Electric Panel Guide: Everything you need to know about your panel
We’ve all been there. That moment when you turn on the coffee machine, get the hair dryer going; fans are running, lights are on… Then: blackout. You hear the familiar sound of everything powering down. Something tripped a breaker.
You march downstairs, open up that grey metal box attached to the basement wall, and take a look at that mess of switches and wires. What next? Electric panels can be incredibly complicated to figure out, and it can be difficult to know what is safe to do.
Your electric panel, commonly called a load center, a breaker box, or a fuse box, is the primary electrical service box that holds and transports electricity throughout your home. Every building has one of these, though they may not look alike—some buildings have panels that are over 30 years old. Regardless the age of your electrical panel, the basics are the same, and we’re here to give you everything you need to know about your electric panel.
To begin, every electrical panel has multiple breakers, which protect the electrical system in your house from using too much electricity. When there is an abundance of electrical currents—past the threshold of “normal” for your electric panel—these breakers will flip, to prevent your home from drawing too much electricity and causing serious damage. Each breaker has a different purpose, labeled with a number, with a size, or with a room name: “garage”, “kitchen”, “basement”, etc. Along with these individual breakers, you also have a main breaker that is often labeled. This breaker is the primary protector for your home.
The Main Breaker, which is sometimes called the “double pole service disconnect” usually has two black wires that feed from the electrical meter to it, then has two circuit breaker handles that are connected to each other. The main breaker also will tell you the amp capacity for that electrical panel. It will say things like “100” or “150” which indicates the power capacity that your panel can provide for. Most homes have 150 amp service, but can also reach up to 200 or 400 amp sizes.
So, when a breaker is tripped, there are a few things you can do to start understanding your electric panel and how to fix it in a safe, effective way.
Open the Cover and Inspect the Breakers
Do not worry: touching the surface of the cover will not electrocute you. If the panel was properly installed by an experienced electrician, there should be nothing to worry about. Even though the box has an abundance of electricity running through it, the surface is safe to touch. Once you open up the panel, check to see the position of your breakers.
Newer electrical panels have very clear indicators for their breakers. They will often show an “ON” or “OFF” tab along the top or bottom of the breaker that tells you which ones you need to flip. Find the ones that say “OFF”, ensure that they are flipped all the way in the OFF position, then flip it back to ON.
However, some electrical panels are not so clear. Older panels may not show whether or not your breaker is tripped. They may be old, corroded, have poor contact…many things can happen within a couple decades. Sometimes breakers will appear to be ON, but you have to flip the breaker to the full OFF position before you can see that it was actually tripped.
If you have an older panel that has breakers that are AFIs (Arc Fault Circuit Interrupters), then you may have something called nuisance tripping. For example, if you turn the breaker to OFF, then to the ON position, and it simply trips back, then the breaker has a problem. AFIs are incredibly sensitive and picky in their positioning. If you have this issue, try going through the circuit for the AFI breaker, unplug everything, and turn off the power strips. The goal is to stop all electric flow to the circuit to reset the breaker. Once you’ve completed this, try flipping the breaker again and see if it will stay in the ON position. If you cannot get this to work, it may be time to call an electrician to come in and do a more thorough investigation. You want to be careful when you go beyond the breakers and into the wiring of the panel, as it can get very dangerous, especially with older panels.
NEVER Take off the Panel’s Cover
After flipping the breakers and still having no electricity, the next solution is to call an electrician. Never, under any circumstance, unscrew the panel’s cover and try to figure out the wiring behind it. This is incredibly dangerous, as all of these backend wires are electrically charged and are very sensitive to being damaged. You do not want to mess with the screws that hold the panel in place, because, if misplaced, they could tear or puncture wires. Do not be afraid to call the electrician!
In extreme circumstances, panels can have problems that develop into arc flashing. This is a type of an electrical explosion that happens when high voltages of electricity arc from one thing to another in a very small space. This can cause burning, and can char the surface from hot flashes of plasma. This is incredibly dangerous. Calling an electrician will help prevent this from happening.
Call an Electrician
Electricity is dangerous. Though it may appear to be safe and secure in that metal panel box, it is still a powerhouse of electricity. When in doubt, call an electrician to ask questions, or to get an inspection done by a professional electrician who knows panels of all sorts and can problem solve safely.
If you have an emergency, or simply have a few questions, do not hesitate to call us here at the WireNut. We have 24-7 emergency electric services in Colorado Springs, Denver, Pueblo, and Boulder. Remember, we’re there today, or you don’t pay!