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The Reliable

Electrical Panels: How They Work, Safety, Maintenance and More

As the heart of your home's electrical system, it's important to properly take care of your electrical panel and understand signs of electrical overload to help keep you and your family safe.

In this blog, we'll go over:

  • What an electrical panel is

  • How electrical panels are sized

  • Electrical panel safety

  • When to upgrade your electrical panel

Having problems with your electrical panel? Call Reliable Heating & Air at (770) 594-9969 or schedule an appointment.

Our expert electricians will inspect your electrical panel to diagnose any problems and let you know whether it needs to be repaired or replaced. They'll also recommend the best option for upgrading your breaker box if your electrical system needs it.

What is an electrical panel?

The electrical panel, also called a breaker box or breaker panel, is what connects your home's electrical system to the outside wires that hook up to the electrical grid.

Most electrical panels are made of gray metal with a door that latches closed to protect the breakers.

Locating your electrical panel

Your electrical panel is usually located somewhere out of the way in your home. Most Atlanta homes have them embedded in the wall in places like:

  • Laundry rooms

  • Basements

  • Garages

  • Storage rooms

If you have an older home, your panel may be located on an outside wall on the back or side of your house.

Electrical panel components

Your electrical panel has the following components:

  • Electrical service line: Main wire providing electricity from the utility company that connects to the electrical panel.

  • Main circuit breaker: Large switch that shuts off electricity to all other circuits in the breaker box.

  • Circuit breakers: Removable 15- or 20-amp switches that can shut off electricity to individual circuits (loops of hot and neutral wires). You can manually shut breakers off, but they'll also shut off automatically in case of electrical overload for safety purposes. Circuit breakers can be either:

    • Single-pole breakers: These thin, single-switch breakers supply 120 volts and 15-20 amps of electricity. Single-pole breakers are usually used for general electrical outlets that are used for things like TVs, lamps, computers, hair styling tools, power tools, etc.

    • Double-pole breakers: These double-switch breakers supply 240 volts and 20-60 amps of electricity. Double-pole breakers connect to appliances that require 240-volt outlets (air conditioners, electric dryers, electric water heaters, electric ranges/stoves, etc.)

  • Wires: Various wires (usually made of copper) that run inside your home and control different electrical circuits.

  • Ground wire: Wire that connects the panel to the ground so any additional voltage runs into the earth instead of throughout your electrical system, where it can harm people.

How electrical panels are sized

Electrical panels come in different sizes, depending on the size of your home and its electrical load. Breaker panels are measured in amperes (amps) and come in the following sizes:

  • 100 amps (minimum required by the National Electrical Code): Fine for smaller and older homes that don't run many appliances or rely mainly on gas.

  • 150 amps: Good for smaller homes that run a few appliances or rely partially on gas.

  • 200 amps: Homes around 2,000 sq. ft. with moderate electrical needs. Most modern Atlanta homes have 200 amps.

  • 400 amps: Larger homes with heavy electrical needs or outbuildings (workshop, garage, etc.) will require 400 amps.

It's important to accurately calculate your home's electrical load (with some extra load for add-ons) to prevent your circuit breaker box from being overloaded, which can cause serious safety problems. That's why we always recommend having a professional electrician inspect your panel and calculate the right electrical load.

Electrical panel safety

One of the most important elements of home electrical safety is to turn off the main breaker or breakers for individual circuits before doing any kind of electrical work (inspecting wires, adding outlets, installing light fixtures, etc.).

Another important safety element is to prevent electrical overload, which happens when you're trying to draw more electricity than a circuit can provide. You can use the following formula to determine whether you're overloading any circuits:

Watts = Amps x Volts

This means:

  • 15-amp, 120-volt circuits can provide 1,800 watts

  • 20-amp, 120-volt circuits can provide 2,400 watts

From there, you can use Georgia Power's home appliance amp reference chart to determine how many appliances or fixtures you have on a single circuit, so you know how many watts you're running on that circuit.

If you're close to maxing out your panel's capacity, it may be time to upgrade it.

Signs an electrical panel needs upgrading

An electrical panel needs to be upgraded if it can no longer handle the electrical load your home requires.

You essentially have 2 options for upgrading your electrical panel:

  1. Install a subpanel to offload some of the electrical capacity from the main breaker panel.

  2. Replace the entire electrical panel with a larger one.

When to install a subpanel

If your electrical panel is in good condition, you can probably get away with installing a subpanel when:

  • Circuit breakers frequently trip. Circuit breakers are a safety mechanism that prevent your electrical panel from becoming overloaded. When breakers frequently trip, that's a sign that your electrical panel is exceeding its capacity. By diverting the electrical load to the subpanel, your main breaker box won't trip breakers as often.

  • Lights dim or flicker. If your light fixtures dim or flicker when another appliance (like the microwave or HVAC system) kicks on, that's a sign that they're on the same circuit, so electricity is taken away from the lights when the appliance turns on. By adding more circuits with a subpanel, you can put appliances on their own circuit to prevent dimming or flickering lights.

When to replace your electrical panel

You likely need to replace your electrical panel if:

  • The breaker panel is buzzing/sizzling or smells burnt. A faint buzzing/humming sound from your electrical panel can be normal but if it gets louder, that means your panel is overloaded and a breaker didn't trip when it was supposed to. A burning smell also indicates overload, but can mean faulty wiring. Both situations pose a fire risk, so you should call an electrician immediately to inspect your panel.

  • You're remodeling your home or yard. Building additions onto your home and certain upgrades can mean a higher electrical load that requires a panel upgrade. This can include things like installing new appliances or replacing old ones, converting appliances to electric, installing hot tubs or pools, adding landscape lighting, and so on. Replacing your panel with a larger one is the best option for long-term safety.

  • You have a fuse box. Homes built before 1965 were built with 60-amp fuse boxes that worked fine for smaller homes that didn't use much electricity, but can't support the electrical load most homes require today (with HVAC systems, washers and dryers, etc.).

  • You have a Federal Pacific or Zinsco brand breaker box. These panel brands were installed in many homes built between the 1950s and 1970s, but over time were found to fail more often than other brands, risking both fires and electrical shock. If you have one of these panel brands, we recommend replacing your breaker box—due to the age of the panel alone if you're not experiencing problems yet.

If you notice other signs of electrical problems, we recommend calling a professional to inspect your system because the problem could be more than an old or undersized electrical panel.

Need help with your electrical panel? Call Reliable Heating & Air.

Call Reliable Heating & Air at (770) 594-9969 or schedule an appointment for a free in-home estimate.

Since 1978, we've been offering the most reliable electrical panel repairs and replacements to our Atlanta customers. Our electricians will inspect your breaker box to make sure it can handle your home's electrical needs and doesn't have any problems that could put your safety at risk.

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