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

electrical panel update

Just like many other electrical contractors (ECs), I get numerous estimate inquiry calls for electrical panel or service “upgrades". Service upgrades are the mainstay for many ECs businesses--and they are very good at doing them quickly, and with excellent quality.

However, don't be fooled. Just because an EC has the experience doesn’t mean that are actually good, reputable, or licensed electrician. As with any other contractor you must do your due diligence. Before hiring anyone, you should know how to spot a shady or unlicensed electrician. And of course, you should also know how to hire a good electrician.

Ask your EC the right questions and do your homework. Do these two things, and you may discover that you don’t need an upgrade. It just may be that someone is trying to sell you a bill of goods.

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Before you Say “Yes!”, Ask “Why?”

One of the first questions I ask a potential client is why they want to upgrade their panel or service. As a homeowner, you should do the same thing if your EC suggests a panel upgrade.

As you can imagine, homeowners provide me with 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"

The next thing I do is troubleshoot, or ask some deeper questions. I want to know why they want the upgrade.

electrical service update

One of the big topics of discussion revolves around future home improvement plans. It’s important for the EC to ask about the homeowner’s future plans. What other reno work do they want to do? Does this support their decision to get a service upgrade?

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Now, these questions 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.

Here’s an example of what I mean:

You are planning to get a hot tub within the next five years to accompany your backyard landscaping remodel. Your Electrician must ensure that your panel is large enough to fit more breakers, or your service is big enough to handle the additional load.

Electrical outlet

Your Electrician should know about this when they come to service your home, because the cost of a service or panel upgrade in five years may be a game changer.

How do you Know when your Electrical Panel needs an Upgrade?

The Canadian Electrical Code (CEC) details the minimum electrical service size should be by using a "demand calculation".

The code details the demand requirements for residential (single-family), commercial residential (multi-family), commercial and other applications. Section 8 Circuit Loading and Demand Factors of the CEC is most helpful for homeowners. It primarily deals with what size your electrical service is required to be based on:

  • The square meters of the living space
  • Heating and air conditioning loads
  • Cooking appliances
  • Water heaters
  • Vehicle charging units
  • Any additional loads

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When Should a Load Calculation be Done?

Your Electrician should do a load calculation prior to estimating your project.

They should do this calculation before any major home addition or basement renovation too. This is because these projects add to the total square feet (living space) of the home. Additional livable space may affect the original demand calculation completed when the home was built.

Electrical circuit

Always do a demand calculation before you renovate (especially if you are doing a home addition).

As I mentioned earlier, this is the best time to mention or consider any possible future renovation plans (such as that hot tub I mentioned earlier). These could also affect the demand calculation.

What do you do with the Demand Calculation?

We use that information to determine if you need a panel change or an entire service upgrade. This information is also important for local authorities. Some authorities such as the local utility or inspection agency will require a copy of the demand calculation as part of the approval process (for permits, etc.).

If the EC decides that the demand for your home does not meet your current panel’s capacity, then they will suggest to change it. Other reasons to change out your entire service panel include damage, old style metering, and location.

Getting the Right Size Service for your Home

The EC should quickly be able to tell you what size service you will need. Here are some examples for your reference:

  1. Home 1. The home is 2000 square feet, all gas appliances, with heating. This home would need a 60 amp service.
  2. Home 2. The home is 2000 square feet, all electric appliances, with heating. This home needs a minimum of 200 amps.

If you believe that your home needs a service upgrade, then you should know that cost difference between a 100, 200 and 400 amp size service panel are negligible. So, you need not worry about breaking the bank by installing a larger service panel.

Dark night home

Amp measurements don’t necessarily correspond with house size. Always ask an electrician to do a demand calculation. This is not a DIY project!

There are legitimate reasons why you may need to install a larger service panel than your home requires. If the demand calculation says that your home needs 125 amp service, then you may ask for a 125 amp service installation, but your contractor may suggest a 200 amp service minimum.

This is for two reasons:

  1. The CEC’s minimum size service requirements. You can (for the most part) put in any service larger than the one specified by the demand calculation.
  2. Local code, by-law, or insurance company regulations. This may state a minimum size service requirement, regardless of the demand calculation. For example, the demand calculation stipulates 60 amps, but the insurance company may require 100 amp service.

What about Getting a Panel Change?

A homeowner may need a panel change if the service is in good condition, but additional circuits or specialty breakers such as GFCI or AFCI are necessary. Some panels cannot accommodate this, which is why a homeowner may need a panel change.

Electrical panel change

In the process, the EC may renew the grounding and bonding by running a new wire to the water meter, or by adding an in ground plate outside the home. They may add bonding jumpers between the water line, the gas line, the duct work, or sewer line if the home needs a panel change.

What Should I Expect from a Service Upgrade or Panel Change?

Bear the following in mind before you hire an Electrical Contractor for this project:

  • The power will be out for a minimum of four hours. Keep the refrigerator and freezer doors closed.
  • Unplug all electronics. The power will be turned on and off repetitively and may cause problems.
  • The workers will stay working on the panel (and surrounding area), which could be outside. But, they may need to get to the water meter and water tank to do other work.

female electrician

  • Since the power will be off, the worksite will be dark. Please keep the areas clear for them.
  • The EC will need power. Please try to arrange a power source that the EC can plug an extension cord into that is always helpful. Asking your neighbour is a great option.
  • The EC may have to go to other rooms in the home to test and identify receptacles, or lights etc. They will use generic terms like "master bathroom", "SE bedroom", etc. Use the same lingo you are talking to your EC about your home (they don't know where "Bob's Room" is, for example).

How can I Hire the Best Electrical Contractor?

When you’re looking to hire an EC for service or panel work be sure to do the following:

  1. Get multiple estimates from local tradespeople.
  2. Ask each contractor about their quality of material, why they think you need electrical work completed, and what the home’s demand calculation is.
  3. Ask each contractor for their electrical license, business license, Workers’ Insurance, and tax information. Verify all this information before you hire someone!

Following through with each point 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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