Electrical Breaker Panels – Replacement, Cost and Maintenance

Electrical Breaker Panel

If you are thinking about getting a electrical fuse box upgrade or wondering if your old fuse panel is safe. You have come to the right place. In this article you will find information on costs to upgrade a fuse box to circuit breaker panel, cost to replace to replace or add a breaker and general information on installing a new electrical panel in your home.

Life expectancy of Breakers?

The Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) estimates a circuit breaker’s life expectancy at 30 to 40 years.  This is considered to be the same for GFCI, AFCI, and standard breakers.  Since a breaker is a mechanical device, humidity of a outdoor location or the corrosive atmosphere of a room where pool chemicals are stored, will shorten the lifespan of electrical equipment.  Conversely, an indoor and dry location with only modest temperature variations will extend it.  Also, frequent circuit breaker tripping and resetting due to repeated over-current events will drastically shorten the life span and eventually cause failure.

How does a circuit breaker work?

     The primary purpose of a circuit breaker is to protect your home from a fire caused by overheating of the wires due to too much current flowing through them.  When the current flow exceeds its marked amperage rating, the breaker is designed to trip, disconnecting the electricity to the problem circuit.  A breaker malfunctions by not tripping – thereby not switching off the electricity and remaining in its energized state.  There are usually no obvious signs alerting you to anything being wrong with your electrical system until wire insulation starts melting and you smell smoke.  Upon close visual inspection with the electrical panel cover off, you can sometimes see discoloration at the panel bus bars to breaker connection point indicating excessive heat buildup.

Our electrician found this worn out electrical panel in Woodstock Ontario.
In this photo you can see the discoloration on the bus bars of the panel. This oxidization can contribute to hot spots where there is a poor connection (high resistance) to the breaker.

How much does it cost to replace a electrical panel?   

     Pricing can vary greatly between product brands, your location and how many circuits you require for your size of home.  Also if your panel is older you may have extra work involved to bring your electrical system up to current code requirements such as bonding water and gas piping to the electrical panel.  The cost to a typical main electrical panel replacement usually starts around $1400 dollars and up.  At a minimum, you may want to consider having an electrician replace the breakers in your electrical panel if it is more than 40 years old as a safety precaution until planning a complete panel replacement.  With the exception a few troubled brands mentioned later, the panel box itself tends to lasts longer and typically remains in good shape for 60 years or more.  If when troubleshooting a problem with your electrical system turns up a faulty breaker in the panel as the culprit, it would be a good indication that it may be time to replace all of the breakers.  Often at this point the question of cost vs. panel replacement surfaces.

How much does it cost to replace a circuit breaker?

Circuit breakers for popular brands like Square D, GE, Siemens and Eaton Cutler-Hammer are generally not considered expensive.  The cost can be between $10 and $30 dollars each for sizes up to 30 amps.  GFCI (ground fault circuit interrupter) or AFCI (arc fault circuit interrupter) breakers are more expensive at around $80 dollars and up CAD.

Commander electrical panel

Is my electrical panel safe? 

If your panel was made by a company that is no longer in business or utilizes an obsolete design such as Federal Pacific Electric (FPE), Commander, Sylvania, CEB or Taylor Electric, replacement breakers can be much more expensive – exceeding $100 dollars each in some cases.  Some panels don’t have readily available breakers so the only way to fix one would be to source out a used breaker.  In this type of situation I would be inclined to recommend changing out the panel.  Access to parts is important.  Consider a breaker failing that operates a essential circuit such as a furnace, well pump, sump pump or freezer or the main breaker to the home.  Breaker failure could expose you to financial loss if a replacement cannot be quickly obtained – frozen water pipes, no water for livestock, basement flooding or spoiled food.

Why is my panel no longer CSA certified?

    No longer CSA certified means that it would not be acceptable to install this panel in a home today.  That does not mean that you have to replace it but rather it cannot be installed or re-installed else where.  Panels can loose their csa certification if there are inherit problems or safety issues associated with them.   In the case of FPE stab-lok panels installed between the 1950’s to 1980’s there have been many detailed reviews as to their reliability and safety.  This is because this particular brand has been known to have breaker failures that don’t allow the breaker to trip in over-current conditions leading to potential fire hazards.  It has been recommend that if you have a FPE stab-lok panel to just change it out in its entirety.  It is the same case for Commander, Sylvania, Push-o-matic, CEB and Westinghouse brand names.  Still don’t believe me?  You can read up more on this by checking out one of the follow links.

https://inspectapedia.com/fpe/FPE_Panel_Home_Buyer_Advice.php

http://www.ismypanelsafe.com/fpe.php

Can I service my electrical panel to make it last longer? – Yes

     One way to extend the life of your circuit breakers is to “exercise” them once a year by flipping each breaker on and off three times.  Since appliances with compressor motors can be harmed by repeated power interruptions, you should first shut off or unplug any refrigerators or air conditioners or sensitive electronics in the home before exercising the breakers.

Final words :

Unlike technologies such as computers, cellphones and other electronic devices, it should be expected that a electrical panel will last for many years without needing constant upgrades and replacement.  Changing out a older electrical panel can significantly modernize and protect your home with improved reliability, safety, capacity and functionality with today’s current technology.  If you need advice or further information give us a call or send us a message – we are here to help.

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