When to Upgrade an Electrical Panel Part 1

When to Upgrade an Electrical Panel Part 1

Do you have a question about whether to upgrade your main or other electrical panel?

In this blog I will give you my view on this question based on over 30 years of experience as an electrician and over 20 years as an electrical contractor. For over 15 years I have often taken pictures when doing a survey for a panel upgrade. I will take these pictures back to office to do planning, engineering and pricing. So that you will have some idea of what I am talking about I will include a few of these pictures as a visual aid. 

This is my first blog, I’ll do my best, and hope the information is of use to you.

Age of Panel

One of the first consideration in changing out or upgrading an electrical panel is how old is it.

This is something most owners are aware of -how old is the panel. In addition to common sense that a main panel will not last forever, there have been times when I have upgraded a main   panel because the insurance company was raising the rates due to the age of the panel.

Getting information from many sources the consensus seems to be that electrical panels are expected to last 25 to 40 years. 

There are many factors other than just how old a panel is. I am planning on writing a short series from real life experience, with pictures, then try to come to a useful conclusion. Hope this will be helpful in deciding to upgrade your electrical panel.

Not Enough Space

Very often in addition to being over 25 years old a main electric panel will not have any spare space for more circuit breakers. 

This means that you could not add a new circuit. No room for growth or expansion. 

There are many reasons you would want to add a circuit to a home. It is a very common type of electrical project that electricians and electrical contractor are called to do.

  One reason to upgrade an electrical panel is that there is not enough space to add a circuit.

So if you are thinking of doing a kitchen remodel or bathroom remodel adding a garage plug or adding any appliance that requires a dedicated circuit, such as an above the oven microwave- you will need space in the panel.

The main electrical panel in the second picture is common in Clearwater Florida and Pinellas County. It does not allow any room for adding a circuit. Upgrading the panel would be necessary for your electrician or electrical contractor to run a new circuit. 

Skinny Existing Breakers   

Old Main Panel Many Skinny Breakers
Old Main Panel Many Skinny Breakers

 As a subset of “Not Enough Space” some panels have existing circuit breakers which are “skinny” meaning that 2 circuit breakers fit in the space of one. This means it is not possible to put in new, code required breakers, such as Arc Fault breakers, (to be covered in a separate blog.)

There are many situations these days were an electrician needs to put in a special safety circuit breaker. These modern breakers require a full space. 

 Breakers that take up half the space put twice as much strain, such as heat on the busbar of the panel. This leads to accelerated corrosion and deterioration, shortening the life of panel and increasing fire hazards and possible failure of the breakers and panel. 

Damage, Corrosion, Burning, Failing Panel

Often an electrician or electrical contractor is called because the panel is failing. This can manifest is different ways the owner may notice. Such as the air conditioner, water heater, lights or other electrical appliance in the house stop working for no known reason- the breaker does not trip. There of course can be other manifestations or no noticeable manifestation until catastrophic failure. 

Burnt Main Wires

Main Electrical Panel Burnt Wires
Main Electrical Panel Main Wires Burnt

 One problem that is easy to see as soon as the panel cover is opened is burnt main wires. This is often worse than it looks. I have seen where the main wires were burnt, the panel was change out and when I tried to remove the wires from the main panel the breaker fell apart- this happened on at least three different panels. 

 When the wires overheat to the point of burning off the insulation the main breaker has also been subjected to way too much heat. This also means that the busbar that the main breaker is attached is likely damaged by heat.

Chances are if the main wires are burnt like this, it is time to call an electrician, electrical contractor and have you panel upgraded. 

Corrosion

Old Main Panel Corroded
Corrosion On Main Breaker Lugs

Possibly the next easiest problem to see with the panel cover off is corrosion.

 Though this is easy to see it may not be as obvious that this very possibly indicates larger problems. Meaning that if there is corrosion you can see, there is likely more corrosion you cannot see. As with many of these categories, they overlap. The age of this panel would also tend to indicate it is time to upgrade. 

Rust on Main Panel Cover

Rust is a common type of corrosion. I am including a picture of panels with their covers on. This to show rust on the cover. Alone this does not necessarily mean that the panel is bad. That is more determined by what is inside the cover. But what you are likely to see is the outside of the cover. If you do see rust on the outside of your main panel cover, I would recommend calling an electrician, electrical contractor to have them inspect behind the cover. If similar rust or other corrosion exist on the inside parts, it is definitely time for a main panel upgrade. 

Burnt Busbar

Electrical Panel Burnt Busbar
Main Panel With Burnt Busbar

Another clear sign that a panel is failing is burning on a busbar (the part that a breaker attaches to). In the picture I am hoping it is clear to see the burnt metal part (busbar).  

This panel might have lasted a little longer, not quite working right. But that is a risk. As you will see in the next section you don’t want to wait for a full failure to call your electrician or electrical contractor for a panel upgrade, change out. 

Complete Panel Failure

Burnt Main Electrical Panel
Complete Panel Failure

The last part I am planning to go over in the “Damage, Corrosion, Burning, Failing Panel” section is complete panel failure. In other words the panel has completely failed, smoke pouring out, Fire Department was or should have been involved. You really want to address the problems to a panel well before they get to this point. But yes if your main panel caught on fire, you would want to change out your panel.

That is about all I have for part 1 of this blog. In a future blog I am planning to continue with part 2 of “When to Upgrade an Electrical Panel” with topics such as, Panels with Sub-panels, Fuse Panels, Other problems, and various specific types or brands of panels that have known safety or fire hazard issues. Then I hope to end with useful conclusion. 

Charles Montgomery

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