JD’s Blog | Be Safe! 3 Easy Steps to Upgrade Your Service Panel
If you have an older circuit breaker in or (on) your home, then it’s quite possible that the panel doesn’t have enough amperage to properly power all of the fixtures and modern appliances in your home today. Older panels only can be rated at only 60-100 amps, depending on the size of the house and whether or not there’s natural gas. More modern homes usually have a 200 amp or more rated service panel. Are you in need of an upgrade? Read on to see what an upgrade entails! Note that this blog addresses the southwestern states’ types of electrical service panels and meter boxes, most often the same box.
Some older panels aren’t suitable to handle the demands of a modern home and run the risk of a circuit becoming overloaded. To eliminate an overload situation, another circuit wire must be added from the panel to split the overloaded circuit into two circuits. Unfortunately, this can create the need for more space in your older, filled-up panel. A great solution is to upgrade your service panel to larger amperage rating with up to 42 breaker spaces. However, we recommend that you hire the help of a licensed electrician , plus you’ll need the power company to get involved as well– the best course of action would be as follows:
1. Obtaining a Permit
Prior to upgrading your circuit panel, you would need to obtain an electrical permit to begin the work. You or your electrician will also need to contact your local utility company to make sure the incoming power lines are large enough to support a 200 amp upgrade and that the new box can be installed in the same location as the old box. The same location is not always allowed due to newer code restrictions. Once you do get a permit and are finished with the upgrade, an electrical inspection will be required to ensure everything has been done accordingly. The power company will not replace or reconnect the power lines to your home without passage of the electrical inspection. It’s the city inspector who notifies the power company that all is good! They will then dispatch a crew to upgrade your incoming power lines, or simply reconnect the existing wires. This is why it’s so important to hire the right electrician. You don’t want to be stuck without electricity overnight or longer due to failure of an inspection! In San Diego, as well as many other western cities, the entire breaker panel is located outside as part of the meter box. In fact, they are a single unit called an “all-in-one” or “meter / panel combo box”. Some of the western homes also have “sub-panels” somewhere inside as well, usually in larger homes and it’s usually a much less amperage rated panel than the main box outside.
2. Opening the Meter Box / Panel
Your licensed electrician will open the meter / panel box outside. The number of circuit wires (called branch circuits) will be counted & numbered. Numbering is recommended, but not absolutely necessary to later label the new circuit breakers after the upgrade. Many electricians simply label the breakers at the end of the upgrade by plugging in a noise device that they can hear from outside. Furthermore, opening the box will reveal the utility company’s meter section for the size of incoming lines from the transformer. For an overhead service, it’s pretty apparent. You can see them coming in off the pole. For an underground fed service, it’s another story and can be a much more involved process. An underground supplied service upgrade will be discussed in a later blog.
3. New Meter / Panel Box Installation
Your licensed electrician will begin by acquiring your brand new 200 amp service or “meter / breaker panel”. First, the power company will have to cut the power off. Once the electricity is off, the electrician will proceed to remove all the connections from the old box. Then he’ll remove the entire box from the wall. For an overhead service, a new, larger steel conduit (called riser) will be installed from the top of the meter section through the roof. 200 amp rated copper wires will be installed in the riser for the utility to connect to, connected in the meter section at the bottom end. Flashing will be installed under the shingles around the riser to prevent water leakage. Two (2) eight foot long grounding rods must be driven into the earth near the panel, six feet apart. They are attached to the panel with a grounding wire. A second grounding wire must be connected to the nearest water pipe. The electrician will then fasten the new 200 amp meter box / service panel into (or onto) the wall. The old branch circuits will all be brought into the new box, terminated, and placed on new circuit breakers. The new box will contain a 200 amp MAIN breaker. Furthermore, all new 200 amp services are now “solar ready”. They are specially designed to accept solar requirements for the future. After inspection, the power company will return to reconnect the power lines, all in a single day. NOTE: Panels in the eastern to central USA seldom use combination meter / panel boxes. Their meter box is outdoors and the sub-panel is indoors. For them, a 200 amp upgrade requires that everything be replaced with larger everything, including the size of the wire between the meter box and the new sub-panel. Depending on how far apart they are, that could get very expensive. But here in the west, it’s all in one location with a possible smaller sub-panel located inside. Newly added circuits, installed by my company, will always come from the new box outside. Depending on what the sub-panel is being used for, I prefer to eliminate them altogether. I extend all the branch circuits from the sub-panel out to the 200 amp box outside. Why? Often, a sub-panel is operating most or all of a house, and is only a 30-60 amp rated box, fed by a 30-60 amp circuit breaker outside. That pretty much defeats the purpose of upgrading the incoming power to the house if the house is still operating from a 30-60 amp sub-panel inside! I have seen numerous 200 amp service upgrades where the electrician left the house running off an existing 40 amp sub-panel, while there sits a new 200 amp box outside, completely empty, save for one lone 40 amp breaker feeding the sub-panel. It’s a complete waste of untapped power, thereby defeating the purpose of the entire upgrade! Unless the branch circuits are moved outside, the upgraded box has done absolutely nothing for the electrical efficiency of the house at all! The indoor panel is still only 40 amps and its branch circuit breakers are still old and obsolete! A second solution would be to also upgrade the indoor sub-panel to 200 amps. However, this would require installing a 200 amp wire to the sub-panel as I already pointed out, and as I pointed out, could get expensive. Let’s all be safe out there!