Thinking of upgrading your electrical panel or service? Some things you should know.

Upgrading electrical panel

Just like many other electrical contractors (ECs), I get numerous calls for estimates to "upgrade" a client's electrical panel or service. For many ECs this is the mainstay of their business and are very good at doing them quickly and with excellent quality. However, don't be fooled just because they have done many of these upgrades. Just like any other type of work, do your due diligence, ask the right questions and do your homework.

One of the first questions I ask a potential client is why they want to upgrade their panel or service. As you can imagine I get a variety of answers such as "breakers are better than fuses", "we keep blowing breakers", "the lights keep dimming and flickering", "my insurance company said I had to", etc.

From that point I will normally ask a number of additional questions that pertain to the reason why they want the upgrade. One of the big topics, regardless of the reason is, what are your future plans and what other work do you want done to support those plans? Now that may sound like an up sell, but any good EC will tell you that it is less expensive to incorporate future plans during the upgrade then trying to do it at a later date. An example might be that you are planning to get a hot tub during your backyard renovation in about five years. Ensuring that your panel is large enough to have space for the breakers or that your service is big enough to handle the additional load is important now; in five years it might be a show stopper.

The Canadian Electrical Code (CEC) details what the minimum size your electrical service should be through the use of a "demand calculation". The code details the requirements for residential (single-family), commercial residential (multi-family), commercial and other applications. As a homeowner, Section 8 Circuit Loading and Demand Factors of the CEC primarily deals with what size your electrical service is required to be based on: the square metres of the living space, heating and air conditioning loads, cooking appliances, water heaters, vehicle charging units and additional loads. This calculation should be done by the EC prior to estimating your project. Some authorities such as the local utility or inspection agency will require a copy of the demand calculation as part of the approval process. The calculation should also be done for any major addition or basement renovation as it adds to the total square feet (living space) of the home and may affect some of the other elements of the original demand calculation that was done when the home was built without the addition or the finished basement. You would also be wise to consider all future plans in that demand calculation, such as that hot tub I mentioned earlier.

So we know that you should get a demand calculation completed before you consider an upgrade. What do we do with that information? Well we use that information to determine if you need just a "panel change" or an entire "service upgrade".

In practicality and as a caveat, there may be reasons to change out your entire service with one the same size, such as damage, old style metering, location, etc, but for the sake of the argument, lets say if the service is good, the EC could complete a panel change. In most cases, through the experience (without doing a demand calculation) of the EC, they will quickly be able to tell you what size service you will need. Using a ball park figure, a 2000 square foot home that has all gas appliances and heat only needs a 60 amp service, while the same home with electric appliances and heat needs a minimum of 200 amps. The reality is that the cost effectiveness of service upgrades outside the standard 100, 200 and 400 amp sizes are insignificant. As an example, your demand calculation may say that you need a 125 amp service. You could request a 125 amp service to be installed, but as the contractor will demonstrate, the cost difference between a 125 and 200 amp service is minimal. It is important to remember the CEC details the minimum required size of service; you can (for the most part) put in any service larger than the one specified by the demand calculation. The other issue may be that there is a regulation or policy either from a local code, by-law or insurance company that states a minimum size service that is required regardless of the demand calculation. So as in my 60 amp example, it is unlikely that an insurance company would allow a 60 amp service to be installed and would direct a 100 amp service to be installed regardless.

The other option is the panel change. There are times when the service is in good condition and all that is required is a panel change to either accommodate additional circuits or allow for speciality breakers such as GFCI or AFCI. Normally when this is done, the EC will also renew the grounding and bonding by either running a new wire to the water meter or adding in ground plate outside if required. They may also add bonding jumpers between the water line, the gas line, the duct work or sewer line if necessary.

Some other things to expect during your service upgrade or panel change: The power will be out for a minimum of four hours; so keep the refrigerator and freezer doors closed. Be sure to unplug all electronics; power will be turned on and off and may cause problems. Normally the workers will stay in the area of the panel and outside, but they may need to get to the water meter, water tank to do other work; it will be dark so please keep the areas clear for them. The EC will need power; so if you can arrange with a neighbour to allow the EC to plug in an extension cord that is always helpful. To complete the circuit directory, the EC may have to go to other rooms in the home to test and identify receptacles, lights etc; they generally use generic terms like "master bathroom", "SE bedroom", etc. They don't know what "Bob's Room" is.

So when looking to get an EC in to complete some service or panel work, be sure to get multiple estimates (as well as insurance, licencing, etc), ask about quality of material, talk about the why and ask about the demand calculation; this should put you in a good position to select the best EC for the task.

About the Author

John Kuehnl-Cadwell is a Master Electrician and an owner of Datawise Solutions Inc., an electrical contracting company located in Ontario. He has been licenced as a Journeyman Electrician since 1992.

Posted by: John Kuehnl-Cadwell
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