Last week I replaced an electrical panel and meter socket for a family and I’d like to share some details so you know what to expect if you need to do a similar project.
Generally, people don’t just decide to replace their electrical service panel. You never walk outside in the late afternoon and say, “Gee honey, that panel looks old. I think I should spend a couple grand and have it replaced.” People just don’t operate that way.
What normally triggers a new panel is when you want to add a new circuit, maybe a new air conditioner, or a breaker keeps tripping because it’s trying to tell you something. If you are blowing fuses, your house is really trying to tell you something.
In this case, the house was built in the 1950s or ’60s, it only had a few breakers, and the owner was adding a new HVAC system. By the way, HVAC stands for Heating, Ventilation, and Air Conditioning and it’s the building industry term for what we used to call a “cooler” in Southern California. Nowadays a cooler is something you take to the beach. A “Thermos” was what we used to call the thing we took to the beach but I guess that brand has lost some ground in the crowded temperature-controlled food and beverage container business.
Adding a new HVAC system to an old house is like the story of the old lady who swallowed the fly. If you recall, she had to swallow a spider to catch the fly and then she had to swallow a bird to catch the spider, and so on and so on until
she swallowed a horse, which killed her, of course. If this doesn’t sound familiar, ask a kid in kindergarten; they know all about what could happen when you eat a fly, half a petting zoo, and then a horse. The point is, one thing leads to another. There are always ripples. In this case, the panel was too loaded up to accommodate the new HVAC system and the panel, breakers, and some wiring had to be replaced.
Before you go swapping out an electrical panel or upgrading to a larger service, you have to let the power company know. They have certain limits within their system and if people went around adding new demands on the system the whole darn system could crash. It’s like filling your swimming pool with your garden hose; yes, you can do it, but it’s better to let the water company know that you are going to need an extra 20,000 gallons, just in case 50 other people want to fill their pools, too. Sometimes a million gallons of water isn’t available and it’s the same with electricity.
So, once the power company says it’s OK, you need to get a permit from the local building department. Once you get the permit, you can replace the panel. Replacing the panel is pretty straightforward.
The electrician (me in this case) organizes everything they can so that power will be off for the shortest possible period. The main power is cut where it comes in from the power company (overhead or underground), and “out with the old, in with the new.”
After making all the connections, the power is carefully re-energized with a temporary connection. After the building department inspection, the power company comes out to make the permanent connection that will last for many years.
However, in an old house (and sometimes in new ones) you’ll usually find old wires or some work that wasn’t done right or some other surprises and they never seem to be good surprises. Like I said, “ripples.” Sometimes you chase wires to the nearest junction boxes to replace them. Sometimes you have to crawl under the house or into an attic to make sure things are fixed before you have an inspection.
In addition to all that, there are new upgrades that are triggered by replacing a panel or adding a new HVAC. In some cases, you need to upgrade the grounding and bonding wires to the new panel. Most of these are code requirements and a really good reason to get a permit and have an inspection, since they help keep you and your family from being zapped. And codes are changing all the time. I also needed to add a new service outlet near the new HVAC. And finally, the new HVAC circuits, which started the whole process in the first place.
The average person just wants a new HVAC. They really don’t want to know what, where, why, etc. They want to know how much and how soon. But when it comes to old houses, keep that old fly-swallowing lady in mind.
Have a home improvement or real estate question or comment? Send it to Matt Le Vesque at P.O. Box 1527, Highland, CA 92346 or firstname.lastname@example.org and he will consider it for his column. Please include your full name and city of residence. Le Vesque is a general engineering/building contractor and Realtor in Redlands.