Electrical Service Panel Basics Every Homeowner Should Know

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Senior electrician measuring voltage in fuse board

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Electricity is the lifeblood of the modern household.

Whether you are watching TV for entertainment, trying to study for that next exam, or even preparing dinner, electrical appliances and supply lines are essential for every operation. Without electricity, human civilization would still be in the early stages of infancy.

Yet we take it all for granted. 

Well, at least till something goes wrong and we have to rush to call the repairs-guy.

Homeowners might never have to visit their electrical panels (unless, of course, your house is ancient and the lights keep going on the fritz), but it pays to have some basic knowledge about the electrical nerve center of the house.

In this article, we are going to discuss the fundamentals of electrical panels that every homeowner should know.

So let’s dive in.

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Electrical Service Panel Basics

What Is An Electrical Service Panel?

Let’s answer this fundamental question first.

It’s merely the connecting node between the external supply wires that come in from the street to the internal wiring structure of your house. The service panel serves as the primary distribution point from which the power lines branch off into the different sections of your household. These wires, called branch circuits, are responsible for carrying power to the many electrical appliances we use at home.

In most cases, it is the owner of the house who is responsible for the upkeep of the electrical service panel; however, in buildings that house multiple families, the electric supply company might take up the responsibility.

Electricians hands testing current electric in control panel.

Service Panels And Fuse Boxes: What’s The Difference

Electrical service panels are known by many names such as circuit breaker panels, fuse panels, or even fuse boxes. But there is a difference between them that we think best to point out at this juncture.

An electrical service panel or circuit breaker panel utilizes mechanical toggle-switches that act as circuit breakers. This is a newer technology compared to fuse boxes, which use age-old screw-in or pull-out fuses to regulate electricity spikes.

Nowadays, of course, most houses have service panels that act as the primary source of power. Of course, some older homes still use fuse boxes as the main distribution center.

Whichever the case, the crux of the matter is that the service panel is at the heart of the domestic electricity network. 

Now that we know what the electrical service panel is, let’s venture out to find it.

How To Locate The Electrical Service Panel

The electrical service panel is the most important and potentially dangerous component of any domestic electrical system. Hence it is typically located away from the main living area of the house. It’s usually found in garages or hallways that lead to the garage; other likely locations where the electrical service panel may be located are basements, dedicated closets, and pantries. 

For older houses that use fuse boxes, it is usually placed in an outer part of the house, probably fixed to a section of the wall or in a particular structure constructed to house the distribution box.

Perhaps the best way to find the electrical service panel is to find the service drop and service head of the house. Most likely, the service panel is somewhere close to these structures. Points at which external street wires enter the house are also good candidates for placing the service panel.

Finally, in most modern households the electrical service panel can be found near the electrical meter, which measures the amount of electricity consumed, usually every month.

Inside The Electrical Service Panel

At first glance, electrical panels can be overwhelming with so many wires, switches, and other electrical implements all thrown in together. But look closely, and you’ll find that it’s a pretty simple contraption.

The electrical service panel is the entry point of the wires from the external supply (the service drop), which connects to the lugs inside the service panel. Circuit breakers are also housed inside this structure, along with spaces to add more circuit breakers if needed in the future. From here, a mass of distribution wires (branch circuits) carries the power to the different corners of the house.  

Ideally, the circuit breakers should be clearly labeled inside the service panel to ensure that they can be easily identified and worked with. Another best practice would be to have a circuit map of the entire building’s wiring structure inside the service panel; this can aid maintenance specialists to identify and repair faults quickly.

Electricians hands testing current electric in control panel.

Safety Precautions To Keep In Mind

By now, it must be pretty clear to everyone reading this that the electrical service panel is a highly dangerous portion of the house, and must be treated with extreme caution. Notably, the service lugs are high voltage structures, and one shock from these can result in fatalities. The same is true for any wire inside the service panel.

The electrical panel has a metal barrier that covers the circuit switches. This cover is known as the dead front cover, and it should never be touched except by a trained electrician. Otherwise, it could lead to severe accidents.

Under normal conditions, when the main door of the service panel is shut, it is safe to touch. But once the dead front cover is open, then it’s necessary to proceed with extreme caution. Unlike a regular electric shock, one from the service panel will undoubtedly result in severe injuries, if not death.

Keep in mind that once the dead front cover is removed, even shutting off the main switch does not make it necessarily safe. The main breaker switch cuts off the power supply to the different parts of your home. However, it does not shut off the power coming in from the external service lines to the lugs. So the potential for getting electrocuted is still present.

Also, homeowners should be careful of any metallic tools that are used inside the service panel. These can come into contact with the service lines and cause a mishap. 

Therefore, it’s best to take extreme caution when dealing with the electrical service panel.

Do I Need A New Service Panel?

Usually, you don’t need to change the service panels in the house very often. Service panels generally have empty slots for adding more circuit breakers and lines if required. However, if the service panel has been in use for a long time, then there may be no spaces left. In such a case, if you want to put new circuits in place, it might require a more substantial service panel to be installed.

Conclusion

And that’s about it! A word of caution before we wrap up though.

The electrical service panel is an indispensable component of any modern household. However, it can also be the source of serious accidents that have the potential to be life-threatening, DIY is not an option in this case.

So be careful when dealing with the service panel. Often it’s enticing to want to repair faults yourself to save a few bucks, but your entire home, along with family, can be at risk if something goes wrong. 

Hence the wise course of action would be to call in a trained electrician the moment an electrical fault occurs. This not only ensures that the homeowner and family are safe from electrical hazards but also guarantees that the problem is resolved effectively and efficiently.

 

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