Electrical panels serve two purposes – to provide electricity and safety.
However, for many homeowners, it may be difficult to assess the state of their electrical panels and whether or not the panel does its job properly.
Even tougher is the decision when an electrical panel should be considered dangerous and unsafe and if it has to be replaced.
Ultimately, safety for your family and your home comes first.
So, you may be wondering if the electrical panel in your house needs to be replaced or upgraded? Electrical panels don’t last forever. The typical lifespan is about 40-60 years. However, age is not always a primary concern. Electrical panels that are undersized or do not offer certain necessary safety protection need to be replaced regardless of age. Some specific brands of older electrical panels have been found to be inherently faulty, and need to be replaced with newer, modern ones with safety upgrades.
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Now, I realize that’s oftentimes easier said than done. Electrical updates are not cheap. An electrical panel change – or upgrade – can look like a big challenge to undertake.
This is why we need to know how to recognize the signs of a failing electrical panel first, understand the consequences second, and lastly what steps we need to take.
So let’s dive in.
Signs That You May Need to Replace Your Electrical Panel
Some things will be a clear-cut indication that there may be something wrong with your electrical panel or wiring.
In these cases, it is recommended to have a certified electrician carry out a detailed inspection.
1. Signs of Rust
Having rust in the panel is never a good sign. This is a clear indication that moisture has gotten inside the electrical panel and we all know electricity and water can be a fatal combination.
The fact that there is rust means that the electrical panel is, or has been, subjected to water. There may be different causes for the rust to appear like chipped paint, higher humidity levels, or water leaks.
High amounts of electrical current are passing through the panel. And the presence of water in any shape or form is not something we want.
This will eventually render the panel unable to work properly, and this is really dangerous as it can lead to electrical faults and fires.
An electrical panel that has rusted needs to be replaced, and the reasons that caused the rust to begin with need to be discovered and fixed so that rusting can be prevented from happening in the future.
2. Circuit Breakers That Trip Constantly
If your breakers trip regularly this may signify a potential problem with your electrical panel or wiring. It could also just mean you have a bad breaker.
The reasons why a breaker may constantly trip are:
- The electrical circuit is overloaded.
- There is an electrical fault.
If this is happening, make sure you speak with a certified electrician to have the panel and the wiring inspected and assessed. In some cases, a panel replacement may be needed.
Questions to ask your electrician before replacing the entire breaker panel:
- Is it the same breaker that routinely trips? If the same breaker routinely trips it’s likely a problem with the breaker itself or the circuit coming into the breaker.
- Are there burn marks present on the bus bar where the breaker connects inside the panel? This indicates that there’s a problem in the circuit breaker, the panel or both. Either way, the replacement of the panel is recommended if there are burn marks on the bus bar.
- Are the breaker double-tapped, meaning there multiple circuits connected to a single breaker? When two or more branch circuits enter into a single breaker that isn’t designed to carry multiple circuits, the breaker will routinely trip. Repair may be as simple as separating the circuits into separate breakers or installing a tandem breaker if the electrical panel allows for it.
- Is the breaker undersized for the circuit? An undersized breaker will routinely trip under certain usage loads. Running too many items at one time can also overload and trip a breaker.
3. Underpowered Electrical Panels
Electrical panels have a power rating. Usually, this in direct correlation with the size of the electrical panel and how much breakers it can accommodate inside.
Some of the first electrical panels that were installed in residential properties had about 60 amps of power, later this increased to 100 amps.
Today this may be insufficient. For example, some homes today have 200 amps of power.
If you are living in a home with an older electrical panel, it may be underpowered, and when you plug in a few more electrical appliances, the breakers will trip.
In a few cases, it is recommended to change the electrical panel.
- If you are going to be doing some remodeling.
- If you are going to be adding new electrical appliances that have high electrical consumption
- If more people are going to be living in your home or building.
4. Burned Areas in the Panel
We touched on this earlier but let’s go into more detail. Even though a good electrical panel is believed to last between 30-40 years, everything breaks down eventually.
Despite what the manufacturer says, mechanicals oftentimes breakdown prematurely. Manufacturer specifications are really only an estimate given based on ideal circumstances.
Not only the electrical panel itself but the wiring wears down with time, too.
Damaged insulation on the wiring can produce electrical arcs that generate high amounts of heat that can easily start an electrical fire.
Look for burned and charred areas or any distinct smells:
- In the electrical panel at the breaker or on the bus bar if the breaker is removed.
- Around the breakers. Are the connectors scorched?
- Around the wires. Is the insulation around the wires melted?
If you notice anything that may raise a concern, have the panel inspected by a licensed electrician.
5. Breakers Not Working Properly
The electrical breakers are the main component that is providing both your home and family with safety from electrical fires and electrical shocks. So if the breakers are not working properly, this puts you at risk.
This is why breakers should be frequently inspected and tested if they work properly.
6. Bad and Old Wiring
Old wiring can pose a lot of safety issues due to natural wear and tear.
Bad wiring practices can also be hazardous and may require your electrical panel to be changed or upgraded.
Some examples are:
- Oversized breakers – During the home inspections I have done, I have stumbled upon some mismatched wiring and electrical breakers. This is more than a code violation; it is also incredibly unsafe and dangerous.
- Double tapped electrical breakers – They can be another fire hazard waiting to happen. And a good reason as to why a specific breaker may trip more frequently than it should.
- Messy wiring – This often refers is multiple wiring connections made outside of an electrical junction box with a cover plate. We see this often in older homes where rooms were wired in series on one circuit. One leg of the wiring is replaced and then ties into several additional branch legs of older wiring outside of a junction box.
7. Consolidating Multiple Subpanels
Every home has one main electrical panel, which is the main source of electricity.
Some homes may also have one or more subpanels installed. There can be several reasons why your home may have subpanels:
- In some cases, it may be more convenient to operate specific electrical circuits from a subpanel. For example, this can be seen in garages, granny flats, and other home extensions.
- A subpanel may be more cost-efficient in some cases. Instead of running multiple wiring with a subpanel, you can have single wiring running to the main panel.
- We see this often in older homes where the main panel box is at maximum capacity and the m=only means of adding additional circuits is to either upgrade the main panel or add a subpanel.
If you are going to consolidate multiple subpanels, you may need to end up replacing or upgrading your main electrical panel. This can often be done with one 200 amp panel. Some larger homes may require two 200 amp panels, where one is the main and the second is an equal-sized subpanel.
However, one of the big disadvantages is that consolidating multiple subpanels will be followed by a lot of wiring work, which is incredibly laborious and expensive.
8. Dimming or Flickering Lights
Another good sign that the time for an upgrade of your electrical panel may have come is if you are observing constant flicker or dimming of the lights.
Usually, the reason may be due to an underpowered electrical panel, especially if you are living in an older home with an older panel. Sometimes the reason for that can also be faulty or bad wiring. In either case, an electrician inspection is needed to determine the reasoning.
9. You Use a Lot of Power Strips
This is one of the little things that may go unnoticed by many homeowners. Throughout the years, I have consulted a lot of clients. And in some cases, I have been pointing out that using a lot of power strips is not necessarily the right solution.
The electrical outlets in our home are connected to different electrical circuits.
These electrical circuits are usually either 15 or 20 amps for a standard 120-volt circuit. In a certain way, we are limited by the amperage of the specific circuits.
If you add one of these long power strips to an outlet and then connect, say an oven, refrigerator, personal computer, and a vacuum cleaner – even just two of these are enough sometimes – you are going to trip the breaker that is associated with this electrical circuit.
Usually, the more demanding appliances may even need their own dedicated electrical circuit.
Trying to connect multiple appliances to the same circuit is not only dangerous but it can damage the electrical appliances, too.
For many, this is one of those aha moments.
If you are buying a home with a number of outlets that are obviously not enough, then you may have to upgrade the electrical panel to add more circuits.
Changing your electrical panel with a newer model will allow for better safety when you are operating higher-demanding appliances at once. It will also allow you to install more outlets and more circuit breakers in the panel.
Older Electrical Panels That Pose Safety Concerns
Some older electrical panels were just not manufactured up to standard from the beginning. Over time they have been proven to be dangerous and unsafe.
Even if they have been working properly for many years, there is no way of knowing if they will continue doing so.
1. Federal Pacific Stab-Lok
Federal Pacific Electric (FPE) Stab-Lok panels are a long known hazard. They are widely considered as unsafe and dangerous. They have been connected with numerous cases of electrical fires.
FPE panels were installed in older homes built between the 1950s and 1980s.
FPE panels are a tricky subject because there is no official stance from the governmental institutions, and there have never been any recalls initiated. So technically they are considered safe.
However, if we take a look into some of the investigations and testings done on these panels we will see that they have incredibly high rates of failing to trip in the presence of overcurrent or short circuit.
During some tests that were carried out, the FPE panels were failing to trip at extremely high rates ranging from 25% and going up to 65% in some cases.
This is making them a latent fire hazard and dangerous.
Changing the circuit breakers with newer units has not shown to be making them less dangerous, so a panel upgrade is advised.
If you’d like to read more about Federal Pacific Stab-Lok breaker panels, check out our article Are Federal Pacific Breaker Panels Safe? Dangers & Cost to Replace.
Zinsco electrical panels are another outdated electrical panel that has been known for failing at providing proper electrical safety.
Whether or not Zinsco panels are considered safe is another gray topic.
On the one hand, we don’t have any official position from the governmental authorities. And on the other hand, we have seen many times how Zinsco panels have failed to work and even started electrical fires.
The thing that is making Zinsco panels dangerous is the way they were manufactured.
- In the production of the Zinsco panels, there was a particular flaw. A specific aluminum alloy was used that can easily oxidize.
- The breakers have been known to melt and fuse to the bus bar which renders them ineffective to provide any electrical protection.
- The circuit breakers often are loosely connected to the bus bars which can lead to arcing.
- The breakers may appear to be tripped, but in reality, the electricity is not cut off.
An easy way to recognize a Zinsco panel is by looking for the following labels: Zinsco, Sylvania, GTE-Sylvania, Sylvania-Zinsco.
If you’d like to read more about Zinsco breaker panels, check out our article Are Zinsco Electrical Panels Safe? Dangers & Cost to Replace.
3. ITE Pushmatic (and Bulldog)
Unlike the Zinsco and FPE panels, the ITE Pushmatic panels have not proven themselves to be as unreliable. However, they are still not without their issues.
They are easily recognizable as they don’t have switches but instead buttons which you need to push when you want to switch them off and on.
They were produced and installed during the 1930s up to the 1960s, which is making them extremely old and outdated. And finding replacement parts for them can be really expensive.
With all that being said, they have been reported to fail to trip in the presence of overcurrent. The circuit breakers that are installed in these panels use thermal tripping mechanism. While, in comparison, newer units use both thermal and magnetic tripping mechanisms, which is making them safer and more dependable.
One of their inherent faults is that the buttons use grease, and if not frequently operated, they can get tough and stiff to operate.
Even though it may appear to be working an ITE Pushmatic electrical panel should be replaced due to its age and lower safety.
The Challenger panels are another brand that is considered to pose a latent fire risk. They were one of the most popular electrical panels that were installed in the homes built during the 1980s and the 1990s.
Some of the circuit breakers Challenger manufactured tended to overheat during normal working conditions.
The heat that was generated led to the breakers expanding and contracting. This causes the connection between the breaker and the bus bar to become very loose. A loose connection like this is going to create electrical arcs that produce tremendous amounts of heat, which will lead to the breaker melting. The result is a circuit breaker that is rendered completely useless and unable to work.
In addition to that, some of the Challenger breakers were recalled because they failed quality testing. It was discovered that they were not able to provide the necessary ground fault protection.
The Challenger panels don’t always have the Challenger label on them. Some of these panels were also labeled under the GTE-Sylvania logo.
Murray is another electrical panel that was installed several decades ago.
Although cheaper compared to some of the other electrical panels, they were considered safe and without any faults to them.
The major problem with them is their age.
During 2010 Murray circuit breakers were recalled by the U.S.Consumer Products Safety Commission (CPSC) because of the inherent danger that they possessed.
It was discovered that a spring clip could break under normal working conditions which could lead to electrical fires and electrical shocks.
Westinghouse is another brand of electrical panels that is very outdated and old.
Due to the natural wear and tear, these panels are facing with time, it is making them a potential safety hazard and should be replaced.
Should Split Bus Electrical Panels Be Replaced?
The electrical panels we have today have one bus bar through which the electricity is supplied to the main breaker. From there it goes to the rest of the electrical breakers.
This is useful because, in case of an emergency, we can easily cut out all the power in the building by flipping the main switch.
However, some older electrical panels had two bus bars with no main breaker (some of the older Murray electrical panels for example).
They are not necessarily dangerous, but they are outdated, not up to code, and very old. This means they may have higher rates of failing to provide the necessary safety.
Should Old Fuse Boxes Be Changed?
Fuse boxes are another big topic that frequently comes up.
Fuse boxes were installed in older homes built before the 1960s.
Fuses are a lot different in how they look compared to the breakers.
We have a socket where the fuses are screwed in like a lightbulb. And just like the lightbulb, they have a tiny metal wiring inside that is rated for specific electrical current. If there is overcurrent the wire will melt and stop the electricity from flowing – this is how fuses trip.
To restore power, you need to manually install a replacement fuse or manually replace this tiny metal wiring.
And here lies one of the main dangers of fuses – they need to be appropriately rated for the circuit, and the wire inside has to be the right kind.
Installing a higher rated fuse is known as an over fusing, and it is incredibly dangerous.
1. Are Fuse Boxes and Fuse Breakers Dangerous?
Fuse breakers are considered safe. Although outdated and regarded as old technology, they do work as intended.
If a fuse breaker is rated for 15 amps, its tiny metal wire will burn and cut out the power if more than 15 amps are supplied to it. It will not be able to allow more electrical current to pass.
However, they are not designed with the modern electrical consumption needs we have today in mind.
Additionally, fuse boxes cannot provide the same safety features as the modern electrical panels can such as circuit grounding and arc fault protection.
2. Should You Replace a Fuse Box?
Fuse boxes are not being installed in newer homes, so the only chance to stumble upon one of these is by buying or renting an older home.
Although not necessarily dangerous, they are considered extremely outdated, and a further inspection and assessment by a qualified electrician is advised. The main issue with fuse boxes is that they may not be able to meet the electrical needs and may not adhere to the higher safety standards we have today.
Usually, fuse boxes have to be replaced, especially if you are planning on remodeling or adding more circuits.
How Much Does Replacing an Electrical Panel Cost?
The price for the replacement of an electrical panel can vary a lot depending on different factors like:
- The actual amount of work that needs to be done.
- What electrical panel you will be installing.
- The type of the older electrical panel.
- The number of electrical circuits.
- The amperage.
The average cost for replacing an electrical panel is about $1,500-$2,000. However, it is usually not that simple.
If you want to install a panel with lower amperage, it can cost as little as $500 to $1,000.
For comparison, upgrading to a high-end 200 amperage electrical panel can go up to $4,000 when you add in labor costs, breaker upgrades such as AFCI or GFCI, etc.
Do You Really Need to Replace Your Electrical Panel?
As we can see, replacing your electrical panel can be a really intimidating thing to do.
A lot of people will ask themselves if it is worth it to spend all this money on a new electrical panel considering the older one is still working.
However, by the time we realize an electrical panel is not working properly, it may be too late.
Sometimes people may think that when their electrician recommends them to replace their panel, they are doing it because they are only after the money.
As home inspectors, we have specific responsibilities to advise our clients not only to the condition of the house but also to any apparent safety issues they could be facing in the near future.
Our primary concern is the safety of our clients, their families, and their homes. Even though replacing an electrical panel can be costly, safety is always going to be more important.
How Long Does It Take to Replace an Electrical Panel?
Every homeowner that is faced with making the hard decision to replace their electrical panel may need to take into consideration the amount of time it would take.
The time frame we will be looking at is essential because during this time you cannot expect your home to have any electricity running. Any appliances like refrigerators will be left unpowered.
The usual time that it takes for replacing or upgrading an electrical panel is generally between 6 to 8 hours. Some upgrades could take several days. If the power has to be terminated to make the upgrade, an inspection from a city building code inspector to clear a permit authorizing the power company to set the meter and turn the power on.
The time can vary greatly depending on:
- What needs to be done.
- The number of circuits that have to be relocated.
- The time required to coordinate with the electrical power company properly, and more.
Do I Have to Replace a Full Breaker Box?
Today our electrical needs are constantly growing.
It is not a rare occurrence to find yourself with an electrical panel that has no more space for new breakers.
Luckily it is not always 100% necessary to replace a full electrical panel.
Some electrical panels are designed to fit what is known as tandem electrical breakers. Usually, they take the same space as a standard circuit breaker but have two breaker levers that can operate two different electrical circuits.
It is important to note that a tandem breaker may not always be allowed to be installed. Not all breakers are designed to be interchangeable. You should never try to force a breaker into a panel box it is not designed to fit into.
Tandem breakers are not used in newer buildings as they don’t offer proper AFCI and GFCI protection.
If your panel is not suitable for tandem breakers to be installed, then the only option is to replace the panel entirely or install a subpanel.
Do You Need an Electrical Permit to Change the Electrical Panel?
Nearly all changes, repairs, and upgrades on the electrical system require an electrical permit.
The reason an electrical permit is required is to make sure that properly trained specialists are working on the electrical installations. And consequently to guarantee safety, uniformity, and compliance with the electrical code.
Any major electrical work is advised to be carried out by a licensed electrician and after that inspected by the local building code inspector.
Appropriately trained homeowners can work on their electrical systems themselves. However, they need to apply for an electrical permit first. Even electricians do it, so this is an important step.
Still, it must be noted that doing electrical work is incredibly dangerous. Any homeowner that decides to do the electrical panel replacement or the wiring work done by themselves needs to adhere to the safety regulations. That way they can avoid the potential dangers to their health and property.
Any damage done by electrical fires from improper electrical installations, negligence, and code violations can and probably will not be covered by the insurance companies.
Additionally, if the homeowner decides to sell their property, they are required to disclose any information that is known to them – including the changing of the electrical panel or wiring. Usually, they will be asked about when the panel was changed and if there was a permit for doing that.
A lack of permit may have a negative effect.
- The buyer may ask for a reduction in price.
- The buyer may have trouble with their insurance company.
- It can even be a deal-breaker if the potential buyer even suspects the work was not properly done.
A permit and an inspection by the local building code inspector may seem like a hassle but will pay dividends in the long run. They can be considered an investment in your property as they may save you thousands of dollars down the line.
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