new circuit breakers rated for the power level needed in your home.
If you are planning a remodel or addition to your home, the electrical codes in your area will often require the elimination of sub-panels. Your electrician or architect will have more information about the permitting requirements in these circumstances.
Faulty or Recalled Electric Service Panel Equipment
Your electrician may find that your home is equipped with circuit breaker panels that are no longer considered safe. Several companies that produced circuit breakers and service panels in the past have had their equipment recalled. Some insurance companies will refuse to renew your homeowner’s insurance if certain types of circuit breakers and panels are known to be installed in your home.Federal Pacific Panels and Breakers
Equipment manufactured by Federal Pacific Electric has a known history of unsafe operation. Many house fires, injuries and deaths are documented as directly related to fires caused by this equipment. Many insurance companies routinely refuse to insure homes with Federal Pacific equipment in the electrical system.
In particular, the Stab-Lok® circuit breakers made by Federal Pacific have been banned by many building codes. These circuit breakers have been proven to be a danger. Federal Pacific service panels and breakers were installed by the thousands from the 1950s to the 1980s. If your home was built during this period, more than likely, you have Federal Pacific panels and breakers.
In any event, if you have Federal Pacific panels and circuit breakers in your home, you are at risk. Consult with an electrician about upgrading your electrical system to new technology and equipment.Zinsco Electric Panels
Zinsco manufactured service panels and breakers for many years and under several brand names. These breakers are known to overheat and melt due to deficiencies in the manufacturing process.
Zinsco circuit breakers can melt and fuse to the bus bar in the electric service panel. The circuit breakers won’t open in these circumstances, creating a dangerous situation. This is caused by the aluminum alloy used for the critical parts of the circuit breaker. This alloy is subject to oxidization that can cause the circuit breaker to fail.
Zinsco circuit breakers and panels were manufactured for several well-known brand names, including:
- GTE-Sylvania, Sylvania-Zinsco
You can almost be sure that if your electrician finds this equipment in your home, a recommendation for an upgrade will be on the table.
ITE Pushmatic and Bulldog Panels
ITE Pushmatic and Bulldog panels were manufactured from 1930 to 1960. These are old panels and are not seen in newer homes. However, these panels were still in wide use in the 1950s and 1960s. While there is no evidence that these panels and circuit breakers are faulty or dangerous, they were installed using components that may lead to disaster.
When Pushmatic and Bulldog panels were being used, aluminum wiring for residential structures was in vogue. Later evidence has shown that aluminum electrical wiring can be dangerous and lead to structure fires and other problems.
Even if your home does not have aluminum wire, these older panels are often undersized or underrated for today’s electrical needs. In addition, the design of these circuit breakers depends on internal grease that can become old and thick, making it almost impossible for the breaker to operate properly.
Most homes with Pushmatic or Bulldog circuit breakers are now more than 50 years old. Circuit breakers and electrical wiring age and need to be replaced at some point. If you still have ITE electrical equipment in your system, it is probably time to perform an upgrade to your home’s electrical system.
Challenger Electric Equipment and Panels
During the 1980s and 1990s, many homes were built with Challenger service panels and breakers in the electrical system. Unfortunately, the Challenger circuit breakers were found to overheat during normal use and under normal conditions.
This overheating causes the circuit breakers to expand, leaving the circuit breaker and the bus bar connection loose and unreliable. Loose connections to the circuit breaker can cause arcing in the panel that produces overheating and melting the housing of the circuit breaker. This makes the circuit breaker unworkable and unsafe.
At one point, the Consumer Product Safety Commission recalled some Challenger breakers when they failed quality control checks. Some of these breakers are still in use in homes today.
If your home was built in the 1980s and 1990s, an inspection by a licensed electrician is recommended.
Murray Electric Panels
If your home is more than 40 years old, it may have a Murray electric panel installed. Murray is still manufacturing electrical panels and circuit breakers that meet all modern standards and codes. However, some older models of Murray equipment have been recalled and are no longer considered safe.
If your electrician finds an older Murray panel in your electrical system, more than likely, a recommendation for an upgrade will be forthcoming. Some circuit breakers manufactured by Murray before 2010 have been recalled due to a manufacturing defect. These breakers may fail to operate under normal conditions.
Other Equipment That May Require and Upgrade
There are several other manufacturers and electrical panel products that have fallen by the wayside over the years. The incidence of these installations is rapidly dwindling. However, some equipment is still installed in homes that should be replaced and upgraded when found. These include the following:
- Some Westinghouse electric panels and breakers
- Wadsworth electric equipment
- General Switch electric panels
- Bryant electric panels
Many of these last panels and equipment have not been installed in several decades. However, older homes may still have this equipment in service. Generally, if found, these electrical panels should be upgraded and replaced.
My Older Home Has a Fuse Box that Seems Fine. Does it Need to be Upgraded?
Electricians were still installing traditional fuse boxes up to the 1960s. Fuses operate differently than circuit breakers. It is this difference in operation that can create problems. Fuses that screw into a fuse box are subject to tampering or bypassing, removing any protection from the electrical circuit.
As electrical systems in homes age and new technologies are introduced that require more electricity, these older style fuse boxes may not be up to the demands. Often more electrical demand causes traditional fuses to blow regularly. The temptation for many homeowners is to replace fuses that routinely blow with larger rated fuses. This can cause overheating and electrical arcing in the wiring with disastrous results.
Some homeowners may simply bypass the fuse requirements by replacing the fuse with a metal object that bridges the fuse connection. Pennies are the most common culprit for this circumvention.
Most modern building codes will not allow fuse boxes to be installed in new construction. If you add on to your home or perform a remodel requiring an electrical permit, you should expect to upgrade your fuse box to a new electric service panel and circuit breakers.
How Much Will It Cost to Upgrade My electric Service Panel?
Several factors will contribute to the cost of upgrading your electrical panel if necessary. Some of these factors include:
- The complexity and the labor involved in the upgrade
- The size of the upgraded panel
- Costs associated with relocating the electric panel
- Any additional circuits that are installed with the electric panel
- Additional work and equipment required to install a larger or higher rated panel
You can expect the average cost to upgrade the electric service panel in your home to cost between $1,500 and $4,000. Just replacing the electric panel and breakers usually averages $2,000. Relocating an electrical panel typically adds between $500 and $2,000 of costs. If additional or upgraded wiring must be performed, the overall cost of your upgrade can run from $4,000 to $8,000.
|Upgrades and Additions
|Upgrade and Relocation
|Upgrade to 200 Amp Service including meter base, panel, and upgraded service wiring
|Panel Relocation Only
Is It Mandatory to Replace an Electrical Panel?
The answer is it depends. Several factors can determine whether you are required to upgrade your electric service panel. In most cases, these situations will require you to upgrade the circuit breaker panel in your home.
- The circuit breaker panel is damaged or is not working properly. Often, the only way to remedy this problem is to replace the electric service panel.
- You are doing a remodel or addition that requires an electrical permit. In some cases, the building code will require you to bring your entire electrical system up to the current code to pass the inspection. This often means installing a new circuit breaker panel that is accepted by the current building code.
- Your current circuit breaker panel is not acceptable to your homeowner’s insurance company. Some insurance companies require a periodic home inspection to continue issuing coverage. Some insurance companies will decline to cover your home if certain kinds of circuit breaker panels are found in your home.
Making the Decision to Replace a Service Panel in Your Home
Considering the cost of replacing a circuit breaker panel in your home, many homeowners are reluctant to decide. Many rationalize that the breakers and service panel have been working. There is no expectation that they won’t work in the future.
The problem with this rationalization is that there is no sure way to tell if a circuit breaker is working or not. Simply turning the breaker on and off is not a good test. In some instances, the act of turning the breaker on and off can cause the breaker to malfunction later.
Making the decision is not about cost. The decision is more about the safety and protection of your home and family. Most homeowners would never consider the cost against their family and their homes. In the end, the overall cost of an electric panel upgrade is minuscule compared to the possible losses that may occur.
Dennis is a retired firefighter with an extensive background in construction, home improvement, and remodeling. He worked in the trades part-time while serving as an active firefighter. On his retirement, he started a remodeling and home repair business, which he ran for several years.
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