Electric Panel Upgrade Guide
What is an electric panel?
According to the International Association of Certified Home Inspectors (InterNACHI), you should make regular checks to your electric panel, even if you haven’t needed to undertake any electrical fixes. In particular, you should check for signs of rust or scorching, both of which indicate underlying damage to the system.
Electrical panel maintenance, therefore, should be part of your regular routine. However, in some situations, it will be necessary for you to upgrade your electric panel to a more advanced system.
This guide will tell you when to know that your electric panel needs replacing, and how to do so efficiently, effectively, and safely.
Why do I need to upgrade my electric panel?
As a rule of thumb, electric panels need replacing every 25-40 years, so if your home is that age, there’s a likelihood that you will need to upgrade. However, there are other key signs to look out for that will tell you when your existing system is becoming outdated.
When it comes to electricity and wiring within a home, safety is paramount. Faulty wiring is one of the leading causes of fires in American homes. Generally, the older wiring is, the more likely it is to be faulty, but having your electric panel inspected regularly by a professional electrician will identify any issues.
If you experience any of the following in your home, there is a strong chance it’s due to a fault in the wiring:
Flickering lights or other appliances
Small electric shocks when touching appliances
A smell of burning
Scorch marks or sparking on power outlets
Warmth around the electric panel
Installing new appliances
One of the primary reasons for upgrading an electric panel is because it simply does not have the capacity to deal with modern appliances. If you are intending to install a major new appliance to your home (such as an air conditioner or hot tub), your existing electric panel may not suffice.
If you add an air conditioner without upgrading your electric panel, then the power provided by your electric panel might not be enough, and the circuit breakers will keep tripping.
Adding circuit breakers
As mentioned above, circuit breakers are a more modern version of fuses. Both function under the same principle – namely, that when the current in a circuit gets too high, they break the circuit, and prevent electricity from flowing. This provides a major safety feature within a home.
The key difference between a fuse and a circuit breaker is that fuses are single-use. They work by melting when the current is too high. Not only does replacing a fuse require additional effort comparing with resetting a circuit breaker, but also some fuses can actually be fire hazards. Home builders no longer install fuse boxes into homes.
If you have a fuse box in your home, then it is certainly worth investigating an upgrade. Not only do fuse boxes create additional safety concerns, but they could be a reason that home insurance companies refuse to cover your home (or pay out if you do get coverage).
Use of power strips
As with fuse boxes, many electrical panels simply are not designed for modern electrical usage. With constant phone and laptop charging, televisions in every room, and other gadgets filling our homes, there’s simply more demand for electricity than was the case twenty years ago. A key piece of evidence for this is the limited number of wall sockets throughout homes.
If you find yourself using power strips or extension cords in your home, then it’s a strong sign that you are using more electricity than your home was designed for. In that instance, it may be time for an upgrade to the electrical panel.
By the same token as above, preparing your home for the future is a solid reason for upgrading your electrical panel. Effectively, electrical panels need to be replaced once every generation (at least), so if you are undertaking some remodeling or rewiring, it is worth bundling in an electrical panel upgrade.
If you’re thinking of selling your home, then being able to offer a recent upgrade is a sure sign that the infrastructure of the home is up to scratch; furthermore, it means that the future owners will not need to do it for the foreseeable future, potentially boosting your home’s value.
How much does it cost?
If you do decide to upgrade your electrical panel, the best time to do it is when you’re undertaking another remodel. That way, if you’re hiring professionals, you can use an economy of scale to get the price down. The largest cost for an upgrade will be the labor, which will usually cost between $500 and $1000.
The costs you can expect for an upgrade depend on the exact work that is taking place.
However, the following are rules of thumb.
Upgrading to a higher Amp service
Switching from a fuse box to a circuit breaker
Moving an electrical panel
While this is a major investment, it is one that will need to take place at some point in the life of a home. Moreover, upgrading an electric panel makes financial sense when factoring in issues with homeowners insurance and safety concerns without outdated equipment.
Can I do it myself?
Since the bulk of the costs involved in upgrading an electric panel are labor, there is a natural temptation to look to cut costs by doing the work yourself. However, in some states, working on an electrical panel yourself is illegal.
Certainly, it can be extremely dangerous if you are not familiar with electrical wiring. In short, it is much better to leave this sort of work to a trained professional.
However, if you are intent on doing the work yourself, then there are ways you can do it.
The first thing to research is the legality of the work. A quick internet search should help you identify what your county and state regulations are when it comes to electrical work within your home. In some cases, you’ll need to apply for, and be granted a permit. In others, you’ll need to find someone with a license in this type of work.
One of the most important things to remember is that even when you disconnect the main breaker, parts of the electrical panel are still live. If this is new information to you, then you are not safe in undertaking this work without professional help. It is simply not worth taking the risk of serious injury or death in order to save on some labor costs.
How do I do it?
If you are a skilled electrician, and it is legal for you to undertake the work yourself, then the following steps will guide you through the process.
Turn off main circuit breaker
The first step is to turn off the main circuit breaker to cut the electricity to the electric panel. You may need to ask the utility company to shut off the electrical cables to your home.
Again, if you are not able to do this, or at any point are not comfortable with the situation, STOP, and hire a professional to do the work.
Remove Outer Panel
After you are sure that the circuit breaker has been turned off, remove the outer panel. As you unscrew the panel, hold onto the panel to ensure it does not fall.
Once you’ve unscrewed the outer panel, remove it carefully to avoid touching any of the wires underneath.
Do not touch the two black wires that enter the panel from above. These are live and are the wires that connect the electric panel to the electric grid.
Be sure not to touch them with the pane, the screwdriver, or any other tools. Place the panel and screws to the side. Keep the screws with the panel.
Before removing the wires, label each of them so as to make it easier when you add in the new panel. Label them using the following technique:
Prepare New Panel
Once the old panel is removed, you are now ready to add in the new panel.
Make the space in the new panel for the breakers. Then connect the neutral wire to the neutral bar, followed by the ground wire to the ground bar. Then connect the ground bar to the neutral bar.
Then you will be able to attach the new panel to the wall. Once the structure is in place, you can attach individual wires to individual breakers and insert them into the panel. Label each breaker with the correct house circuit. This will make your job easier in case of future issues.
Every modern house runs on electricity. Increasingly, our demand for electricity and the number of gadgets we use is putting a strain on our existing electrical infrastructure. If your home has an electric panel that is more than a generation old, it could be time for an upgrade. Certainly, if you are experiencing poor service, or the existing system appears dangerous, an upgrade is essential.
Although upgrading your electric panel can bring a sizeable bill, it is far less than the cost caused by an electrical fire, or the losses from a home insurance non-payout. If you can afford the $1,000-4,000 cost of an upgrade, then you should look to hire a trained, certified professional.
This will avoid any danger to yourself and give you peace of mind of a job well done. If it is legal and safe to do so, you can upgrade the system yourself. However, safety, not cost, should be your ultimate priority.
Sources and Further Reading