The electrical panel is the center of your home electrical system. Every circuit in your house starts here. Other terms commonly used for an electrical panel are: electrical box, wiring panel, breaker box and even fuse box. This is where the breakers are that help keep your family and home safe. The utility connects here but it is also where their responsibility ends. They are responsible for the electrical system up to the electrical panel and you are responsible for it and everything past it. But what does it do?
What You Should Expect of Your Electrical Panel
While your electrical panel is a convenient way to turn off power so you can manage minor repairs and additions, it’s main function is as a safety device. That’s right, safety first! It does have a secondary function too. It also provides the home with the ability to breakup the amount of electricity provided by the utility into more manageable and practical amounts.
Let’s talk about power distribution for a bit (real exciting, I know!). In Saskatchewan, SaskPower provides each residential property the ability to draw 200A at 240V. An easy way to visualize this is that amps are like water and voltage is like the pressure that pushes it through your pipes. The pressure stays constant but the amount of water you use varies. Fill a pot or fill a bath tub, big difference. Same logic follows then between having a light on and running the dryer. Voltage stays the same and the current varies. Demand and house size decide on the service size.
The service on your house is what dictates how much of that supplied current you will get to use. Residential services can be 60A, 70A, 100A, 125A or 200A. The standard for new construction is 100A minimum. 70A and 125A are odd sizes and not used anymore. Houses built before the 70’s will often have a 60A service. Houses built after the 80’s will have 100A services.
The electrical panel is where we can take the supplied current from the utility and allocate how much of it we want to go where we want it to go. Your range will get 40A @ 240V, your dryer will get 30A @ 240V, your standard light and plug circuits will get 15A @ 120V and so on. Because expansion wasn’t a concern, older houses have smaller panels and smaller services. Basement developments were very uncommon, our electrical demands were significantly less and smaller panels are cheaper. As a result of these panel sizes, older homes often are in need of at least a panel replacement (12/24 circuits upgraded to 32/64, at least) if not an entire service replacement (60A to 100A, almost double the available current).
As mentioned earlier, the primary function of an electrical panel is safety. Circuit breakers are designed to protect in 2 different ways. The first way is a thermal overload. As the circuit draws more current, it warms up. If it draws too much current, it gets hot, which in turn, trips out the breaker. The second method of protection is a magnetic trip. This feature protects against short circuits. If a neutral or ground wire and a hot wire touch without a load in between, an incredibly dangerous amount of current is drawn in an incredibly short period of time. If there wasn’t a safety to prevent this, a fire would undoubtedly start (if not a giant fireball explosion). This is the most important safety mechanism in a circuit breaker.
Each circuit is tied into a circuit breaker that is rated for the load it protects. For example, a range will be tied into a 2 pole 40A breaker (2 pole just means 240V). If that range tries to draw more than the allotted 40A, the breaker will trip, thus protecting the range and possibly the house. Overdrawn circuits get hot quickly and can start a fire. While electrocution is an obvious risk with electricity, the most common danger is actually fire.
Breakers VS Fuses
Circuit breakers are designed to fail in the open position. The easiest way to visualize this is to think about a circle. It is a continuous line with no breaks. If you open the circle, then it isn’t continuous anymore. A circuit is the same. A switch that is “open” is off. A “closed” switch is on.
Another safety convenience is that you can just reset a tripped breaker. Glass screw-in fuses protected older houses. Once a fuse is blown, they are replaced. What made these fuses dangerous wasn’t the fuse itself, but how homeowners maintained them. If there was a troublesome circuit that blew the fuse frequently, it wasn’t uncommon for homeowners to just put bigger fuses in (instead of a 15A fuse, they would use a 25A fuse) or worse, put a penny in under the fuse. It would never blow then. This was extremely hard on the circuits and could cause a fire.
How Do I Know If I Need an Electrical Panel Upgrade?
A common misconception is that a new electrical panel will solve nuisance trips or keep your television from going fuzzy when you run the vacuum. This just isn’t true. Most electrical nuisances in your home are a direct result of how it was wired when it was built. As a result, without major expense, it just has to be a quirk of the house.
If you are planning on doing any kind of renovation or addition and your panel is currently full, it would be a very good idea to call a qualified, local electrician. They will easily be able to advise you on the direction you should take. Sub panels are a good fix if you only need a few extra circuits. Where the problem lies is in the service size. A 60A service just doesn’t have enough capability to safely add very much more to it. In fact, SaskPower wants service sizes to be 100A minimum. Most real estate agents will advise on upgrading (if your selling) or asking for the upgrade to be done (if you are buying). The new standard is 100A.
If you’d like to discuss more or have a wiring situation you would like a professional electrician to look at – give me a call at 306-551-5254!