It’s Electric! What You Need to Know about Electrical Panels

by Cassandra McCullersApril 16, 2018

A home’s electrical panel is the kind of thing that most people don’t typically think about, that is until they really have to, and then suddenly it becomes one of the most important things in your home! At the very least, be certain that your electrical system is a part of your initial home inspection when buying a new property. Faulty electrical wiring isn’t just extremely expensive to fix but it may even pose a significant fire risk.
A fuse box with blue, yellow, and brown wires attached to a white wall in a home.
Before we dive into the nuts and bolts of your electrical panel, there are some incredibly important safety tips to keep in mind to avoid a fatal mistake:

  • If you feel uncomfortable or lack the experience of dealing with a certain electrical project, call a licensed electrician.
  • Remember that even shutting down the main breaker will only shut down part of the service panel. The terminal points for the power line coming into the house will remain live and their high voltages can be fatal.
  • Never insert any metal tools like a knife or screwdriver into the panel.
  • Do not attempt to remove the cover of the breaker as this will expose powerful high voltage components.
  • Keep an eye out for evidence of scorching or rust as these can be signs of a serious problem with electrical arcing or a water leak in the area.

Location is Key

Your electrical panel is probably located in your garage, basement, utility room, laundry room, or possibly even inside a closet. It’s very important that everyone in your family knows where it is and to verify that it has been labeled correctly, as you may need to get to it quickly to shut the power off to the whole house. If you have kids, take the time to familiarize them with the electrical panel as well so that they know how to safely reset a circuit. Be sure that the area around the panel is clear and not being used for storage so that you can access it quickly. A good idea is to also keep a flashlight hanging near the panel for use during a power outage.
Interior of apartment with carpet and electric box (fuse box) with wires during remodeling renovation.
Older homes built before 1960 may have a fuse box that serves the same purpose, with a series of threaded sockets protecting each circuit. Unlike today’s re-settable circuit breakers, old style fuses have to be completely replaced after they trip. Using the wrong type of fuse can pose a very serious fire risk so it’s very important to keep the correct types on hand and to utilize a licensed electrician when repairs are needed. Today’s modern units are significantly safer but can still pose a risk if not handled properly.

Labeling

One of the most valuable things you can do is to take the time to make sure that your panel is accurately and clearly labeled, tracing each circuit to the specific area of the house that it serves. Have a friend or family member help and call out to each other to figure out which circuit feeds each outlet or appliance. You can then use a pen to label each switch or pick up one of those handy packs of labeled magnets to affix to each circuit.

Circuit Breakers

If you suddenly lose power in just one room or on one outlet, you’ve almost certainly tripped that circuit breaker. Circuit breakers are designed to be tripped to prevent a more powerful overload that might do permanent damage to your system. If a circuit breaker trips, unplug everything on that circuit and reset. To reset, find that specific switch in your electrical panel, push it to “off,” then push it back to “on.” You may also hear a click as the circuit resets. If the circuit trips again with nothing plugged in, there’s likely an electrical short somewhere along the line. A licensed electrician will be needed to identify the problem and safely repair it. If the circuit stays active, plug things in one at a time and test them to make sure that power is flowing to the outlet.

Overloading

If you are finding that one or more circuit breaker get tripped on a regular basis, check to see how much demand is being placed on that circuit. Appliances sold in the U.S. are required to have labels that report their average amperage, you can add these numbers up to determine how much strain you are putting on any one circuit at a time. Your larger high wattage appliances like refrigerators and washing machines typically have a dedicated 30 to 50 amp circuit that handles only their needs. Most of the other household circuits are 15 to 20 amps and should be labeled as such in your electrical panel. After assessing your amp demand, you may find that you need to change what draws from where, such as plugging your microwave in a different outlet from your coffee maker to avoid an overload when both are used at the same time. If the circuit continues to be frequently tripped, call an electrician to rule out an underlying problem with the wiring.

Maintenance

Many homeowners will assume that your home’s electrical system requires no maintenance and as long as nothing breaks nothing needs to be done. While that might work for some homes some of the time, a little preventative maintenance can dramatically improve the lifespan of your electrical system and reduce the likelihood of failures at inopportune times. The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers recommends that homes be inspected by a licensed electrician once every three years.

A man in a blue electrician uniform working house repair installation with yellow wires in hand.

This may also be combined with routine maintenance on your heating and air conditioning systems to keep all of your systems operating at peak efficiency to save time and money. Things that you can do on your own include walking around twice a year and checking that connections aren’t loose or dirty and that moisture isn’t evident anywhere near plugs or switches.

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About The Author
Cassandra McCullers
Cassandra is a writer with a background in engineering, enjoying the rural life in the Virginian Appalachians. When not working, she enjoys writing fiction, running a blog, camping, working in the garden, and tending to her flock of chickens! In addition to writing, she has a passion for art and graphic design. Her interests include disaster preparedness, homesteading, landscaping, cooking with natural ingredients, history, and animal husbandry.

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