Electrical panels are a very forgettable part of your home, quietly distributing an average of 30KW of electricity per day as you go about your life (15 refrigerators? We don’t judge).
Then you get a home inspection, or something goes wrong with your electrical system and suddenly it’s the most important thing in your home. How many of these questions can you relate to?
Here is a guide to help you break down a panel upgrade into what is important and determine if you really need a new one.
Let’s get the big ones out of the way first.
These panels have well documented safety concerns. Here is one source but you can find many more on google.
The short version is the breakers in these panels have a high chance of not tripping at the correct amperage and will often arc between the breakers and the bus bar (the bus bar is what the breakers attach to, where they get the electricity from), causing a fire hazard and intermittent power in your home.
Additionally, replacement breakers are expensive and usually a poor investment. Your money is better spent on a new electrical panel that is safer and will give many years of service.
Examples of these Panels:
This one has a caveat, as fuses are not inherently unsafe. However, if your home has a fuse box the wiring is probably old, possibly with poor insulation or without a ground wire. The age of the components may be a safety concern while the type of overcurrent protection is not.
Another consideration is the convenience of breakers over fuses. This makes an upgrade a big win in any scenario.
If an electrical panel experiences arcing (usually caused by a poor fit between the breaker and the bus bar) it almost always causes irreparable damage. Sometimes you can avoid the damaged part of the panel by moving breakers to an unused portion of the panel but if you’ve had arcing it is probably time to replace the panel.
It’s not exactly straight forward how many branch circuits you can feed from a given number of available amps. Add up the breakers in a panel and the sum is usually much greater than the main breaker rating. What really matters is how many amps are being used at the same time during your peak use. There are energy monitoring systems available that will give you this information if you desire it.
In many cases a home will have no problems with a 100 or 125 amp service. However, if you want to add a pool or spa to one of these smaller services an upgrade is in order. Many homes have a 200 amp service and in almost all situations this is plenty of amperage for home use, even if you want a pool and shop.
If you have lights or outlets not working, it is usually a problem with a wiring device inside your home that needs troubleshooting. Sometimes if the problem is with a breaker or loose wire inside the panel, a new electrical panel would solve the problem but is unnecessary. The bottom line is if one of the issues detailed above is not a factor, an electrician needs to diagnose the real cause of the problem.
Unless it is the main breaker, if you have problems with breakers tripping when too many appliances are used a new electrical panel simply will not fix the problem. In this scenario what you really need are more branch circuits. Often a dedicated circuit to the largest appliance load out of your existing electrical panel will solve this problem.
A lot of factors go into how much a service upgrade will cost. The amperage, number of breakers, how it is fed, solar ready or not, other conduit work needed, stucco or siding repair, permit fees, and utility charges all affect the final price of the panel. In our experience most new residential meter main panels are 200 amps or less and cost between $2,000 and $4,000.
Sub panels (an electrical panel that does not have an electrical meter on it but is downstream from the main electrical panel) are less involving to change and typically cost between $800 and $1,500.
Plan on power being off during a panel change for 8-10 hours. Sub panels and surface mount panels can be a little quicker, but this is a good number to plan around as waiting on inspections or a reconnection from the utility can extend the time needed.
When a customer requests a quote on a main meter panel change, we take pictures and get everything prepared to send to the utility and the appropriate city or county office.
If the new panel is the same amperage and location, we may be able to schedule with the utility for a disconnect as early as one week out from submission time.
If you are upgrading amperage or changing location of a panel that is fed from overhead power lines, expect the approval time to be two to four weeks.
Upgrading amperage on an underground fed panel may take months of time for approval, $1,500 of engineering fees from the utility to design, and potentially conduit upgrades from the utility box in the street to your electrical panel.
This guide is a practical but broad overview of electrical panels geared towards a residential setting. For specifics on your project I recommend getting input from a licensed electrician.