We’re in the era where we are starting to electrify everything, and that makes your electric service all the more important. A major part of getting all that power where you need it is your electrical panel, which is part of the distribution system and part of the safety feature. If you’re not too familiar with electrical systems, let’s look at what’s helpful to know.
Your electrical panel is a metal box that’s usually located in the basement, utility room, or garage. The National Electrical Code (NEC) has rigid requirements for locating electrical panels, so those locations make sense. Electrical panels should not be located in closets, bedrooms, or bathrooms. There needs to be adequate room to work on and around the panel when that need arises, so the panel needs to be accessible.
Here are some of the key points:
An electrical panel has just a few main parts. Open the door, and up at the top, you’ll see the main circuit breaker, which is a switch connected to the main electrical wires coming into your home. The main breaker controls the power supply to the entire house and is also rated the same as your overall electrical service, such as 100 amp, 150 amp, or 200 amp. In the event of a problem or need for maintenance, you can safely flip this switch to “OFF,” and your entire house will be shut off from electric current.
Your home has a number of circuits that carry electricity from the panel throughout the rooms. A circuit is just a dedicated pathway for electricity, and a circuit breaker is a self-actuating safety switch on the circuit.
On the electrical panel, in addition to the main breaker, you’ll also see all the individual circuit breakers. Those are usually 15-amp or 20-amp breakers. They feed power to all the outlets and light switches throughout your home. Behind the faceplate are the bus bars, which are metal bars that secure the electrical cables and also conduct electricity for each circuit. A 200-amp panel typically has space for 40 circuit breakers, but you’ll only get the number that your electrician determines that you need.
Your circuits should be labeled, but that doesn’t mean they are. If they’re not, here are some tips for that task. Some appliances, like an electric range, refrigerator, water heaters, and clothes washers and dryers, must have their own circuit and, therefore, their own circuit breakers. That’s required by the National Electrical Code for safety reasons, and it’s handy to have the breakers labeled, especially if breakers are tripping. Some of those are also “double-pole” circuit breakers that handle 240 volts rather than the standard 120 volts; they take up two spaces in the panel. An electric range and electric dryer are both 240-volt appliances, for example.
Other circuits might cover your entire living room, the bedroom wing, and so on, as they just don’t have to handle very much current. The National Electrical Code has rules about this, of course. The maximum electrical load on a 20-amp circuit should not exceed 1250 watts, for example, and that circuit should have no more than 10 outlets.
If your breakers are tripping and causing your devices to stop working, your panel or a circuit may be overloaded. You can go to the panel and wiggle each circuit breaker to find the one that has tripped if it’s not obvious visually. Then push it all the way to “off” and then back over to “on.” Do you know the cause? Have you tried to run a couple of high-draw appliances, such as the toaster and coffee maker, at the same time on a circuit that won’t handle that load?
That was common back in the day with a 60-amp service, but less so in the last couple of decades with 100-amp and larger service. But now, as I mentioned, we’re adding more and more electricity usage, and we need more capacity, such as 200-amp service.
The minimum code-approved amperage for a panel is now 100 amps, but as we electrify more and more functions in our homes, more is better. Service of 150 amps is now more common, but 200-amp service is better. Your main breaker will tell you what amperage your service is. It’s possible that your home still has an old 60-amp service in place, so an upgrade would be nice.
If you want to upgrade your service, it will probably take more than just upgrading the panel; you might need a service upgrade by your power company, which would involve new cables leading into your meter and then into your house. From there, your electrician would connect the new cables to your new 200-amp (or larger) panel and then connect all your existing circuits into the new panel. You can expect all this to cost from a couple of thousand dollars on up. However, the Inflation Reduction Act has tax credits available. You can start by asking an electrician where you stand.
Some clues that it’s time to upgrade your panel include its age, as their lifespan is expected to be 25–40 years. You can also look for:
Adding a new high-draw appliance, such as an induction range, might be the reason for an upgrade, as well. Or you might want to add ground-fault circuit interruption (GFCI) protection to the panel. A ground fault is an unintentional electrical path between a power source and a grounded surface; these can be dangerous or lethal. You’ve seen GFCI outlets, no doubt, but this protection can be added to the panel, as well.
You can also consider upgrading to a smart electrical panel. These devices are becoming more popular as people integrate their own solar power and battery storage systems into their homes. A smart electrical panel uses digital circuit breakers that provide data in real-time. As you might expect, you can monitor your electric service via your smartphone, also in real-time. At the moment, these devices are low volume and pretty expensive, but that will improve as more people install them and manufacturers improve them.
Your home’s electrical panel will probably never be your favorite home renovation project, but it might support some of your favorites, such as a new kitchen or spa tub. Who knows, but there’s no getting around the need for safe and abundant electricity.