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Editor’s note: This article was originally published in March 2019 and has been updated for accuracy and comprehensiveness.
Your home’s breaker box (also called a fuse box, service panel, or main electrical panel) is its nerve center. The electricity that powers the appliances and gadgets you use on a daily basis comes from circuits linked to the electrical panel.
When your panel works the way it’s supposed to, everything is great. But as you’ve probably already guessed, when things go wrong with your electrical panel, they go really wrong.
In this article, you’ll learn:
- The telltale signs of electrical panel issues
- When to call an electrician for help
- The number one best way to prevent electrical problems at home
How Do Electrical Panels Work?
Let’s start with the basics.
The electrical panel is the control center for the electricity that enters your house from the power lines at the street. But that electricity doesn’t just arrive at your house out of thin air. Rather, electricity is generated at your local power plant. Power plants make electricity at very high voltage levels. In fact, these levels are more than high enough to kill someone.
Such high voltage is needed to transmit power to locations far from the power plant. But nothing in your house requires tens of thousands of volts to function. For that reason, there are several points where the voltage is gradually reduced before it gets to your house.
By the time electricity reaches the power lines outside your house, the voltage is still high—approximately 7,200 volts. If you have standard utility poles, you’ll see a large cylinder attached to the top of a pole either directly outside or near your house. (If you have buried utility lines, you’ll see metal boxes through your neighborhood instead.)
That cylinder or box is called a transformer. It reduces the voltage of the electricity carried by the power lines. The two wires that bring electricity from the transformer to your house each carry 120 volts. This equals 240 volts total.
Your home’s electrical panel distributes power to the circuits in your house. The circuit breakers that you see when you open the door to the electrical panel are safety devices. These breakers will shut down power to a circuit in the event of a problem.
Common Electrical Problems in Service Panels
Whether you own your home or rent, being able to recognize problems with your electrical panel is an important skill. That being said, electricity is dangerous.
Never try to repair or troubleshoot electrical problems yourself aside from resetting a breaker or replacing a fuse. The potential for you to be hurt or killed is way too high.
Here are the most common electrical panel problems you might encounter:
If your home is new or has been extensively remodeled within the last 10 to 15 years, it probably has a 200-amp electrical panel. A 200-amp panel is large enough to accommodate the power needs of the average family home.
Smaller homes and those built before the 1990s likely have a 100-amp service panel. Depending on your individual power use, this might be enough. The average family today typically needs more than 100 amps.
Electrical panels that provide only 100 amps of power are at the highest risk of overcrowding. Not sure what an overcrowded panel looks like? Check for these signs:
- The panel looks messy. There are no blank spots for circuits to be added in the future. Wires are crossed and tangled rather than neatly fastened inside the panel.
- You spot double-tapped breakers. With a couple of exceptions, circuit breakers should have one wire connected to them. Two wires connected to the same breaker create a double-tapped breaker. This is a code violation. These wire connections are more likely to loosen over time, which can cause electrical arcs and fires.
2. Insufficient capacity
Electrical panels are rated to handle a certain amount of electricity. When the panel is too small for the house, you’ll notice problems like power surges and flickering lights.
Here are some more signs of a too-small panel:
- The panel and/or the surrounding wall is warm to the touch. Overloaded wires and circuits put out quite a bit of energy in the form of heat. A warm or hot panel is a sign that the power load on the panel is too great.
- Circuit breakers trip often. A circuit breaker that trips every once in a while usually isn’t cause for serious concern. When the same breaker trips consistently or trips immediately after being reset, call an electrician.
Electricity and water don’t mix. Have an electrician investigate any signs of rust, water damage, or corrosion in the main service panel. Even if your electrical panel isn’t near a water source, remember that humidity can cause corrosion.
When it comes to your electrical panel, always err on the side of being overly cautious. An experienced electrician can tell you whether your panel has safety issues.
How to Avoid Electrical Problems at Home
Preventing problems is always better (and often less expensive) than making major repairs. And when it comes to your home’s electrical system, even small problems can have devastating consequences.
What’s the best way to prevent an electrical disaster? Have a licensed electrician inspect your home regularly. Most electricians recommend an electrical inspection every five years. If you renovate or add on to your home, you’ll need an inspection then, too.
If everything in your house seems to be working fine, you might wonder why you’d need an electrical safety inspection. And you certainly wouldn’t be alone.
But here’s the thing: You can’t see the wiring in your house. It’s behind the walls, floors, and ceilings. Because of this, lots of problems can go unnoticed until it’s too late. Experienced electricians can find safety issues and fix them before a disaster happens.
Here’s what you can expect your electrician to check during a typical electrical inspection:
Outside the house
- Electrical meter
- Electrical cables entering the house
- Grounding system
Inside the house
- Electrical panel
- GFCI and AFCI outlets and/or panel devices
- Surge protection, both on the panel and individual appliances
- Wiring problems, such as improper use of extension cords or power strips
- Safety devices, such as smoke and carbon monoxide detectors
Most electricians can also give you tips on saving energy. These tips can help you lower your monthly power bill (and your carbon footprint).
Electrical Inspection for Peace of Mind
Between computers, device chargers of all kinds, and appliances, we use a lot of electricity. Your electrical panel needs to be able to keep up with demand without becoming a safety hazard.
If you have concerns about your electrical service panel, call a licensed, experienced electrician. Circuit breaker troubleshooting is incredibly dangerous if you don’t know what you’re doing. The pros will inspect the rest of your house to make sure there aren’t other issues hiding behind walls.
Make electrical system checkups part of your home maintenance schedule. The peace of mind you’ll have is priceless.