The average home electric panel will last around 25 to 40 years, which sounds like a lot of time on paper, but it can leave some older homes with an electrical panel that is routinely operating beyond its safely realistic means. In a situation like this, you could be putting your electric panel and your home at increased risk of an electrical fire.

How Does An Electric Panel Work?

Most electric panels look like a semi-flat metal box in your basement or possibly in your attached garage. Each of the circuits inside your home has a breaker attached to it that controls the flow of power. In a significantly older home, you might even have a severely outdated fuse box.

Each breaker or fuse has an amperage rating that is typically labeled as 15 or 20 Amps. This also indicates the number of watts the circuit can deliver before failing. A 15 Amp circuit breaker can handle up to 1,800 watts and a 20 Amp circuit breaker can handle up to 2,400 watts.

When you run too much power through a circuit, the breaker will “Trip” or “Flip.” This usually moves the small switch to a neutral or off position. When this happens no more electricity can pass through the circuit. This prevents an electrical fire from starting in the walls, outlets, or light fixtures.

What Are The Signs Of An Electric Panel That Needs To Be Replaced

The following are some of the common signs of an electrical panel that needs replacing.

Flickering lights

This is often a sign that the circuit itself is being taxed and there are too many things drawing power. You often see this when running high-wattage appliances like a microwave or a space heater set too high.

Circuit breakers that trip easily

This is a sign that the wiring might be outdated, or there are too many appliances drawing power from the circuit. It can also indicate that the breaker itself is in distress.

A breaker or fuse that trips or burns out immediately after being reset

This is typically a sign that the breaker itself is worn out, or the connections to the circuit it supports have been compromised by time, overuse or corrosion.

Physical signs of an outdated electrical panel include things like:

Noticeable Rust

This can be a sign of excess moisture in the room where the electrical panel is housed. Though it can also be an indicator of metal fatigue that goes far beyond the exterior components you can see.

A persistent low buzzing sound

This is often a sign that the connections between the breaker and the circuit’s wiring are worn out, or that they are operating at over their capacity.

The faint and pervasive smell of burning plastic

Failing circuit breakers often generate excess heat, which can start to melt or even burn the nearby plastic components or damage the protective coating on nearby wires.

Electric shocks from outlets & fixtures

If you get electrical shocks when plugging something in to an outlet or changing a lightbulb in a light fixture it could be a sign that your electrical panel is having a problem. It could also be a sign that your wiring and fixtures are also updating, shorting out, or in distress.

Can An Outdated Electrical Panel Start A Fire?

It is estimated that around 10% of home fires in the United States are electrical fires or fires that started from some type of electrical source. This includes things like a short-circuited wire or failed outlet on an overloaded circuit breaker.

One of the best ways to avoid dangerous fires like these is with the proper upgrade and electrical wiring.

What If My Home Has Fuses?

Fuses are generally considered to be outdated and are an even higher risk for starting electrical fires in the home. Unless your home has some sort of heritage or century home requirements you should have a fuse box replaced as soon as possible with a modern electrical panel.

When Is A Good Time To Replace An Outdated Electrical Panel?

Anytime there is a sign of the panel being distressed or a fire risk, you need to contact a professional to have the panel repaired, rewired, or completely replaced. If your home electrical panel is more than 25 years old, but you haven’t seen any imminent warning signs of a problem, you might want to think about finding a good time to have your panel updated or replaced. This could include one of the following scenarios.

Upgrading Your Major Appliances

A lot of modern-day appliances have a more significant power draw than their older counterparts. If you are going to be updating your appliances in the kitchen or laundry room, it might also be the perfect time to have your electric panel upgraded or replaced. This will ensure that your new panel can operate safely and efficiently.

Home Remodeling

If you are thinking about a major remodel, then it can also be a good time to upgrade, update or replace your home’s electrical panel. This will ensure that the new panel will be able to meet the electrical demand of new appliances and devices.

Expanding Family

If you have a little one on the way, you are getting married or taking in members of your extended family, it might also be a very good time to upgrade or replace your electric panel. That way your home’s electrical system can meet everyone’s demands safely. Especially, if you will have people working from home or you have teenagers with expanding entertainment demands.

Can I Replace My Home’s Electrical Panel?

The process of upgrading or replacing a home electrical panel requires technical knowledge and special tools. Even if you are particularly handy and can rent the tools, you could be putting your home at increased risk of an electrical fire. It’s also worth noting that an electrical fire from a self-installation job could easily void your homeowners insurance.

Some states and municipalities require homeowners to apply for a permit to have electrical work done in their homes. This creates a record that your insurance provider may request if there is a fire. Many of these permits also trigger a professional inspection to make sure the installation is done according to current codes.

How Much Does It Cost To Replace An Electrical Panel?

The cost to replace an outdated electrical panel can range from $1,500 to $4,000. This doesn’t include the cost of inspection afterward. The final cost will also depend on the size and number of circuits as well as the wattage that your new circuit panel will be asked to handle. Though these costs are a mere pittance compared to an electrical fire that can severely damage your home.