If your home has an older electrical panel with fuses, safety can be an issue. Even some brands of newer electrical panels equipped with circuit breakers can pose safety hazards and should be upgraded.
Another reason to upgrade your electric panel is if it's too small. To say it's "too small" means it doesn't supply enough power -- a clue is that fuses are frequently blowing or breakers are frequently flipping off. Or possibly, a contractor has told you that your home or business needs more power for a new air conditioner or other installation and needs an electrical panel upgrade.
What is an electrical panel?
The power from the electric utility company flows through large wires to your home and into the panel, a large metal box with fuses or circuit breakers inside. If you think of your home electrical system as having branches and twigs like a tree, your electrical panel is the tree trunk. From the panel, the current flows into major electrical branches which dwindle into smaller and smaller branches and twigs, serving every part of your home.
An electrical panel may also be called a:
- Breaker box
- Circuit breaker panel or box
- Power breaker
- Fuse box or board
- Electrical box or service
- Panel board
- Residential service
- Service panel
- Main panel
- Distribution board
These all mean the same thing.
How do fuses and breakers work?
If too much power were to flow into the wires in your home, they could melt and start a fire. If you were to accidentally touch a damaged overloaded wire, you could receive an electrical shock.
To prevent more electrical flow than the wires are designed for, your electrical service panel is supposed to detect the problem and stop the flow immediately. In older electrical panels, a fuse blows. In newer ones, a breaker flips off. Both responses break the circuit and cut the power to wires. Properly functioning breakers (or fuses) are vital for your family's safety and the safety of your home.
How do I know if my electrical panel is too small and should be upgraded?
When you add central air or a large new refrigerator, your home isn't necessarily set up for the additional power required. If breakers are flipping or fuses are blowing often, it likely means that your electrical system needs enlargement, including possibly a panel upgrade. Here are common situations which call for enlarging an electrical system:
- A move to a house with an old undersized service
- Adding central air conditioning
- Adding an oven, hot tub, spa, power equipment in your garage, etc.
- A room addition
- A kitchen renovation
Older electrical panels have fuses rather than circuit breakers. In the days when fuse boxes were installed, homes needed considerably less power. Many fuse boxes were designed to handle 30-60 amps of power whereas the appliances and electronics in today's homes often require 100-200 amps of power or more.
Fuse boxes may become overloaded, blowing fuses and shutting down your appliances. This can be an inconvenience, and there's a temptation to buy larger fuses so that they won't blow so often. But, oversized fuses can allow overloading and overheating of wires. Occasionally, someone will have even put a penny in the opening to replace a blown fuse. This can really create a fire hazard as a penny can't break the circuit and stop overloading of wires.
A little known danger of fuse boxes is that homeowners can accidentally stick their fingers into the fuse opening, possibly while changing the fuse, and be electrocuted. The safe solution is to upgrade with circuit breakers.
Circuit Breaker Brands
Specific brands, especially those installed in earlier decades, have been found to deteriorate with age and pose a safety hazard. You can go to the free website, Inspectopedia.com, and search on your brand to check its safety.
If you have any questions about whether the size of your electrical panel is sufficient or if the panel is safe, ask a qualified electrician to check it out.
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