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Understanding your options for electrical panel upgrades

Upgrading your electrical panel can be a pre-requisite for installing new electrical appliances

Vicky Volvovski
November 2, 2023

In order to add electrical appliances such as a heat pump, solar, or an EV to your home, it may be necessary to first upgrade your electrical panel and/or service.

Your electrical service is the amount of electricity that can flow from the electrical grid into your house at one time. Modern homes typically have 200 amps, while older homes might have 100 amps or less. If you have less than 200 amps, you may not have enough capacity to install new electric appliances.

Your electrical panel contains circuit breakers that safely control the flow of electricity to different appliances and areas of your home. Panels have room for a certain amount of circuit breakers. If all the breakers in your panel are used, you may have a space constraint.

There are several possible solutions to both capacity and space constraints, all of which involve working with a professional electrician. This article will introduce you to potential solutions so that you can have an informed conversation with your electrician.

If you’re not comfortable performing these steps, you can have an electrician check them for you.

Capacity constrained

To find out how much electrical service you have, locate your home's meter on the outside of your house. Look for a panel or door next to or beneath the meter.

Inside that door will be the service disconnect switch, which will have a number on it. If that number is less than 200, you likely don't have enough power running to your home.

Note: The door housing the service disconnect switch may have a removable wire keeping it shut. It is safe to remove the wire to check and then to put it back.

An electric meter with 200 amps of service.

In this case, you have a few options which have various costs and tradeoffs. You can read more about these solutions below:

Solution Cost Tradeoffs
Service upgrade $$$$$ Expensive and long process, but gives you the most
flexibility on electrifying your home
Smart panel $$$$ Fast and less expensive; smartly prioritizes electrical
load; limits what appliances you can install in the future
Circuit splitters or
circuit pausers
$$ Fast and least expensive; prioritizes electrical load in
a rudimentary way; limits what appliances you can
install in the future

Service upgrade | $$$$$

Upgrading your electrical service means that your utility upgrades the physical wires and meters that run to your home so that you can use more electricity. To do this, you'll work with your utility and an electrician on permitting, upgrading the wiring to the home, upgrading your electrical panel and meter, and performing an inspection.

This process can be expensive and slow as utilities are often backlogged. However, it gives you the most flexibility when it comes to which electric appliances you choose.

To find out more about the process and cost for your home, reach out to your electrical utility.

Smart panel | $$$$

An alternative to upgrading your electrical service is to install a smart panel, like SPAN. A smart panel allows you to prioritize which electrical loads are critical (like a refrigerator, heat, stove, or certain lights) and which are non-essential (like a clothes dryer, EV charger, etc). The panel then makes decisions on where and when its sending power based on your settings.

For example, a smart panel may pause EV charging in order to turn on the heat in your home if the temperature gets too low. Smart panels also allow you to monitor your energy usage, set timers and schedules for your electrical devices, and control your devices remotely through an app.

Smart panels are less expensive and faster to install than upgrading your electrical service. However, there are tradeoffs – the smart panel won't increase the amps available to your home, it'll only help you manage your energy usage more efficiently to avoid overloading your circuits. This means you may be limited in what electric appliances you can install in the future.

Circuit splitters or circuit pausers | $$

Circuit splitters, like those by BSA Electronics, allow you to have a single circuit to power multiple devices. It allows you to designate a "primary" appliance and a secondary one and automatically controls which one gets power. For example, a clothes dryer and an EV charger may share a circuit splitter. If the dryer is running, EV charging is paused.

Circuit pausers, like those by simpleSwitch, measure the electric demand of the entire home, and shut off specific appliances when peak load is reached. Similar to circuit splitters, you'd likely install a circuit pauser on your EV charger to shut that down when other appliances need to be turned on.

These are both simpler and less expensive options than upgrading your service and installing a smart panel. Like the smart panel panels, they may limit what electric appliances you can install in the future. Unlike the smart panel, they don't give you additional benefits like overall home energy monitoring and control.

Space constrained

You may have enough electrical service coming into your home, but still not have space on your panel to add additional electrical loads. To find out if you have a space constraint, locate your electrical panel. It usually in a basement, garage, or on the outside of the house. Check to see if there are any empty slots available.

Empty slots on an electrical panel.

In this case, you have a few options which have various costs and tradeoffs. You can read more about these solutions below:

Solution Cost Tradeoffs
Panel upgrade $$$ May be required for safety if panel is very old; if
sub-panel or skinny breaker alternatives don't work
Sub-panel $$ Cheaper than panel upgrade; can isolate some
electrical load which is useful when paired with
home batteries
Breaker consolidation or skinny breakers $ Fastest and cheapest solution; might not be
possible if breaker can't be combined or split

Panel upgrade | $$$

Upgrading your electrical panel involves replacing your current panel with a larger one that has more circuit slots. If your panel is old and no longer meets safety requirements, you'll need to upgrade your panel to get more space and improve the safety of your home.

This is a straightforward project that can be performed by an electrician in a few hours.

Sub-panel | $$ 

Alternatively, you can add a sub-panel, which is a smaller electrical panel that is connected to your main panel. This allows you to add additional circuits for your new electrical loads without having to swap out your main panel. Adding a sub-panel is a more affordable option, and it also gives you the added benefit of being able to isolate some electrical load, which is useful when paired with a home battery.

Breaker consolidation or skinny breaker | $

The simplest and cheapest solution is to have an electrician consolidate breakers that aren't carrying a lot of load into a single breaker. Alternatively, you could have an electrician swap your current breakers for skinny breakers, which enable two circuits in the space that may have been reserved for one. This can essentially double the available breakers per vertical panel-inch. However, it's not always possible if a breaker cannot be split.

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