Your home’s electrical service panel is the main conduit by which your house receives and distributes power to switches, outlets, and various appliances. Think of it as the home’s heart; so long as it’s beating and the interconnected arteries (electrical wiring) are in good working order, all is well. But like anything in life, things are finite. And while durable and long-lasting, electrical panels aren’t designed to last for more than a few decades (with a lifespan of 25-40 years, on average). When the time does come to replace your home’s service panel system, here are few things to consider.
When turned on and working at full power, the usual suspects are easy to identify: refrigerators, clothes dryers, water heaters, cooling appliances, standard and convection ovens, garbage disposals, miscellaneous kitchen appliances, televisions, computers, lighting, and more. No surprises here. Each one of these items draws anywhere from 1% (computers) to 14% (water heaters) of your home’s total energy consumption. Then there are heating systems, which are unilaterally the largest consumer of electricity in any home, comprising up to a third of usable wattage. (More on that later.) And for people with a hot tub, an EV charger, or hobbies like gaming or woodworking, all that residual equipment has an outsized impact as well. A good rule of thumb to keep in mind: if it produces heat, it’s probably drawing a lot of power.
There is also the issue of “standby power” (aka “zombie power”), whereby certain appliances – cable boxes, coffee makers, desktop computers, and much more – continually draw electricity even when turned off. Standby power can draw anywhere between 5% - 10% of a home’s electricity use.
So, before consulting with and getting quotes from electricians on upgrading your home’s service panel, consider hiring an auditor to perform an energy audit of your home. This exercise will analyze and measure energy flows throughout the building and reveal opportunities for power conservation. In principle, it is advisable to develop a clear understanding of just what in your home is drawing significant portions of electricity, how much, and where habits and lifestyle adjustments can reasonably be made in place of paying for a major upgrade in overall wattage.
There is some debate on this very question. The standard for new homes built within the last decade, which on average are 2,000 square feet or more, are electrical panels with a minimum 200 amps (or 24 kilowatts) of service. That covers large HVAC systems, water heater, major appliances, and other power-hungry equipment. But many believe the conventional wisdom of 200 amps is outdated, and with good reason.
Many of today’s newer technologies, from LED lights to electric water heaters and air-source heat pumps, draw significantly less power than their incandescent and gas-burning predecessors. The specifications can vary, but with newer all-electric models, consumers can expect combined stove/induction ranges to draw about 40 amps, an EV charger to draw 20 amps, a centrally ducted heat pump another 20 amps, and a dishwasher 12 amps, to cite a few appliances. These figures are critical to achieving what’s called the “Watt Diet” (developed by Redwood Energy), which provides a pathway to electrify one’s home on 100 amps without upsizing their electrical panel, the costs of which can be enormous and lengthy (between $3,000 - $25,000, and take up to 18 months, according to the New Buildings Institute.)
Now, if you started to add up the numbers from the last paragraph and thought, that’s fast approaching 100 amps. You’re not wrong. But also consider how often you run big appliances in your home simultaneously. Even without a collection of electric appliances, most homes have peak power loads of about 90 amps. Further, the 100-amp Watt Diet is designed to work for homes that average 2,000 square feet in size. This approach isn’t so much about making sacrifices as it is making choices that result in efficient lifestyles and living well within our means.
If you live in a house built prior to 2010 and the electrical panel hasn’t been replaced any time recently, there’s a strong possibility you’re already operating on 100 amps (unless of course it’s a particularly large home). But if replacing and upgrading your service panel is a priority, due to flickering lights, audible buzzing from your outlets, a frequent need to reset circuit breakers, or otherwise, the problem is likely with faulty and/or outdated equipment and not with electric load capacity.
Either way, whether the issue is maintenance related or you simply want a more efficient system, and an upgrade can be more than a simple replacement. Consider looking into interactive smart panel systems that enable consumers to control power to individual circuits and manage distribution to certain devices. Smart circuit breakers can also be customized to prevent overloads, like setting a 240-volt EV charger to temporary shut off whenever the oven or clothes dryer gets turned on.
Additionally, heating efficiency is key to a well-performing home. And since home heating systems comprise the lion’s share of power consumption, having a well-insulated home, including walls, ceilings, and windows, will aid in achieving optimal heating efficiency. An energy audit will likewise reveal where any heat is escaping the home.
Provided the right efficiencies and appliances are part and parcel of your home, then upgrading an old electrical panel need not involve upsizing from a 100-amp to a 200-amp system, which is something a lot of electricians will recommend. Rather than electing to pay someone to dig up your home’s service line to the tune of tens of thousands of dollars, consider converting as much of your home’s systems to all-electric and making a modest upgrade to a service panel that can handle an efficient home and all your daily needs.