Give Your Home An Electrifying Upgrade

What’s the capacity of your service panel?

Electrical panels are one of those things that just work until they don’t. Most homeowners know how to reset a circuit breaker that trips, but few people besides electricians give the industrial grey box in the garage or laundry room much thought until the lights go out.

Next time you’re near your service panel, take a look inside. There will be one large breaker separate from the others. It should be marked as 80 Amp or higher. This is the maximum capacity of your entire home’s electrical system, in amps.

Why do amps even matter?

Amps are a measure of how much electricity can flow through a circuit. Your home is divided into multiple circuits, which all meet at the service panel.

Both the individual circuits and the master service panel have a limit to how much electricity can flow through them before they overheat.

Circuit breakers in the main panel cut power to individual circuits if they start to draw more current than is safe.

But most older breaker panels can’t handle anywhere close to the sum of all your home circuits. So on an older breaker panel, when you plug in a hair dryer, a coffee pot, then somebody goes to make toast, it’s lights out. Too much power has been drawn from the whole system, even if no single circuit was overloaded. The culprit is a low capacity service panel.

Advantages of a 200 Amp Service Panel

Safety

An upgraded service panel can let your home electrical system use more power safely. Even if you aren’t tripping the breakers right now, a 100 amp panel in a modern home is running far too close to capacity to be safe for long term use.
As a rule, no electrical circuit should sustain loads of more than 80% the maximum capacity. The extra amperage capacity is a safety buffer electrical engineers build into home circuits so that a sudden power spike doesn’t dangerously overload wires and outlets.

This means that in a 100 amp system, you shouldn’t draw more than 80 amps. Out of this capacity, 15 to 20 amps will be used for home lighting. Another 20 amps will be used for an air conditioner or heater.

Before you’ve even turned a radio on, that’s halfway to your home’s safe capacity. Add a few computers , smartphone chargers, a television, and youre evening power draw will be easily over the safe limits of the system.

What happens then? A best case scenario is a breaker trips when the system hits the absolute limits of the system’s safe working capacity. In an older system, it’s also possible that an electrical fire could be sparked by an overloaded outlet or light fixture.

More Circuits

Even if your current system has a total capacity to meet your home’s needs, the individual circuits are often limited. Smaller service panels have less room for circuits, and those circuits are usually rated for lower amp draw than larger panels.

This can come in handy in a couple of ways.

By dividing your house into more circuits with less things attached, you can run more gadgets on the same electrical capacity.

This can really come in handy if you ever use power tools. Having your workshop split across two circuits can let you run larger tools, and if you ever work on projects with a friend or your kids, it can let you run multiple shop tools at once without overloading any circuits.

Room to Grow

If you’re considering any major home upgrades like a backyard pool  or a basement bar, upgrading to a 200 amp service panel will give your power to spare. It’s also a good starting point if you’re planning to upgrade your office or home theater, which can be major power sinks even with modern equipment.

Upgrade your service, not just your panel!

After your service panel is upgraded, there’s a step you can take to get even higher performance from your home electric system.

Just by upgrading to a 200 amp panel, you’ll be able to take full advantage of your 100 amp service without losing 20% to safety limits.

If you want even more power, most homes can be switched to higher amp service. This can give you a safe working capacity of 160 amps in your home, with a 40 amp reserve for high-draw situations like Christmas lights or an electric snowblower.

How much power do you need?

200 Amps is the minimum recommended service panel size in full size modern homes. Some situations will require significantly more. Larger homes or homes with a machine shop or car lift in the garage can require as many as 400 amps. It’s best to ask your electrician for advice on this, but this formula can give you a ballpark idea of what you need:

  1. Multiply your living space in square feet by 3. This is your lighting and electrical outlet needs (in watts)
  2. Add 1500 watts to that for each circuit that mainly runs appliances, like in laundry rooms and kitchens.
  3. Add the real wattage of any dedicated circuits, like air condtioners and pool pumps.
  4. Set aside the first 10,000 watts. Find 40% of what’s reamining, and add that to 10,000. This is how many watts your home will draw.
  5. Divide your calculated watts by 230. The quotient is how many amps your service panel must provide to safely meet your energy needs.

Now, remember what we said about 80%  being the maximum safe capacity. If you calculate a number higher than your current service panel, an upgrade is in order. But if that number is greater than 80% of your current panel’s maximum capacity, an upgrade will still be needed for safety purposes.

How can I upgrade my service panel DIY?

Step 1. DON’T EVEN THINK ABOUT IT!

Step 2. Call a professional electrician.

Changing an electrical service panel isn’t like changing a fuse or wiring a new ceiling fan. It’s extremely dangerous. The electrician will be working with amperages that can be lethal. There is no room for error here. A service panel that’s wired wrong can start an electrical fire, and a loose live wire could electrocute a homeowner.

If your attempt to do the work yourself without a licensed electrician and proper permits, your insurance is not likely to cover any future claims related to the service panel. You could also be held liable for property damages or injuries if your DIY work causes a fire.

Find a Local Electrician

The best option for upgrading your home’s service panel is to hire a local electrician.

If you’re in Philadelphia or South Jersey, consider giving Prime Electrical Services a call. With more than 20 years of experience as residential electricians, the team at Prime can provide quick, professional service. Call 888-471-9083 to make an appointment.