You probably know well enough that if your hairdryer dies suddenly along with your bathroom lights, you're likely dealing with a tripped breaker in the electrical panel. But if you're anything like the average Canadian, that probably exhausts your knowledge of that otherwise mysterious metal box.
As the hub of everything powered in your house, it's worth knowing how your electrical panel works. We'll try to shed some of the mystery by exploring the basics of what an electrical panel box does for your home.
You've probably heard the terms "fuse box" and "breaker panel" used interchangeably, but there are some significant differences between the two.
Both a fuse box and a breaker panel perform the same function — protecting circuits from being overloaded by cutting out the connection. The difference is that a fuse box, as the name would suggest, uses fuses that blow out when tripped. Unlike a circuit breaker, which you can reset by flipping a switch, you have to replace blown fuses with a new one each time it goes out.
Fuse boxes were the pre-1960s solution for circuit protection, but they had plenty of faults that warranted their replacement by the newer breaker panels. Having to replace a fuse every time was a chore, and if you didn't have a new one, then you were left without power.
As an extra downside, it was easy to accidentally use fuses that were the wrong size and could handle a greater amount of current. That created an enormous fire hazard because large fuses wouldn't blow out when they should and circuits would become overloaded.
The breaker panel is the current standard for Canadian homes, the gray metal box full of switches that protect the various circuits throughout the house. Here are some of the common components you may find when you open the electrical panel cover.
The main breaker is the large black switch that sits outside of the array of smaller switches on the electrical panel.
In Canada, a house is normally supplied with 100 amps but some larger homes have breakers handling up to 200 amps. The main switch is what sends all of that power to the individual circuits. When you turn it off, you turn off the power to your entire house.
The most common circuit is the single-pole breaker, one switch that powers common household electronics that run off of 120V outlets.
The single-pole breaker controls either a 15 or 20 amp circuit, but as part of the safety precaution, the breaker will only supply up to 80% of the allowable amount. In other words, a 15 amp circuit breaker will supply up to 12 amps before being tripped.
A single switch will control around 8-10 outlets or light fixtures, enough to cover an entire bedroom and then some. On your electrical panel, you'll probably see additional slots without any switches, which are available if you want to add a new circuit for more outlets.
Resetting a Tripped Breaker
Unlike a fuse, a tripped breaker simply flicks to a slightly offset position from the others. To turn the circuit's power back on, flip the switch to the "off" position and then to the "on" position.
You'll also see double-pole breakers, which look like two single switches linked together to operate as one. These breakers power 240V outlets used by major appliances like your dryer and range.
The ratings on a double-pole breaker can be anywhere from 15 amps to 50 amps for larger fixtures like HVAC systems. Unlike a single-pole breaker, a double-pole breaker will only connect to a single receptacle for an appliance.
To understand why there is a double-pole breaker and a single-pole breaker, you should know that behind the switches are two hot bus bars running side-by-side that supply 120V a piece. A single-pole breaker clips onto one bus bar to deliver 120V to its circuit.
In a double-pole breaker, which has two switches tied together, one switch connects to one bus bar and the other switch connects to the other bus bar, supplying 240V to the circuit.
GFCI and AFCI Breakers
GFCI and AFCI breakers are single-pole variations that offer added protection. A ground fault circuit interrupter, which you may see in individual outlets, protects all the receptacles on a circuit when it's part of the electrical panel.
GFCI is a safety measure to stop the flow of electricity when the current going to the ground is excessive, as would happen when you shock yourself in an outlet. These are common in areas with high amounts of moisture and, subsequently, the risk of shocks, such as bathrooms, kitchens, and basements.
An Arc Fault Circuit Interrupter or AFCI protects against accidental arcing in a circuit, which presents a fire hazard. Arcs often happen due to damaged wiring or loose terminal connections.
An AFCI monitors the circuit for signs of arcing, shutting down the circuit to prevent sparking and fires. As part of the 2015 Canadian Electric Code, AFCIs are a requirement for branch circuits.
Electrical Panel Cover
Even though you shouldn't work on the electrical side yourself, there are still opportunities to transform your electrical panel cover. It doesn't often get much consideration, but changing the look of your electrical panel box can make it part of your design scheme.
Electrical Panel Cover Ideas
If your electrical panel is in plain sight, it can be a real eyesore. But you can quickly turn it into part of the decor with a simple hinged door cover.
Create a shallow frame that can fit around the panel. Then, add a hinged door of your choice, preferably one for the style of the room. For example, you can use a louvred door for a cottage style or a barn door opening for a modern farmhouse look.
How to Hide Electrical Panel
If a door isn't cutting it, you may want to make the electrical panel disappear entirely. It's common for homeowners to hide an electrical panel in a finished basement to keep it out of sight from the kids or to make the new room look better.
How to Hide Electrical Panel in Basement
If you want to hide your electrical panel, you can add any ordinary wall ornament as long as it covers the whole thing. You can hang a picture, mirror, tapestry, or anything that fits the style.
It's crucial to hang something lightweight and easy to move because you still need to have access to the electrical panel after all. Don't use nails to hold anything either because you risk damaging the wiring running to the panel behind the wall.
Can You Paint Exterior Electrical Panels?
A simple coat of paint may be all you need to beautify your electrical panel, and fortunately, there's nothing written into the CEC that specifically doesn't allow it. Make sure to tape around the box before painting. Use a spray-on primer followed up by your favourite coloured spray paint, and you'll have your panel box looking like new!
Electrical Panel Label
The electrical panel label is your best friend when you need to locate a particular circuit. This diagram is attached to the inside of the door panel, showing a map of what each switch controls. For example, you may see labels for "master bedroom" or "dryer".
If you update your electrical panel with new circuits, you need to update your label as well. When there is no label, you may have to labour through turning off each breaker and seeing what it's connected to so that you can make a new label.
The panel label is helpful when you need to shut down a circuit when it needs work, like when you have to change an outlet. If you're not sure if a breaker will shut off the right outlet, you can use a voltage meter to test the outlet or shut off the main breaker for the whole house.
Upgrading Electrical Panel
If you're dealing with outdated technology or have changing needs, you may need to upgrade your electrical panel. Having a well-kept panel protects your home's electrical wiring from damage, and it's essential for staying safe from house fires. Common reasons for an upgrade include:
- New circuitry your panel can't handle
- An outdated fuse box
- Corrosion on the box and around breakers
Circuit breakers can last over 20 years, so if you have an updated electrical panel then you probably don't need a replacement. But even if it's in working condition, you may want to update to newer smart technology that's starting to hit the market.
Keep in mind that you should never attempt to upgrade or replace your panel yourself. Although you can shut off the main power going to the various circuits throughout your house, the electric feed from the utility company stays on. To prevent the risk of injury, it is always recommended to work with a licensed professional.
Cost to Upgrade Electrical Panel
Updating your electrical panel may be necessary to maintain coverage against the electrical current in your homeowner's policy. A cutting-edge smart electrical panel may run over $6000, but if you need a simple upgrade, you can often get one for under $2000. The most common upgrades include updating to 100A or 200A panels to handle more power.
An upgrade for a 100A panel is usually between $500-$1000, while a 200A upgrade will be slightly more expensive. If you need a complete panel replacement, the costs will go up quite a bit.
Cost to Replace Electrical Panel
A complete electrical panel replacement is a more intensive process. A 100A upgrade can run between $1700-$2000, and a 200A upgrade can cost over $2500.
Have Another Look at Your Electrical Panel
You likely never realized all of the potential, both good and bad, that comes with your electrical panel. If you don't remember the last time you checked it out, it could be worth your time to see how you can make your home safer and more enjoyable with some simple updates.
We want to protect your home, whether that means giving out on-point tips and advice or finding exceptional insurance deals. If your homeowner's insurance is like your electrical panel and in need of an upgrade, get started on a quote today.