Is Your Circuit Breaker Panel Doing It’s Job?

Located outside on the wall of your home is your main service panel. Somewhere inside your home – basement, garage or laundry room, you may have an additional sub panel. Inside these metal boxes, often gray, is a row or two of switches that direct and control the electricity as it flows into your house. They do their job so efficiently that most people don’t think about them, but they potentially are life and property savers.

The circuit breakers are designed to stop the flow of electricity when too much current is trying to push through the wires or when they detect damage to a wire or its insulation. The electrical current is meant to remain in the wires. If we didn’t have breakers, or if they’re not working properly, the current can spark and cause a shock or start a fire.

The greatest hazard is a breaker system that is too small to carry the load needed for your house. Despite energy-efficient appliances, we are using more electricity than ever because we own so many more electric-powered devices. Breaker panels in older homes may not be equipped to handle today’s loads. The old fuse boxes definitely are no longer safe, but even recently built homes may need a power upgrade.

You can determine the load your circuit panel was designed to handle. The number should appear on the large main switch separate from and above or below your circuit breakers. In older homes, you may see numbers such as 60A (amps) or 100A. The minimum we recommend is 125A, with 200A (and maybe higher, depending on your usage) as closer to ideal.

If you see a number less than 125A, we urge you to talk to a qualified electrical contractor about upgrading. If your panel is designed to handle 125A or higher, that still may not be enough for your needs.

Here are some signs your circuit panel may be outdated or overtaxed:

  • Your circuit breakers trip frequently.
  • Your lights flicker or dim, particularly when you begin operating an appliance, such as a vacuum cleaner.
  • Appliances run at less than full power.
  • You experience slight shocks when touching appliances.
  • You see sparking at power outlets.
  • Outlets near water sources do not have GFCI (ground fault circuit interrupters) in them.
  • You need surge protectors for your computers.
  • You are installing equipment or new appliances that draw large amounts of electricity, such as air conditioners or an electric range.    
  • You are using extension cords because you don’t have enough outlets for your demands.
  • You’re still running on fuses. While fuses may work, they can be a fire hazard and they don’t meet today’s needs. They are not legal in new construction, and some insurance companies won’t insure homes with them.
  • Your breaker panel is simply old. If you know it’s older than 25 to 40 years, it probably isn’t safely handling your current requirements.

Check the breaker box, too, to see if it contains rust or corrosion, crackles or feels warm to the touch. Panels can deteriorate over time from exposure. Also important, if your home is old, make sure your box was not manufactured by Zinsco or Federal Pacific Electric (FPE). These were shown to be defective and are no longer made. They should be replaced.

Replacing or upgrading your breaker panel is not a job for a do-it-yourselfer. The dissemination of power along your home’s complex network of wires is a task that requires an experienced, licensed contractor. Otherwise, the risk of damage to your home and its occupants is too great.

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