Should I Upgrade My Electrical Panel: 13 Warning Signs

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Hubert Miles

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If you’re reading this, chances are you’re wondering – should I upgrade my electrical panel?

If your existing electric panel is over 25 years old, has less than 200 amp service, or is at maximum capacity, you’d benefit from an electrical panel upgrade.

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 for upgrading or replacement. You can use electrical load calculation to help determine if you need to upgrade. However, if you see any or all of these items below, you should consider replacing your electrical panel.

According to the National Fire Protection Association, fire departments report over 46,700 house fires occur annually from electrical failure and malfunctions.

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should I upgrade my electrical panel

Should I Upgrade My Electrical Panel: 9 Warning Signs You Shouldn’t Ignore

Some warning signs will indicate that there may be something wrong with your electrical panel or wiring. I recommend having an experienced electrician carry out a detailed inspection.

Here are 13 warning signs you shouldn’t ignore that will signal that you should consider an electrical panel upgrade.

1. Electrical Panel is Original to the Home

Most licensed electricians agree that electrical panels have a lifespan of 25 to 40 years before they wear out or become obsolete and can no longer meet safety standards.

Upgrading your electrical panel is an important step in ensuring the safety of your home. If your electrical panel is original to the home, it likely does not meet today’s safety standards and could be a fire hazard.

Outdated electrical panels may contain aluminum wiring, which has a higher risk of poor connections and shorts that can cause fires. Older systems may not include ground fault circuit interrupters designed to protect against electrical shocks.

Additionally, outdated panels cannot often support modern electronic devices, meaning you won’t be able to power your home safely as technology evolves.

2. You Have an Uninsurable Electrical Panel

An uninsurable electrical panel is a sign that you need to upgrade it as soon as possible. Insurance companies have identified an uninsurable electrical panel as having a greater fire risk due to faulty components.

Such panels are unsafe and dangerous; they lack the necessary safety features, and your insurance policy won’t cover them if something goes wrong.

An example of uninsurable electrical panel is Federal Pacific and Zinsco. See our list of old breaker boxes you should replace. These panels can’t manage the electrical load of modern homes and are known to fail during an overcurrent which can cause an electrical fire.

Newer panels are designed to manage larger loads of electricity. They are usually equipped with circuit breakers that will shut off power in case of a surge or overload, preventing potentially catastrophic fires from happening.

Making sure your electrical panel is up-to-date and safe should be a top priority for any homeowner – dealing with an uninsurable panel isn’t worth the risk! A professional electrician can inspect the panel and advise you on the best action to ensure your family’s safety.

3. Electrical Panel has a Burning Smell

A burning smell emanating from an electrical panel can indicate that it is overheating, arcing, or experiencing an electrical malfunction that warrants an upgrade. This could be due to several things, such as faulty wiring, overloaded circuits, or outdated components.

A burning smell often indicates that the current electrical setup can no longer handle the amount of power being drawn and can lead to serious safety risks if not addressed promptly.

These risks can be avoided by upgrading the electrical panel as new components with higher capacity ratings can be installed, ensuring that all current and future electrical demands are met safely.

Additionally, homeowners can benefit from more reliable power distribution and improved energy efficiency by upgrading the panel, saving them money in the long run.

Ultimately, upgrading an aging electrical panel should always be considered when you detect a burning smell, as this could potentially prevent costly damage or even fires down the road.

4. You’re Adding or Upgrading Appliances

Upgrading appliances can be a great reason to upgrade an electrical panel. As older appliances are replaced with newer, higher-efficiency models, the overall load increase on the electrical panel in your home or business may exceed its current capacity.

An outdated electrical panel cannot handle the increased load and could lead to power failure and other safety risks. Upgrading an electrical panel is essential when replacing or adding new appliances that draw more electricity than the existing ones.

Additionally, having a more modern electrical panel ensures that all new appliances have ample power supply and run as efficiently as possible.

When installing larger-capacity electric appliances such as a clothes dryer, stove, wall oven, cooktop, dishwasher, hot tub, or air conditioner, it is important to make sure your electrical system is ready for the additional load by upgrading your current electrical panel.

5. Rusty Electrical Components

A rusted electric panel is never a good sign. Rust indicates contact with water inside the electrical panel; we all know electricity and water can be fatal.

The fact that there is rust means there has been prolonged moisture exposure. There may be different causes for 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. Corrosion in the electrical panel will eventually render the old breaker box unsafe and fail to operate correctly, leading to electrical faults or a house fire.

Corroded equipment needs replacing, but the reason causing it to rust also needs repair to prevent it from reoccurring. So, you may need to move it to an area with less moisture.

6. Circuit Breaker Tripping Frequently

You should not need to replace or upgrade an electrical panel simply because a breaker routinely trips. You should only need a circuit breaker panel replacement when scorching from arcing or rust, the damage prevents proper breaker connection, or the breaker panel is undersized or overloaded.

If your breakers trip frequently, this may signify a potential electrical problem with your wiring, or you may need a circuit breaker replacement.

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, have a licensed electrician examine the system to determine if you need an electrical panel replacement.

Here are some questions you should ask your local electrician:

  • 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? A burning smell or visible scorching indicates a problem with the circuit breaker, the panel, or both. Either way, the panel’s replacement is recommended if burning has occurred.
  • Double-tapped breakers, meaning there are two circuits connected to one 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 manufacturer allows it.
  • Is the breaker undersized for the circuit? An undersized breaker will routinely trip under certain usage loads. Running too many items at once can also overload and trip a breaker. Vacuums, for example, can cause a breaker to trip routinely because of the electrical demand.

7. Fuse Box or Undersized Electric Boxes

Electric boxes have a power rating that correlates with the size and how many breakers they can accommodate inside.

Some of the first home electrical fuse box contractors installed in residential houses had about 60 amps of power. Later this increased to 100 amps. Today this considered being insufficient. Now, most modern homes have 200 amp service.

If you live in an old home with a fuse box and add new appliances, it may be underpowered and blow a fuse or trip circuit breakers.

In a few cases, I recommend changing the undersized panel when:

  • You are doing major remodeling.
  • You are adding new electrical appliances that have high electrical consumption.
  • More people living in your home could overload the distribution box’s capacity.

8. 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 25 to 40 years, everything eventually requires replacement. Electrical surges can damage a service panel at any time.

Despite what the manufacturer says, mechanicals often breaks down prematurely. Manufacturer specifications are only estimates 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:

  • If the breaker is removed in the electrical panel at the breaker or on the bus bar.
  • Around the breakers. Are the connectors scorched?
  • Around the wires. Is the insulation around the wires melted?

If you notice anything that may concern you, have the panel inspected by a licensed electrician.

9. You’re Planning a Major Home Renovation

Undertaking a major home renovation is a great opportunity to upgrade the electrical panel and may be required under local building codes. As part of the renovation, an electrician can assess the electrical system and determine if an upgrade is necessary.

An upgraded electrical panel can provide improved safety, increased energy efficiency, and greater flexibility for adding new appliances or circuits. With an older home, especially one with existing aluminum wiring, it’s important to ensure that any changes to the electrical system are done correctly.

This is why investing in a quality electrical panel upgrade from a professional electrician is important when renovating. Not only will it provide peace of mind in knowing that your home’s wiring is up to code, but it will also help you get the most out of your remodeling project for years to come.

10. You Have Ungrounded Electrical 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 – I often find mismatched electrical breaker brands during home inspections. Incompatible breakers are incredibly unsafe and dangerous.
  • Double-tapped electrical breakersdouble tapped breakers can be another fire hazard waiting to happen. A good reason a specific breaker may trip more frequently than it should. Some breakers are designed for 1 or 2 poles (circuits) and can operate correctly. Breakers labeled 1 Pole should only have one circuit wire connection.
  • Messy wiring – This often refers to multiple wire connections made outside 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 tied into several other branch legs of older wiring outside of a junction box.

11. Consolidating Multiple Electric Subpanels

Some homes may also have one or more subpanels installed. There can be several reasons why your home may have subpanels:

  • In some cases, operating specific electrical circuits from a sub-panel may be more convenient. 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 sub-panel, 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 an electrical upgrade to a modern panel or adding a sub-panel.

You will likely need to replace or upgrade your main panel if you consolidate multiple subpanels. 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.

12. Dimming or Flickering Lights

Dimming or flickering lights are another good sign for an electrical panel upgrade.

Lights often flicker when an underpowered electrical panel is in high demand. Sometimes the reason for that can also be faulty wiring. In either case, you need an inspection to determine the cause of the lights flickering.

A faulty electrical box is not necessarily the case with modern LED lights. LED lights can flicker or dim when they have been on for a long time.

13. Using Several Power Strips or Extension Cords

Homeowners can often overlook power strips as a source of potential electrical hazards. Older homes typically have fewer outlets per circuit, and connecting more items to a power strip than it can handle might overload that circuit.

The electrical outlets in our home are on different electrical circuits. These 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 branch circuit.

Usually, the more demanding appliances may even need their dedicated circuit. Connecting multiple appliances to the same circuit via extension cords is dangerous and can damage electrical devices or appliances.

If you buy an older home that doesn’t have enough outlets, you may have to upgrade the electrical panel to add more electrical circuits and outlets.

Is it Worth it to Upgrade the Electrical Panel?

When determining whether should I upgrade my electrical panel, it will depend on the electrical panel’s current condition and how much work would be needed to upgrade it properly. If the electrical panel is outdated or not meeting current safety requirements, an upgrade should be considered to reduce potential risks to your family and property.

Suppose the current electrical panel does not have enough capacity to handle any planned additions to the home, such as an air conditioner or other appliance. In that case, an upgrade is also necessary. Ultimately, it’s important to assess the electrical panel’s overall condition and needs before deciding whether or not to upgrade it.

How Much Will it Cost to Upgrade an Electrical Panel?

The cost of upgrading an electrical panel will depend on a few factors, such as the electrical panel size, whether it needs to be moved, whether you need to rewire it, and any additional materials or labor that may be needed.

Generally, upgrading an electrical panel can cost $1,600 to $4,000. Most Americans will pay about $2,700 to upgrade an electrical panel.

We have an electrical panel cost calculator that can estimate the upgrade cost based on the state where you live.

Do I Need a Permit to Upgrade My Electrical Panel?

In most cases, yes. Upgrading an electrical panel is a major job requiring a certified electrician’s qualifications and expertise. Depending on your local regulations and laws, you may need to obtain a permit from an appropriate authority before upgrading your electrical panel. Contact your city or county building department for more information about what permits you may need to upgrade your electrical panel.

Should I Upgrade My Electrical Panel FAQs

Should I upgrade my electrical panel is not cut and dry answer. It’s complex, and you likely have a lot of questions. Here are some other questions you may have when considering should I upgrade my electrical panel.

Does upgrading your electrical panel increase house value?

Yes, upgrading your electrical panel may increase the value of your house. A modern and up-to-date electrical system may make the home more attractive to buyers and can help assure them that all of their appliances will work safely and efficiently. An updated electrical panel can give buyers peace of mind that they won’t have to undertake costly renovations or repairs in the near future.

How often should you upgrade your electrical panel?

There is no timetable for how often you should upgrade your electrical panel. You should update electrical panels during home remodeling or when your electrical needs change, such as adding large appliances or air conditioners.

How long will it take to upgrade an electrical panel?

The time it takes to upgrade an electrical panel depends on the upgrade’s complexity and size. It could take anywhere from a few hours to a few days, depending on the scope of work.

Will a new electrical panel save you money?

A new electrical panel upgrade is more about keeping your family and property safe rather than saving money. Generally, replacing a faulty or outdated electrical panel can save you money in energy efficiency and by avoiding costly repairs and replacements down the line. However, if your current panel is in good working order and up to code, it might not be worth replacing.

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Hubert Miles

I've been conducting professional home inspections since 2002. I'm a licensed Home Inspector, Certified Professional Inspector (CPI), Certified Master Inspector (CMI), and FHA 203k Consultant. I started HomeInspectionInsider.com to help people better understand the home inspection process and answer questions about homeownership and home maintenance.
DISCLAIMER: The content published on HomeInspectionInsider.com is not professional advice. You should consult with a licensed professional and check local permit requirements before starting any project.
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