Tom Lohr is an avid home DIY enthusiast. He prefers to spend the money he saves on new tools and gardening supplies.
The Answer May Shock You
The electrical panel, sometimes called a breaker box or power distribution center, is your home's provider of electricity to every room. Two large wires run from the local power lines into your electrical panel. From there, the panel distributes it throughout your home.
The division of electricity to parts of your house are called circuits. In older homes, that division is divided into zones. One circuit may feed the front outlets in your home, both upstairs and downstairs, another might feed the bathroom and back bedrooms—it really depends on how your older home is laid out. Part of the reason of the zoning of electricity is that older panels had less capacity for circuits. Newer homes typically have more circuits that feed individual rooms, and in some cases, like the kitchen, rooms may have multiple circuits.
Electricity for each circuit runs through a circuit breaker before it leaves the panel. This is why it is sometimes called a “breaker box.” The circuit breakers act as overload protection. If the electrical load on a particular circuit exceeds its capacity, the breaker will trip and shut off the power at the panel. Without this protection, it would be easy to overload a circuit, causing the coating on the wires to melt and very likely causing a fire. In short, your electrical panel not only acts as your home's power distribution center, it is also a vital piece of safety equipment.
If you live in an older home, one built before the 1990s, you may have been told that you need an new or updated panel. Or you may have wondered if yours is still up to snuff. So how do you decide if you really need a new one?
If your home currently has no issues with power—such as flickering lights, breakers that trip often, or funky smells that indicate burning electrical equipment—then your home is probably adequately powered with no immediate need for a panel replacement. That doesn't mean it shouldn't be replaced, it is just that there is no pressing need to get it done immediately. Here are some tips and clues to help you determine if you need to spend the bucks (expect a new panel to cost $1,200–$2,000) to replace yours.
You Have a Panel That Is a Known Fire Hazard
During the 70s and 80s, millions of homes had electrical panels installed that were manufactured by a company called Federal Pacific Electric (FPE). Like all electrical components, FPE's panel and breakers had to pass a rigid testing regime by the Underwriters Laboratory (UL). The company's parts passed the testing and their merchandise was approved for use. Years later, it was discovered that FPE had rigged the testing so their circuit breakers would always trip when needed; in reality they did not. Faulty FPE equipment is still in millions of homes across the United States and pose a fire hazard due to faulty breakers. A home with an FPE panel has a 20% greater chance of an electrical fire and account for more than 2,000 fires annually. Their circuit breakers were called Stab-Lok. If your panel has Federal Pacific or Stab-Lok written on it somewhere, then do not even question it; have it replaced.
You Still Have a Fuse Box
Before circuit breakers existed, homes used fuses in their electrical panel. Fuses are round glass units of varying sizes that have a wire in them in which electricity passes to your home's circuits. If a circuit draws too much power, that wire will melt thereby disconnecting the power to that circuit. This was the standard for decades, and is still used in many older homes today. Fuses themselves are still in wide use. Your car has at least one fuse box that contains flat, small fuses that operate using the same principal. Fuses were replaced mainly because they were damn inconvenient. If your trip a circuit breaker because a particular circuit is drawing too much power, you can simply flip the breaker back on. Once a fuse is blown as they call it, you have to replace it. Simple enough, you unscrew the fuse and screw a new one in. The problem is, if you run out of fuses or forgot to stock up, that circuit has no power until you hit the hardware store.
Fuses are also normally associated with electrical panels that supply little power by today's standards. A new home built today requires a 200 amp panel minimum. Many of those older fuse boxes only supply 50 amps. That was sufficient back when all the electrical items in your house was lighting, a radio and maybe a television, today it doesn't cut the mustard. Even RV's are rigged for 50 amps of power. While your home will operate normally with a fuse box, if you have one your electrical system is severely dated, and likely the associated wiring as well. Replacing a fuse box with an electrical panel with breakers is the first step in modernizing your home's electrical system to acceptable standards.
Your Panel Is Rated for Less Than 150 Amps
If you home is older and you dodged having an underpowered 50 amp panel, you probably have a 100 amp panel if it has not been updated. Plenty of homes work just fine with 100 amps. The issue is, with today's lifestyle, your home's system is being taxed like never before. If your home is using an electrical range, water heater and dryer, 100 amps will give your headaches. A mostly gas home can get by ok, but it is usually the kitchen that strains a 100 amp panel. Microwave ovens and many countertop appliances draw significant amounts of current, and if you are busy in the kitchen and someone is running power tools in the garage, there is a good chance that you will trip the whole-house breaker. That is the large circuit breaker at the top of your panel. If you trip it, your entire home will lose power. If you don't know how many amps your panel is rated for, look at the whole-house breaker; it is usually stamped on it.
Your Panel Has Obvious Signs of Arcing or Overheating
When circuits are frequently operated near maximum capacity, they get hot. Sometimes that heat can leave obvious scorch marks on the wires where they tie into the innards of your electrical panel. Loose wires can cause arcing when operated near the limit. Think of arcing as a mini bolt of lightening, and if it hits something combustible, you can have yourself a nice house fire. Arcing often causes little black spots near their connections.
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Some of Your Circuit Breakers Trip Often
If you are making frequent trips to your electrical panel because breakers are tripping often, it could be that your are exceeding the maximum amperage on one or several circuits. This usually happens when someone runs a hairdryer or clothes iron while other power hogging appliances are on as well. Older kitchens normally had one circuit for the entire kitchen, and it shared that circuit with other areas of the house. Today, newly wired kitchens must have two 20-amp separate circuits at countertop level, a separate circuit for the microwave, and another for the normal kitchen outlets. If yours does not, you can have an electrician add those. The problem is, adding a new circuit also means adding a new breaker. Older 100 amp panels usually do not have any extra space for new breakers since they are smaller. Upgrading to a 200 amp panel ensures you can add a slew of new circuits and the amperage to power them.
You Have to Monitor Which Appliances You Run at the Same Time
Related to the last issue in the kitchen, if you trip the main breaker when you run two or more high power appliances or tools at the same time, then you home needs more juice. More juice requires a new panel.
You Need to Add New Circuits But Have No Room for More Circuit Breakers
Also mentioned above, but often a separate issue is room for additional circuits. If you want to add a few new outlets in the garage to power your newly built woodworking shop, an older panel probably won't have the capacity for adding new circuits and their associated breakers. Time for a new panel.
Your Home Is Being Rewired
There is some dangerous wiring out there. Really old homes had, and some still have, what is called knob and tube wiring. It was the first real attempt at electrifying homes. It worked great when it was installed. It was state-of-the-art for the early 20th century. The problem is it does not have a grounding wire, which could lead to electrocution or fires. Additionally, if it is still being used, the asbestos cloth coating they used instead of plastic (which was not available at the time) has become brittle and even slight movement or touch can cause it to flake off and expose bare wires. And there is that issue with the disintegrating wire coating injecting asbestos into the air in your home.
Somewhere between the knob and tube days and today, manufacturers thought it would be a great idea to make wiring out of aluminum instead of copper. That move made wiring less expensive. Only no one realized that aluminum expands more when it gets warm from a large electrical load than copper. It expands when warm, then contracts when it cools. While cooper wiring does too, it is the excessive expansion and contraction of aluminum wiring that causes it to loosen connections. Loose connections cause arcing which causes fires. Home with aluminum wiring are 70% more likely to have an electrical fire.
Knob and tube wiring should be replaced as soon as possible. Aluminum wiring can stay but you should have your electrical system checked out by and electrician that uses an infrared monitor to detect loose/hot spots. But both are reasons to consider a whole house rewire. A rewire is costly and intrusive, but it is also a damn good investment. If you are having your home rewired, you would be foolish not to upgrade your electrical panel.
It's Worth the Money
No one likes plunking down over a grand to get a new breaker box. It's not like getting new landscaping, new windows or new doors; it's money spent that you will never see. It's one of those hidden investments that makes your home safer and more valuable, but never gets the appreciation is deserves. Even though a new panel won't make your house look prettier, it will look a whole lot better than the pile of ash it could become if you skip replacing a panel that needs it. If you do need one, now you know what to do with your next tax refund.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
Ravi Rajan from Mumbai on May 16, 2021:
Very useful information Tom. Yes the truth is most of us ignore or postpone this obvious risk of replacing the panel until too late it becomes too late. This replacement as you rightly said is an investment one needs to make for the safety. Thanks for sharing this .
Liz Westwood from UK on May 15, 2021:
This is a very helpful and interesting article. Thankfully our panel does not look like any of the ones you describe. However, time passes quickly. Ours dates back nearly 20 years now. A young electrician who visited 5 years ago shook his head and muttered something about it not being up to date. So maybe we should look into it.