As a homeowner, you know that nothing lasts forever. Even when used properly, parts of your home can start to wear out with age. Plumbing needs to be repaired, windows need to be replaced, appliances need to be updated. One part of their home that most homeowners don’t see very often is their electrical panel.
If you don’t visit your electrical panel much, that’s a good thing. You should only be interacting with your electrical panel when something has gone wrong. But like every other part of your home, your electrical panel will not last forever. An electrical panel can last anywhere from 20 to 40 years. But if your electrical panel was installed more than 20 years ago, it may be time to at least look out for the signs that you need an upgrade.
Your electrical panel can go by many names. Sometimes it is called a main breaker box, a fuse box, a distribution panel, a load center, or just a breaker panel. Whatever you call it, your electrical panel plays a crucial role in powering your home. It is the main junction between the wires outside your home—that is, the wires coming straight from the electric company—and the wires inside your home.
So What Exactly is an Electrical Panel?
The electricity that comes straight from the electric utility is high voltage, which helps it travel the long distances from the generator to your home. But the electricity in your home is typically 120 volts. The high voltage wires you see on utility poles connect first to your electric meter, where a transformer steps down the voltage to a more usable level. From there, a wire runs to your electrical panel, which then divides up the power and sends wires to al the outlets (and some hardwired features) throughout your home.
An electric panel only lets through a certain amount of electricity, measured in amps. Homes built more than 20 or 30 years ago mostly distributed 60 to 100 amps from the electrical panel. We’ll soon see why that alone might be a reason to upgrade.
Is Your Panel More Than 20 Years Old?
Electrical panels were never built to last forever, and most will start to show some wear at about 20 years old. That doesn’t mean that every electrical panel installed in the twentieth century is about to fail. But it does mean that if your electrical panel that is showing signs of age and it was built before the year 2000, it might be time to consider an upgrade.
As we mentioned before, older electrical panels usually topped out at anywhere from 60 amps to 100 amps. If your electrical panel was installed in the 70s or earlier, it is more likely to be in the 60 amp range. That was fine at the time, but our electricity needs have changed. Every item in your home that uses electricity is taking up amperage. The more items you have running, the more amperage you need.
Back when your 100 amp electrical panel was installed, in the 70s or 80s, the most electricity-hungry appliances were refrigerators, washing machines, and air conditioners. Homes often had a single television, and maybe a few kitchen gadgets.
Today, our electricity use has increased by leaps and bounds. Homes may have multiple high-definition televisions, computers, and other smart devices. We charge our phones, tablets, and laptops. More and more of our kitchen gadgets are electrified. In short, we need more electricity to run our homes. That’s why most houses built today use 200 amp electrical panels, providing all the amperage the modern family needs, with room to grow.
Are Your Lights Dimming?
One sign that your electrical panel’s amperage is too low is dimming lights. The only reason your lights should ever dim is when you have them on a dimmer switch and adjust them down. Any other dimming is a sign that your electrical panel is straining to keep up with your electricity demands.
The most common time to see your lights dim is when you start an appliance that pulls a lot of power. If you switch on your microwave and the lights in your kitchen flicker, the problem may be in your electrical panel. The same is true of washers, dryers, blenders, air conditioners, and any other appliance that causes your lights to dim.
If your lights are dimming, go check your electrical panel. That maximum amperage is usually on a sticker on the inside of the door. If your electrical panel is a 60-amp panel, you definitely need an upgrade. If it is a 100-amp panel and you are noticing dim or flickering lights, you may also need an upgrade.
Are Your Breakers Tripping Too Often?
One of the vital roles of your electrical panel is to prevent short circuits and circuit overloads. A short or overloaded circuit could be dangerous, causing fires or electrocution. To prevent that, a breaker that notices a short or overload with switch off, shutting down power to the affected circuit. It is a crucial failsafe that prevents damage to your home or even a risk of injury to you and your family.
But if your circuit breaker is switching off more than once in a while, it may be a sign that something is wrong. One possibility is that the wiring has become loose or exposed. The heat of transferring electricity can cause wires to expand and contract. Over time, expansion and contraction can cause connections to loosen. If a small gap opens up between a wire and an outlet, the electricity can try to jump the gap in the form of a spark. Such sparking is a serious fire hazard and needs immediate attention.
Regularly tripping circuit breakers could also be a sign of overload. If you are trying to use too many electrical devices at once, you may be overloading your electrical panel. It’s time for an upgrade.
Is Your Electrical Panel Warm?
Transmitting electricity creates some heat. But if your wiring is sufficient for the electricity it is carrying, the heat should be contained. But when wires come loose, or wiring is overloaded, it can become warm to the touch. One scenario is that you place a hand on your electrical panel and actually feel the heat. Another possibility is that you smell the result of the heat. You might smell burnt plastic or another foul smell. You may also see the result of that heat in the form of burn marks on the panel.
If you see any of these signs of overheating, call a master electrician immediately. Every moment you wait is a moment that your home and family are in danger. It doesn’t take much for an overheated panel to spark a fire. Keep you and your family safe by calling for help as soon as possible.
Are You Expanding Your Home (or Your Family)?
We’ve talked about how modern technology can stretch the limits of your outdated electrical panel. But even if your electrical panel is doing fine with all of your twenty-first-century gadgets, once you expand your home, you will need to upgrade. An addition to your home means new lights, an extended climate control system, and possibly many more electricity-sucking devices. You’ll probably need some electrical work anyway, so take this opportunity to update your electrical panel.
If you’re planning on an addition to your family, you may also want to consider upgrading your electrical panel. It may not be the first thing to cross your mind—adding a nursery and buying a crib may come first—but a new baby can actually increase your electricity usage. Warming bottles, running the dishwasher, doing endless loads of baby laundry, can all add up to extra stress on your aging electrical panel.