Your home’s circuit breaker performs two vital roles. First, it distributes the power coming into your home into circuits that provide electricity everywhere you need it. Next, it protects these circuits from overloads with circuit breakers that interrupt the flow when there’s danger. In this article we’ll examine what circuit breaker panels do, plus when and why you may want to replace or upgrade them.
A Guide to Your Home’s Circuit Breaker Panel
One of the most crucial parts of your home’s electrical system is one you probably don’t think about very often. That part is the breaker panel, also known as the breaker box or electric service panel. It’s crucial because all the electricity that your home uses flows through this unobtrusive piece of hardware. Properly configured, you’ll probably give it very little thought. But if it isn’t up to the job, you may find its failings very inconvenient, or even find that the safety of your home is compromised.
In this article, we’ll examine what the breaker panel is, how it works, and more. And we’ll look at some of the reasons you may want to have your breaker panel checked by qualified electricians or maybe even have your panel replaced or upgraded. Let’s start by learning the basics of breaker panels.
What is a Breaker Panel?
Your breaker panel is the connection between the power grid outside of your home and the wiring inside. It is the central distribution point that ensures that all the electrical outlets, appliances, lights, heating, and more get the necessary power. Power comes into the breaker panel from the outside through what is known as a service drop, either from buried power lines or power poles. From there the breaker panel splits the power off to branch circuits that power your home.
The term “breaker panel” comes from the circuit breakers that control power to each of the branch circuits leading out of the panel. The circuit breakers perform an important safety function by shutting off power to branch circuits when they detect an overload. That’s why you may have experienced a circuit breaker tripping (shutting off) when you’ve plugged in one too many appliances in your kitchen.
If you’re old enough or live in a much older home, you may be familiar with the older version of this, the fuse box. Fuses performed the same function in protecting your branch circuits from overloads, but a blown fuse has to be replaced to reestablish power to the circuit, while a circuit breaker can be reset just by throwing a switch.
The most important stat to consider about a breaker panel is the amperage capacity. Amperage, or amps, is a measure of the amount of electricity used. As homes have grown bigger and use more electrical appliances, the amperage capacity of the home’s breaker panels has increased. 200-amp circuit breaker panels are now common, but you many find breaker panels or fuse boxes with ratings as low as 60 amps in homes built before the mid-1960s.
Where Will I Find My Breaker Panel?
If you’ve never had to use your breaker panel, you may wonder where it’s located. There are a few common locations.
- The garage is a common location, usually placed against an outside facing wall where the power feeds in via the service drop.
- If you have buried power line, it’s common to find the breaker panel in the basement.
- Other locations that aren’t as common for single-family homes, but that may be more likely in a townhouse or duplex are in lower level hallways, a kitchen pantry, or a utility closet.
- A less common location that you may find with some older homes is on an exterior wall.
Let’s Look Inside Your Breaker Panel
Open the door of your breaker panel and let’s take a tour.
Main circuit breaker
You’ll notice a single switch at the top of the panel. This is the main breaker. Set this to OFF, and you’ll shut off all the power to your home.
The first thing you’ll probably notice once you open the door to your breaker panel is two rows of numbered switches. These are your circuit breakers — each controls a single circuit in your home. The breakers are normally set to ON, which allows power to flow through the circuit. If the switch is set to OFF power will not enter the circuit.
On the inside of the door panel will be a paper card with information corresponding to the numbers. For example, the card may read “1 – Kitchen Outlets.” Flip the corresponding switch from ON to OFF and you’ll cut the power to the outlets in your kitchen. Unfortunately, it’s not uncommon for the card to be poorly written or hard to read! It’s worth taking the time for you and another person to examine what all the switches control and make sure the card is accurate and legible so you’ll know how to shut the power down to circuits if necessary, for example, if you are replacing an outlet or wall switch.
Single-pole and double-pole breakers
There are two types of circuit breakers in your breaker panel.
- Single-pole breakers are single switches, usually with an amperage rating of 15 or 20 amps. They’re common for most household circuits of 120 volts.
- Double-pole breakers are double switches (two switches connected). These have higher amperage ratings that are made to handle 240 volts. These will be connected to devices like furnaces, water heaters, air-conditioning, EV charging stations, and other circuits requiring high voltage.
In some cases, you may have a second breaker panel next to the main box. This is usually because additions have been made to the home’s electrical system and additional breaker capacity was required. A sub-panel is also common when a backup generator is on the home’s electrical circuit.
Breaker Panel Size
If you’re reading up on breaker panels and breaker panel upgrades, you may see a discussion of the breaker panel’s rating. The most common ratings you’ll see discussed are 100-amp or 200-amp. These ratings are a reflection of the electrical capacity of the panel.
- 100-amp breaker panels are only suitable for small homes that don’t use electricity for heating or central air conditioning. With a 100-amp panel you can provide power to lights, receptacles, and appliances, but not much else.
- 200-amp breaker panels are the standard for most new construction and are suitable for average electrical needs. If your home is particularly large or requires more electricity, you may need to upgrade to something larger.
- 250-amp breaker panels are used for larger homes with extensive electrical needs, particularly if electricity is used for home heating. If you’re upgrading the electrical system of your current home to accommodate an addition, a workshop, or an outbuilding that requires a subpanel, you may also need to upgrade the main panel to a 250-amp model or larger.
Signs That Your Current Breaker Panel Isn’t Up to the Task
If you’re like most people, you’ve experienced a circuit breaker tripping. Time to unplug the blender, go reset the breaker, and get on with life. That’s an example of your breaker panel doing its job, and if it’s only an occasional problem, you don’t have anything to worry about. But there are other times when this isn’t OK, and some other signals that your breaker panel may be getting overloaded or not operating properly. Let’s take a look at some of these.
Frequent breaker tripping
The occasional trip of a circuit breaker shouldn’t be a cause for alarm. But if one or more of your home’s circuit breakers have to be reset regularly you do have a problem. In some cases that can be fixed easily by replacing the problem breaker by a higher amperage model. But it’s wise to check with an electrician to make sure that this is a viable option for you.
You still have a fuse box
If your home is old enough that you still have a fuse box, it’s high time to get it replaced. Not only are circuit breakers safer and easier to use, but it will also be a good time to have a comprehensive survey of your electrical system done by a qualified electrical contractor.
Black spots or scorched areas on the panel or wall outlets
If you’ve observed this, get things checked out right away. It’s likely you have a short circuit or failing wiring in your breaker panel box. Electrical issues are a major cause of home fires, so please don’t allow yourself to be a victim.
Burning smells near the panel
As discussed above, this may be a sign of faulty wiring in your breaker panel. Get it checked out immediately.
Wiring that appears melted
The job of your circuit breakers is to ensure that excess current doesn’t enter the circuits in your home. If wiring is overheating and melting, your circuit breakers aren’t doing the job. Get them checked out right away.
Hissing sounds or a hot breaker panel
An electrical system in proper working order should work quietly and without excess heat. Don’t delay if you detect these danger signs.
Flickering or dimming lights
These are a sign that an uneven flow of power is coming through your breaker panel. This can happen when the wiring in the panel or some of the individual circuit breakers are in poor shape.
In all of these cases, your first step should be to contact qualified, well-trained electricians and have them take a look at the problem right away.
When is a Breaker Panel Upgrade a Good Idea?
Besides the issue of safety brought on by an old or defective breaker panel, there are some great reasons for upgrading your breaker panel. Let’s examine some of the most common.
Your current panel is outdated or can’t handle your current needs
We’ve touched on this issue before. If your home still has a fuse box, or if you find that you can’t handle your home’s electrical needs, you should upgrade. In the case of fuse boxes, age alone is a smart reason to upgrade. If you find that you’re constantly overloading circuits and using a lot of power strips and extension cords, your system seriously needs an upgrade, starting with the breaker panel.
Adding a home generator and using it safely will require some new wiring and the addition of a sub-panel to your existing panel. This sub-panel will separate the power coming into your home from the generator from the power grid, ensuring the safe operation of the generator when necessary.
You’ve decided to add an addition to your home? Congratulations! But don’t forget that along with your increased square footage you’ll also be consuming more electricity. Be sure to have your existing breaker panel evaluated and see if you’ll need to resize it to add more electrical capacity or room for more circuit breakers for the new wiring.
If you’ve added a home office you may have increased your electrical demands significantly. It’s a smart idea to contact an electrician or electrical contractor to see if you need to replace or improve your existing panel.
Adding an in-law suite to your home may be a wonderful solution for your family’s needs. But if you planning on adding an independent heating and cooling system to the suite with the use of a multi-split system, you’ll want to be sure that your existing breaker panel can handle the increased power needs of it and any other electrical additions.
EV Charging Station
Electricity might very well be the future of transportation. But you’ll need to charge that new EV, and the fastest way to do it at home is with the use of a Level 2 charger that uses a 240-volt circuit. That could be a big addition to your home’s electrical system, particularly if you’re starting with a smaller circuit breaker panel.
Always Play it Safe
Being a do-it-yourselfer can be very satisfying. But it’s smart to know your limits. If you decide you want to replace or upgrade your breaker panel consider very carefully whether it’s something that you can do yourself.
Home electrical fires and deaths are an unfortunate fact. If you’re not completely certain you know what you’re doing when installing electrical systems it’s smart to leave the work to the experts. At Team Enoch, all of our technicians are highly trained, and we’re used to taking on projects ranging in scale from minor residential improvements and repairs to major commercial projects.
If you want to evaluate your home’s circuit breaker panel for current safety, or if you want to upgrade our system to handle current or future demands, contact us to set up an appointment. We’ll be in touch fast, and estimates are always free.
A Small Panel With a Big Job
Your little-noticed breaker panel plays a big role in your home. But if you find you’re noticing it more than you have in the past, it could be a sign of trouble. If your system isn’t keeping up with your demands, or you’re noticing unusual activity, don’t hesitate to contact an electrical professional.
And if you’re planning on doing some home improvements that involve your electrical system, the first place to check should be your breaker panel. If it doesn’t have the necessary capacity, you could run into trouble and further expense down the road. Start with your breaker panel when you’re upgrading and you’re making a wise move!
THIS POST WAS WRITTEN BY: TEAM ENOCH
(817) 888-8880 | mail[at]teamenoch.com
Team Enoch provides electrical, plumbing, roofing and HVAC services to residential and commercial customers in the Dallas / Fort Worth Metro with an emphasis on value (service price, quality).
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