Your home gets a little older every day, and while you may have no trouble keeping up with the need to repaint or do other routine maintenance, you may not be quite as in tune with the need to perform upgrades on home systems. The plumbing, electrical, and HVAC in your home will eventually need to be replaced, and one of the key parts of the electrical system is the circuit breaker panel.
What is the Circuit Panel?
Your connection to the power grid is a single, large cable. It starts at the main power line through your neighborhood and connects to your house at the meter with an overhead line called a service drop or, in some cases, a buried service line.
This large line passes through the power meter where your consumption is measured and then goes into the house to the circuit breaker panel. The panel then turns that single wire into a series of wires that run all through your house. Each of those wires powers a circuit that provides power to any of a number of things. A circuit may go just to your range, your water heater, or simply to all the light fixtures and receptacles in a room or two.
The “breaker” part of the name comes from a device that is used to protect your home and its electrical items. The circuit breaker has two functions. First, it can disconnect power from a circuit so that you can make repairs, install equipment, or perform other work safely. Second, it can disconnect the power from a circuit automatically if the circuit is trying to pull too much electricity. This is a safety feature that helps prevent damage to electrical components and can save lives by preventing fires and reducing the risk of electrical shock.
The circuit breakers all live inside the panel, which is a large, metal box mounted on the wall. In addition to the individual breakers, most panels also have a main shutoff that will cut power to the entire house.
When Should You Replace a Circuit Panel?
There are several conditions that suggest or require that you have a new circuit breaker panel installed. If you’re unsure whether you meet one or more of these conditions, talk to a licensed electrician about how to decide if it’s necessary to look into electrical panel replacement, and about having that same electrician install the new one.
Here’s a look at why a panel may need to be replaced.
Some homes have very old panels that date back to the day of the old screw-in fuses. These configurations are very unsafe and should be replaced immediately with a modern unit that utilizes breakers instead of fuses. No matter how well your panel appears to be performing, local codes will make the decision for you.
Breakers that frequently trip, even with little or no load on them, may be failing and should be replaced. It may be difficult to determine exactly what the problem is, making electrical panel repair a less realistic option. Often the problem lies with the panel itself, not the breakers, so this is a situation where your only durable solution is to replace the entire electrical panel and the breakers in it.
Like anything else, electrical panels eventually just wear out. After 25 or 30 years of handling high voltage, your panel’s internal components will be ready for an upgrade. Determine the age of your panel so that you will know when you should be thinking about a new one.
Determining the Right Size for Your Circuit Panel
There are a number of different panel sizes. To choose the right one for your home, you should take a number of variables into consideration.
Balance of Utilities
Residential panels are available in amperage ratings including 100, 200, 225, and 400. For an all-electrical home, you’ll need space in the panel for an electric water heater, furnace, and range. On the other hand, a smaller panel will be enough for a home that operates some or all of these systems with gas. The more of your home you power with electricity, the larger the panel you will need.
Types of Systems Present
Not every home has the same items in use. Some homeowners may have a very advanced garage with heavy tools like welders. In colder parts of the country, a home may not have been built with air conditioning, leaving it with a panel too small to support one that’s added later. With the growing popularity of electric cars, some people may need to provide enough space in the panel for that power as well. Take a full inventory of current and future needs before choosing a panel size.
If the possibility of selling the home is in your mind, always favor an upgrade to a heavier panel. For starters, potential buyers want to see that the electrical panel has been replaced, but they’ll also be interested to see that it has the capacity to expand for their needs once they move in.
Selecting a Circuit Breaker Panel Type
Depending on the location of your electrical service and the additional features your home includes, you have a number of different options for the new circuit breaker panel you have installed in your home.
Main Breaker Panels
As we mentioned earlier, many panels have a main cutoff breaker. This is a large switch at the top of the panel that turns off power to the entire building. It is often used in case of fire or a water leak so that the home can be de-energized while the problem is repaired. Routine electrical work will not require the use of the main cutoff unless the electrician cannot determine which circuits are involved.
Main breaker panels must be located within ten feet of where the power enters the home, so if your outdoor service connection is not close to the most convenient location for your electrical panel, you will not be able to use a main breaker panel.
Main Lug Panels
In cases where you need to put the main panel somewhere further from the service, a main lug panel can be installed. It includes all the normal breakers that a main breaker panel has except for the main cutoff that shuts down power to the whole house. That function is put into a separate cutoff switch.
The advantage of this type of panel is that the cutoff can be located somewhere that is fast and easy for firefighters to locate in an emergency. Many modular and mobile homes have the cutoff on the pole with the service drop from the main power line, making it very easy to de-energize the structure during a fire.
Many homeowners have secondary areas that are best served with their own panel as an offshoot of the main panel. For example, you may have a garage where you operate heavy tools and equipment. These and other appliances may frequently trip breakers during the hard work that they do, and if their breakers are all the way back at the main panel, it’s time-consuming to go back and reset after correcting the overload.
It’s also easier to wire separate structures through a sub panel. Your electrician simply runs one large wire from the main panel out to the garage, workshop, greenhouse, or whatever you may have. From there, the sub panel distributes the power within the other structure.
Backup generators are becoming very popular. Whether they’re due to hurricanes or routine thunderstorms, power outages can cost you a lot of money in lost food as well as posing a health hazard if anyone in the home relies on an oxygen machine or simply cannot be without air conditioning.
Circuit breaker panels with transfer switches have specialized circuitry that detects the loss of outside power and activates the generator so that you have a near-seamless supply of electricity. This will keep the home comfortable and safe for its occupants. This type of breaker panel can be a good choice even if you don’t have a generator yet.
Working with a Licensed Electrician
As you can see, the process of choosing a new circuit breaker panel is not a single decision. There are a number of decisions that must be made before you can identify the best panel for your needs.
That’s where a licensed electrician comes into the process. With the guidance of an experienced and qualified person, you’ll be able to provide the information needed to narrow down the exact type of circuit breaker panel that will work best for you. With that expert help, you will not only have the right equipment for your needs but also a capable person to install it correctly, safely, and effectively.
Need an Electrical Contractor? Contact Right Touch Electrical
Right Touch Electrical is your go-to business when you need to hire an electrical company. We prioritize quality and safety while finding balance to give you a fair price. Call today for a consultation.