Ask Angi: Do I need to upgrade my electrical panel?

By Paul F. P. Pogue
Tribune News Service

Think of your electrical panel as the heart of your home’s power system. Usually, it’s pumping away in a garage, basement or utility room, where you don’t think about it unless you need to flip a circuit breaker.

But depending on its age, your panel might need a transplant — meaning, a full replacement. Here are some things to consider about upgrading your electrical panel.

Power levels

An electrical panel, sometimes referred to as a breaker box, has an upper limit of amperages it can handle. Modern homes usually carry 200-amp circuits. If you have an older home, you may have a 100-amp box. This was more than enough before widespread central air conditioning, but it can fall short of today’s power needs — especially if your household enjoys a cool haven on a scorching summer day.

Upgrading to a 200-amp panel costs between $750 and $2,000.

Drop-in sinks sit on top of the kitchen counter.

Signs of breaker box problems

If your home doesn’t have enough power, you’ll usually spot signs of protest from your electrical system. If you frequently need to flip breakers, either you’re drawing too much from one circuit, or you need to upgrade. Similarly, if you don’t have enough outlets around the house for your needs, that’s a sign that the current system isn’t robust enough to handle everything.

You might also need to replace your panel if you notice that lights dim or flicker when you turn on an appliance.

Most panels last up to 40 years, so it might be time to update if your panel dates to the 1970s or earlier. If your panel is frequently warm or you smell burning, definitely seek pro help. That’s a potential sign of dangerous overload.

You may also want to consult an electrician about your panel if you’re looking to install new appliances. It may come as no surprise that big appliances — washer/dryers, dishwashers, freezers and so forth — tend to draw a lot of power from a bustling home.

Some of these problems can be solved by adding a new circuit to the panel, which takes less time and costs less money. A pro can tell you what’s best for your needs.

It’s possible to upgrade a panel to a larger size, such as 400 amps, but unless you have a very large home or particular needs, this is probably more power than you’ll need.

Moving a panel

It’s also possible to move an electrical panel, though that bumps up the cost by a few thousand dollars. The location of a panel balances several factors. You want to place it somewhere convenient to reach when you need to flip a breaker, but it also needs to stay out of areas that get a lot of foot traffic.

So, bedrooms, closets and living areas are out of the question. Plus, it needs to be visible to meet fire codes. Most of the time, you’ll want to place your breaker box in a garage, basement or utility room — where it can be out of sight, and (mostly) out of mind.

Replacing an electrical panel is a major task requiring specific expertise, so it’s best to leave this important job to an experienced and licensed pro.

Tweet your home care questions with #AskAngi and we’ll try to answer them in a future column.