The electrical service panel is the largest safety device in our homes. It serves us everyday but we rarely think about it or appreciate what it does.
The service panel is the heart of our homes electrical system and has become vital in providing a comfortable modern lifestyle. Often during a power cut, we soon realize the importance of this system. No lights, no heat, no cooking, no hot water, no TV, no recharging cellphones.
As home inspectors we often recommend replacement of roof shingles or an air conditioner or a water heater and most people understand that these types of components have a finite lifespan and accept that they need to be replaced.
However, when a replacement service panel is recommended it seems to provide more cause for concern among both clients and R.E.agents
The point is that service panels do become obsolete, overcrowded or overloaded. Many older panels were not built to provide the services we require for our lifestyle today. Newer technologies and safety features have increased the reliability and serviceability of panels and breakers.
In 2009 the NFPA reported an estimated 44,800 residential home fires which could be attributed to old, faulty wiring or panels. Further studies have indicated that a disproportionate number of these fires were in homes more than 40 years old.
I acknowledge that the events that have to happen to create a life threatening situation are low probability but the panel is a safety device. Much like the air bags in your car, you hope you never need them, but you are sure glad they are there when you do.
To put things in perspective. Roof replacement cost is $ 4000 to $ 7000 and up. An air conditioner can be $ 2000 and up. A furnace can be $ 4000 and up. The cost to replace a service panel is usually in the $ 1200 to $ 1500 range.
I know this is not cheap but the panel is one component that could save your life. A roof leak will cause you to have a bad day but it most likely will not kill you.
Older panels manufactured by Zinsco, Federal Pacific Electric(FPE) or Bryant have a reputation for being problematic and a potential safety hazard but any electrical system older than 40 years should have a thorough evaluation by a qualified electrician.
As home inspectors we see these older systems regularly. There is no pass or fail for a home. We are hired to provide information and guidance particularly when it comes to safety so that our clients can understand the risks and make a better decision.