Electrical panels serve two purposes – to provide electricity and safety. However, many homeowners may find it difficult to determine if they need an electrical panel upgrade or replacement. Old electrical panels can be expensive, and electrical panel replacement can be costly.
Ultimately, safety for your family comes first. Here are some things you should consider about replacing the electrical panel in your home.
Generally speaking, electrical panels will last 40-60 years. Age is not always a primary concern when looking at an electrical panel replacement. Some electrical panel brands are inherently faulty and need replacement with newer electrical panels that meet modern safety standards. Electrical panels that are undersized, at maximum capacity, or lack UL safety standards need updating or replacement regardless of age.
Now, I realize that’s often easier said than done. Electrical updates aren’t cheap. An electrical panel replacement – or upgrade – can be a significant challenge. Recognizing the signs of aging or failing electrical panels and understanding the consequences. We will look closely at the signs an electric panel replacement is needed, identify electric panel brands you should replace, and the costs of an electric panel upgrade.
Signs Electric Panel Replacement Is Needed
If you’re reading this, chances are you’re wondering if you should upgrade your electrical panel. Here are some key points to consider.
You’d only benefit from upgrading your current panel in your house. If your current electrical panel is over 25 years old, less than 200amp service, or is at maximum capacity, you’d benefit from the improved safety provided by upgrading your electrical panel.
Circuit breaker panels do not last forever and eventually need replacing. Ultimately, the electrical load takes a toll, and electrical issues can develop. There is no definitive timetable to upgrade an electrical panel. However, if you see any or all of these items below, you should consider replacing your electrical panel.
Some things will be a clear-cut indication that there may be something wrong with your electrical panel or wiring. I recommend having a qualified electrician carry out a detailed inspection.
1. Electric Panels with Rusted Electrical Parts
A rusted electric panel is never a good sign. Rust indicates that contact with water has occurred 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. Rust will eventually render the breaker box unsafe and fail to operate correctly, leading to electrical faults or a house fire.
A rusted electrical panel needs replacing. The reason causing it to rust also needs correction to prevent rust from happening in the future. So, you may need to move it to an area where less moisture is present.
2. Circuit Breakers that Trip Constantly
You should not need to replace or upgrade an electrical panel simply because a breaker routinely trips. You should only need an electrical panel replacement when scorching from arcing, rust, the damage prevents proper breaker connection, or the electrical panel is undersized or overloaded.
The reasons why a breaker may constantly trip are:
- Overloaded circuits
- There is an electrical fault in the circuit.
- The electrical wire is undersized.
If this happens, make sure you have a licensed electrician examine the electrical panel and the wiring. In some cases, you may need an electrical panel replacement.
Here are some questions you should ask your electrician before replacing the electrical 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? Burns or scorching indicates a problem with the circuit breaker, the panel, or both. Either way, the panel’s replacement is recommended if burning has occurred.
- Are the breakers double-tapped, meaning there multiple circuits connected to a single breaker? When two or more branch circuits enter into a single-pole breaker, the breaker may routinely trip. Repair may be as simple as separating the circuits into separate breakers or installing a two-pole to tandem breaker if the electrical panel allows 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. Vacuums, for example, can cause a breaker to trip routinely because of the demand.
3. Undersized Electrical Panels
Electrical panels have a power rating. Usually, this directly correlates with the size of the electrical panel and how many breakers it can accommodate inside.
Some of the first electric breaker boxes contractors installed in residential houses had about 60 amps of power. Later this increased to 100 amps. Today this considered being insufficient. For example, most homes today have 200 amps of power.
If you live 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, I recommend changing the undersized electrical panel when:
- You are doing major remodeling.
- You are adding new electrical appliances that have high electrical consumption.
- If more people are going to be living in your home which could overload the panels electrical capacity.
4. Scorching Inside the Electrical Panel
We touched on this earlier but let’s go into more detail. Even though an electrical panel is estimated to last between 40-60 years, everything eventually requires replacement. Power surges can damage a service panel at any time.
Despite what the manufacturer says, mechanicals often breaks down prematurely. Manufacturer specifications are only an estimate given based on ideal circumstances.
Not only the electrical panel itself, but the electrical wiring wears out with time, too.
Damaged insulation on the wiring can produce electrical arcs that generate high amounts of heat, starting a 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 Correctly
The electrical breakers are the main component that provides your home and family safe from electrical fires and electrical shocks. So if the breakers are not working correctly, this puts you at risk. We recommend routine electrical inspections to test and replace breakers if needed.
6. Bad Wiring or Old Ungrounded Wiring
Old wiring can pose many safety issues due to natural wear and tear. Bad wiring practices can also be hazardous and require your electrical panel to be changed or upgraded. Some examples are:
- Oversized breakers – During the home inspections I’ve done, I have often find mismatched electrical breaker brands. Incompatible breakers are incredibly unsafe and dangerous.
- Double tapped electrical breakers – double tapped breakers can be another fire hazard waiting to happen. A good reason as to why a specific breaker may trip more frequently than it should. Some breakers are designed for 1 or 2 Pole (circuits) and can operate correctly. Breakers labeled 1 Pole should only have one circuit wire connection.
- Messy wiring – This often refers to multiple electrical 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 other branch legs of older wiring outside of a junction box.
7. Consolidating Multiple Electric Subpanels
Every home has one main electrical panel, which is the primary 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, you can see this 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. The need for additional circuits means either electrical upgrades to a modern panel or add a subpanel.
If you consolidate multiple subpanels, you will likely need to replace or upgrade your main electrical panel. You can often do this 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 significant disadvantages is that consolidating multiple subpanels will be followed by a lot of wiring work that is incredibly laborious and expensive.
8. Dimming or Flickering Lights
Dimming or flickering lights are another good sign that you need to upgrade your electrical panel.
Lights often flicker when an underpowered electrical panel is in high demand, especially if you live in an older home with an older breaker panel. Sometimes the reason for that can also be faulty wiring. In either case, you need an electrical inspection to determine the cause of the lights flickering.
A faulty electrical box is not necessarily the case with some modern LED lights. LED lights can flicker or dim when they have been on for a long time.
9. Using Several Power Strips
Overloaded power strips are one of the little things that may go unnoticed by many homeowners. Power strips make up for the lack of electrical outlets in the house. In older homes, several rooms may share the same circuit, and adding a power strip that is full capacity can overload the circuit.
The electrical outlets in our home are on different electrical circuits.
These electrical circuits are usually 15 or 20 amps for a standard 120-volt circuit. The amperage on specific circuits has limitations.
Adding one of these long power strips to an outlet and connecting multiple appliances or electronic equipment will trip the breaker associated with this electrical circuit.
Usually, the more demanding appliances may even need their dedicated electrical circuit.
Trying to connect multiple appliances to the same circuit is not only dangerous, but it can damage the electrical appliances, too.
If you buy an older home that doesn’t have enough outlets, you may have to upgrade the electrical panel to add more wiring circuits.
Changing your electrical panel with a newer model will allow for better safety when operating higher-demanding appliances at once and add more circuit breakers to the service panel.
10. Older Electrical Panels that Pose Safety Concerns
Some older electrical service panels were not manufactured up to standard from the beginning. During World Wars I & II, manufacturers used inferior aluminum metals for bus bars. Over time they have been proven to overheat, making them dangerous and unsafe.
Even if they have been working correctly for many years, there is no way of knowing if they will continue doing so. If you have one of the below electrical panel brands, it’s wise to upgrade your electrical panel.
Federal Pacific Stab-Lok Electric Panels
Federal Pacific Electric (FPE) Stab-Lok panels are a long known hazard. People widely consider them as unsafe and dangerous. They are the cause of nearly 3000 electrical fires annually in the US.
Federal Pacific Electric panels have been considered dangerous by insurance companies and the Consumer Product Safety Commission. When tested, Federal Pacific Electric Panels are hazardous due to age and faulty components with higher failure rates. The breakers have been shown not to trip, causing the panels to catch fire.
Contractors installed FPE panels in homes built between the 1950s and 1980s. FPE panels are tricky because governmental institutions have no official stance, and there have never been any recalls initiated.
However, if we 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 an overcurrent or short circuit.
During some tests, the FPE panels failed to trip at highly high rates ranging from 25% and going up to 65% in some cases, making them a latent fire hazard and dangerous.
Changing the circuit breakers with FPE replacement breakers is not less dangerous, so an electrical panel upgrade is best.
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 Electric Panels
Zinsco electrical panels are another outdated electrical panel that fails to provide proper electrical safety.
Zinsco Electric Panels also have high failure rates and can catch fire. The breakers in Zinsco electric panels can melt and fuse to the bus bar causing them to fail. The breakers can also have a poor connection to the bus bar, causing arcing.
On the one hand, we don’t have any official position from the governmental authorities. And on the other hand, we have often seen how Zinsco panels have failed to work and even started electrical fires.
What makes Zinsco panels dangerous is the materials used in manufacturing.
- In the production of the Zinsco panels, there was a particular flaw. A specific aluminum alloy was used that can oxidize.
- The breakers have been known to melt and fuse to the bus bar, which renders them ineffective in providing 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.
ITE Pushmatic and Bulldog Electric Panels
Unlike the Zinsco and FPE panels, the ITE Pushmatic panels have not proven unreliable. However, they are still not without their issues.
ITE Pushmatic electric panels don’t have any formal recalls; however, industry professionals and insurance companies still consider them dangerous. ITE Pushmatic electric panels are unsafe because they are outdated and likely accompany aluminum or ungrounded wiring. Electricians and insurance companies recommend replacing electric panels over 40 years old, mainly where aluminum or ungrounded wiring exists.
They are easily recognizable as they don’t have switches but buttons you need to push when switching them off.
They were produced and installed during the 1930s to 1960s, making them extremely old and outdated. And finding replacement parts for them can be expensive.
With that, they have reports of failing to trip in the presence of overcurrent. The circuit breakers in these panels use a thermal tripping mechanism. While in comparison, newer units use both thermal and magnetic tripping mechanisms, 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 tricky and stiff to operate. Even though it may appear to be working, An electrician should replace ITE Pushmatic electrical panel due to its age and lower safety.
Challenger Electric Panels
The Challenger electric panels are another brand that can pose a latent fire risk. They were one of the most popular electrical panels installed in the homes built during the 1980s and the 1990s.
Challenger electric panels are dangerous because some of the circuit breakers Challenger manufactured tended to overheat during normal working conditions. Some insurance companies will not insure a home with a Challenger panel. However, this is not true for all insurance companies.
The heat generated led to the breakers expanding and contracting, causing the connection between the breaker and the bus bar to become very loose. A loose connection like this will create electrical arcs that produce tremendous amounts of heat, which will lead to the breaker melting. The result is a circuit breaker rendered completely useless and unable to work.
In addition to that, CPSC recalled some Challenger breakers because they failed quality testing when they discovered that they could not provide the necessary ground fault protection.
The Challenger panels don’t always have the Challenger label on them. Some of these panels were also under the GTE-Sylvania logo.
Murray Electric Panels
Murray is another electrical panel that contractors installed several decades ago. There are modern Murray panels that are perfectly fine. These modern Murray panels are safe.
Murray electric panels were less expensive than some of the other electrical panels; however, they were considered safe and without faults. The main problem plaguing Murray electric panels is their age. If your Murray electric panel is over 40 years old, it likely needs to be updated.
In 2010 Murray circuit breakers were recalled by the U.S.Consumer Products Safety Commission (CPSC) because of the inherent danger. CPSC discovered that a spring clip could break under normal working conditions, leading to electrical fires and electrical shocks.
Westinghouse Electric Panels
Westinghouse is another brand of electrical panels that is very outdated and old. Eaton purchased Westinghouse.
Westinghouse electric panels are considered safe. The main issue that plagues Westinghouse panels is their age. The breakers can also have a poor connection to the bus bar, causing them to overheat and melt, thus burning the connection tabs.
Loose breakers were not a widespread problem resulting in any recalls. If you have a Westinghouse electric panel, have it examined by a licensed electrician, especially if you see a breaker box with multiple breaker brands present.
If the Westinghouse panel has several other branded breakers, there has likely been an issue in the past, and the bus bar could be damaged. The natural wear and tear these panels face makes them a potential safety hazard and should be replaced.
Wadsworth Electric Panels
Wadsworth is an older electric panel that is generally well known for its high quality. Wadsworth electric panels and their components are no longer in production.
Wadsworth electric panels are now obsolete as the panels no longer meet today’s stringent safety standards. According to electricians, other issues related to Wadsworth electric panels are aluminum or ungrounded wiring. The main issue plaguing Wadsworth electric panels is their age. Homes that have a Wadsworth panel should make electric panel upgrades a priority.
Many Wadsworth panels are still in use today. However, replacing during renovations should be a priority. Typically, a Wadsworth electrical panel upgrade will include some electrical wiring updates.
General Switch Electric Panels
General Switch is another old electric panel no longer manufactured. If you have a General Switch electric panel, you may have a hard time finding replacement breakers. While many other breaker brands may fit and work perfectly fine, it’s technically not compliant.
General Switch electric panels are safe. General Switch panels will likely require replacement if a breaker fails. General Switch components are no longer in production, and replacing bad breakers with other brands is not compliant. Other issues related to General Switch electric panels are aluminum or ungrounded wiring.
Bryant Electric Panels
Bryant electric panels, much like Murray panels, are another electrical panel that contractors installed several decades ago. Are Bryant electric panels still safe to have in your home?
Bryant electric panels are considered safe; however, age and condition are the main factors to whether they are safe or dangerous. Cutler-Hammer owns the name rights to Bryant and does manufacture replacement breakers under the Cutler-Hammer name. However, if your Bryant electric panel is over 40 years old, it likely needs to be updated.
Should Split Bus Electrical Panels Be Replaced?
Today’s electrical panels have one bus bar supplying electricity from the main breaker. From there, it goes to the rest of the electrical breakers.
The main disconnect is helpful because we can easily cut all the power in the building by flipping one breaker in case of an emergency. However, some older electrical panels had two bus bars with no main breaker (some of the older Murray electrical panels, for example). These are known as split bus electric panels.
Split bus panels are not necessarily dangerous, but they are outdated. Split bus panels do not meet current NEC safety codes leading to higher failure rates than modern electrical panels.
Split bus panels haven’t been used for well over 40 years. As we stated earlier, this makes them well beyond their expected lifespan. The NEC no longer allows multiple main disconnects.
Other problems related to split bus panels are aluminum and ungrounded wiring, as they were commonly part of the split bus panel install. If you find you have a split bus panel in your home, you should consult an electrician about possible panel replacement.
You can likely update the panel without a whole house rewire. The NEC allows a panel upgrade and replacement of 2-prong ungrounded outlets without rewiring provided the circuit is GFCI protected, although rewiring with grounded wiring is the best option.
Read more on ungrounded outlets at Are Ungrounded Outlets Safe? Let’s Fix Them Right.
Should an Old Fuse Box Be Upgraded?
Fuse boxes are another big topic that frequently comes up. Contractors installed fuse boxes in homes built before the 1960s. Fuses are a lot different in how they look compared to the breakers.
They have a socket where fuses screw in like a lightbulb. And just like the lightbulb, they have a tiny metal wiring inside that is rated for a specific electrical current. If there is an overcurrent, the wire will melt and stop the electricity from flowing – this is how fuses trip.
You need to install a replacement fuse manually or manually replace this tiny metal wiring. One of the main dangers of fuses is that they need to be rated for the circuit, and the wire inside has to be the right kind. Installing a higher-rated fuse is known as over fusing, and it is dangerous.
Are Fuse Boxes Dangerous?
Fuses are considered safe. Although outdated and regarded as old technology, they do work as intended. If a fuse is rated for 15 amps, the fuse can blow if a power supply is more than 15 amps. It will not be able to allow more electrical current to pass.
However, they are not compatible with the current electrical consumption needs today. Additionally, fuse boxes cannot provide the same safety features as modern electrical panels, such as circuit grounding and fault protection.
Should You Replace a Fuse Box?
You won’t find fuse boxes in newer homes, so the only chance to stumble upon one of these is in an older home.
Although not necessarily dangerous, they are considered obsolete. An electrician should do an in-depth examination to determine if a replacement is needed. The main issue with fuse boxes is that they do not meet today’s electrical needs and do not adhere to today’s higher safety standards.
Usually, fuse boxes need replacement, especially if you plan to remodel or add more circuits.
How Much Does Electrical Panel Upgrade Cost?
Material and labor costs for a licensed professional electrician to do electrical projects can vary a lot depending on different factors like:
- The amount of work that needs to be done to complete the electrical panel upgrade.
- The size electrical panel you’ll be installing.
- Will the electrical panel need to be relocated.
- How many electrical circuits will need to be installed in the electrical panel upgrade?
- Will the service amperage require an increase in the size of the electrical panel box?
The average cost to upgrade an electrical panel is about $1,500-$4,000. The cost to replace only the electrical panel, including labor, averages about $2,000. You can expect about $500 to $2,000 in additional expenses to relocate an electrical panel.
Installing a lower amperage electrical subpanel can cost $500 to $1,000. A complete 200amp electrical service upgrade, including meter box, electrical panel box, and some electrical wiring, will cost about $4,000 to $8,000 or more in some cases.
Often, older electrical panels need additional work, which could include:
- Relocate the panel from a closet or cabinet to an area that meets current clearance requirements for electrical panels.
- Wiring updates, mainly if the wiring is undersized, ungrounded, or needs to be extended to accommodate relocation.
- Meter base upgrades to allow for the inclusion of a service disconnect or increase in amperage.
For comparison, upgrading to a high-end 200 amperage electrical panel can go up to $4,000, including labor costs, equipment upgrades such as wiring, meter bases, AFCI protection, GFCI protection, etc.
Do You Really Need to Replace Your Electrical Panel?
As we can see, replacing your electrical panel can be an intimidating thing to do. Many people will ask if it is worth spending money on a new electrical panel considering the older one is still working.
However, when we realize an electrical panel is not working correctly, it may be too late. Sometimes people may think that when their electrician recommends replacing their breaker box, they are doing it because they are only after the money.
As home inspectors, we have specific responsibilities to advise our clients on the house’s condition and any apparent safety issues they could be facing soon. The primary concern is the safety of our clients, their families, and their homes. Even though replacing an electrical panel can be costly, protection should always be a top priority.
How Long Does It Take to Replace an Electrical Panel?
Every homeowner faced with making the hard decision to replace their electrical panel may need to consider the amount of time it would take.
The time frame we will be looking at is essential because you cannot expect your home to have any electricity running during this time. Any appliances like refrigerators will be left unpowered.
- The usual time for replacing or upgrading an electrical panel is generally between 6 to 8 hours.
- Some electrical panel upgrades where wiring updates or relocation is involved could take several days.
- If the power has to be terminated to make the electrical panel upgrade, You will need an inspection from a building code inspector to authorize the power company to set the meter and turn the power on. This can add up to one week to the job length.
The time can vary greatly depending on:
- What work needs to be done.
- The number of circuits that have to be relocated.
- The time required to coordinate with the electrical utility company properly and more.
Do I Have to Replace a Full Breaker Box?
It is not a rare occurrence to find yourself with an electrical panel with no more space for new breakers.
Luckily it is not always 100% necessary to replace a full electrical panel.
Some electrical panels can accept tandem electrical breakers. They take the same space as a standard circuit breaker but have two breaker levers to operate two different electrical circuits.
It is important to note that a tandem breaker may not always be allowed in older panels. Not all breakers are interchangeable. Don’t try to force a breaker to fit into a panel box.
Suppose your electrical panel is unsuitable for 1 to 2 pole breakers or tandem breakers. In that case, the only option is to pigtail circuits inside a box, replace the breaker box 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.
An electrical permit is required to ensure that trained specialists work on the electrical installations and 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, you must note that doing electrical work is incredibly dangerous. Homeowners that decide to do the electrical panel replacement themselves need to adhere to the safety standards.
Any damage done by electrical fires from improper electrical installations, negligence, and code violations can and probably will lead to a denied insurance claim.
Additionally, if the homeowner decides to sell their property, they must disclose any known information, including changing the electrical panel or wiring. Usually, they ask when the electrician changed the electric panel and a copy of the permit.
A lack of permits may have a negative effect. The buyer may:
- ask for a price reduction
- ask for an electrician sign provide a professional inspection
- have trouble with their insurance company
It can even be a deal-breaker if the potential buyer suspects the contractor did not do the work correctly.
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 an investment in your property as they may save you thousands of dollars down the line.