Electrical Service Panel Basics Homeowners Should Know

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Electrical service panels are an essential part of your home's electrical wiring system. If you've ever wondered what is inside a service panel, how it works, and why it's so important, then this article is for you. It explains the basics of your home's electrical service panel so that you can better understand how to use it and stay safe. Read on!

What Is an Electrical Service Panel?

The electric service panel is the connection between internal wires coming from the street and the internal electrical wires of the home's electrical system. The service panel is the central distribution point that connects the service wire to the exit wires.

Electrical Service Panel
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These exit wires are called branch circuits or branch wire circuits. In single-family residences, the owner of the building owns the electric service panel and not the electric company.

In that case, the owner is responsible for all the electric service panel issues. As a homeowner, you might not realize how much damage can be done if this service isn't installed or maintained properly.

Where to Find Electrical Service Panel

The home electrical panel is generally kept away from the main household activities. These locations include the garage, hallway leading to the garage, basement, and closet. You can also find your electrical panel by locating the service drop and service head on your roof.

Usually, the service panel should be directly below, in one of the home's stories. If the power lines are buried, the line will start on the street and connect to the home from the front or side of the house.

Older houses using fuse boxes are placed in the outer part of the house, especially to a section of the wall or in a particular structure constructed to house the distribution box. In most modern households, the electrical service panel can be found near the electrical meter, which measures the electricity consumed every month.

Types of Electrical Service Panel Basics

Main Electrical Service Panel

The main electrical service panel is the connection point for all the electric lines entering the house. This is also where copper cables connect to fuses or circuit breakers that protect wiring in your home's walls and circuits. This allows current to flow safely through fixtures, appliances, outlets, and light switches.

Main Electrical Service Panel
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With the main electrical service panel, you can shut off the incoming utility power and receive incoming power from the utility company and distribute it to each branch circuit that supply various fixtures, outlets, appliances, and other devices throughout the house.

Electrical Service Panels are generally referred to as either main or sub-panels, depending on the circuit breaker size. The service panel that supplies electricity to your entire home is the main electrical service panel or main breaker box. Your home's main electrical service panel should be installed by a trained professional because it must meet specific building codes and requirements. Professionals also know how to calculate electric load capacity for homes, hence ensuring safety.

Sub Panel

A sub-panel is a power distribution center with circuit breakers and incoming electrical service. This type of panel feeds electricity into a smaller area, such as an outbuilding or detached garage. A sub-panel can only be fed by a single incoming circuit from the closest main electrical service panel.

In other words, it cannot be fed by the main electrical service panel you have in your home. A new sub-panel must be installed and wired to the closest main electrical service panel if additional circuits are needed.

Circuit Breaker Panels and Fuse Boxes

When a circuit draws more current than it's designed to handle, the wiring gets hot and poses a fire hazard. Excessive current in a circuit is prevented by overcurrent safety devices, which disconnects incoming power to individual circuits when necessary.

In most contemporary systems, these are called circuit breakers. A circuit breaker is a switch that may shut off manually or trip automatically by an electric system overload. Fuse boxes are designed to prevent circuit overload. Circuit breakers and fuses are the weakest links in each electrical circuit, designed to fail safely.

It's important to know what to be aware of when ensuring the proper function of these electrical safety devices in your home.

Service Distribution Panel and Branch Circuits

A service panel is a major component in an electricity supply system. It distributes power from the utility service drop to the individual branch circuits that serve your electrical appliances and light fixtures. All branch circuits originate at the main electrical service panel or the service distribution panel.

The panels are equipped with some mechanical device for disconnecting the home's electrical circuits from the incoming power if the electric system fails. An overload can cause failure due to excessive heat or even catching fire. Although the main breaker is used to turn all branch circuits on and off at the same time, there are times only one branch circuit to a certain area of the home needs attention.

The most important function of the service panel is safety, keeping you and your family members safe from electrical shock. Any electrical repair in your home involves turning off the power to the circuit to be worked on, and this is only done at the service distribution panel. Depending on when your home was built, your service distribution panel may be either a circuit breaker panel or a fuse box.

What Can Go Wrong with Panels and Breakers

Corrosion

If a branch circuit breaker fails to trip when current flow exceeds safe levels, it could be the result of electrical corrosion. Corrosion occurs when electricity flows through a metal conductor such as copper or aluminum and slowly erodes that metal away.

Corrosion can lead to loss of material and weaken the connection between wires, damaging the breakers and creating a fire hazard. Electrical service panels should be inspected regularly for signs of corrosion.

Overloaded Circuits or Panels

If a circuit is overloaded with too many appliances, the wiring will get hot and may even melt the insulation on the wire. This can damage or destroy a breaker. Most household circuits are rated either 15-amps or 20-amps. A 15-amp circuit breaker can only handle around 12-amps, while a 20-amps circuit breaker can handle about 16 amps.

When you connect too many appliances to the same circuit, the overcurrent safety will frequently trip or blow.

Outdated Fuse Boxes

Older homes may have outdated fuse boxes instead of circuit breakers. They do the job, but they are less reliable and more difficult to inspect for hazardous conditions. You should upgrade any old fuse boxes to a modern service panel with circuit breakers as soon as possible. These older systems have the potential to become unsafe if not well maintained.

FAQs on Electrical Panel Basics Homeowners should Know

What is an electrical panel called?

A distribution board, also known as panelboard, breaker panel, or electric panel, is a component of an electricity supply system containing many electric circuits.

Final Thought on Electrical Basics You Should Know

All wiring in your home should be in accordance with local building and electrical codes. Most homeowners only have the experience of opening the outer door of the electrical service panel to flip on a disabled circuit breaker. 

Even if you're a DIY master, always hire a qualified electrician to do any work, especially when it comes to any work that involves removing the protective front cover. While the cost of electrical projects can be high, especially if you hire an electrician, it’s always worth it in the long run. It’s better to be safe than sorry.

 

Kristina Perrin

Kristina Perrin

Kristina is a stay-at-home-mom and an expert chef. When she's not cooking or experimenting with new recipes, you can find her writing about her favorite kitchen appliances on Kitchen Infinity blog.

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