Author Topic: DIY-Replace house's main electrical panel? (Read 53122 times)

ManyMountains

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DIY-Replace house's main electrical panel?
« on: October 10, 2014, 11:26:45 PM »
Our house's electrical panel is 50 years old. Not only is the model unsafe (a Zinsco), but we can't upgrade other parts of the house without first upgrading the main panel. So, it's definitely being replaced. I'm fairly handy and would love to learn new skills. My father-in-law is really handy and has basically rebuilt their home over the last decade, and maintained their family farm house. Finally, my out-of-state aunt is an electrician. She wouldn't be here, but she'd be available by phone to advise.

Anyone have experience upgrading their electrical panel? Is it possible to DIY? Any thoughts / advice / words of wisdom (or caution!) would be appreciated.

FYR, we live in Northern California. The house is 3 bed, 2 bath. Heating, water heater and oven/stove run on gas. The panel is grounded to a water pipe, but code would require us to add a grounding rod as well. Attached is a picture of the current electrical panel.


MikeBear

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Re: DIY-Replace house's main electrical panel?
« Reply #1 on: October 10, 2014, 11:58:05 PM »
Have you EVER done any electrical work yourself? If not, I wouldn't recommend that you change the main house panel by yourself.

Realize that if the panel is that old, the wiring going throughout the house is most likely quite old also, and you may need to rewire the entire house and bring it up to code. If it's a rehab house you aren't living in, and you can spend the time it takes to do it all at once, you could potentially stand there with a good electrical book and follow the pictures. I've known people who've done it. You may even need to have the city wiring from the pole to the house replaced and upgraded. If you go through with it, don't install anything smaller than a 200 amp service. That'll give you future upgrade possibilities, and is better for resale than smaller service panels.

Basically you remove the main power meter (it unplugs from its box), and that kills all the power to the house (the meter box itself however, is still HOT on the city side). You then do all the rest of the work in turn, then plug the meter back in for what is known as a "smoke test". If you fail the smoke test, it could be very expensive.

Ask your city electrical inspector first if doing any of the work is legal for a home owner. It may not be where you are located.

Roland of Gilead

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Re: DIY-Replace house's main electrical panel?
« Reply #2 on: October 11, 2014, 06:11:40 AM »
I am an electrical engineer and I would not do the replacement work on our 200 amp panel. Too much liability risk and potential problems with insurers if I didn't route a wire exactly as code.

I did do all of the electrical, plumbing and gas line work in the RV we built but that is a different situation.

Mr. Frugalwoods

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Re: DIY-Replace house's main electrical panel?
« Reply #3 on: October 11, 2014, 08:58:20 AM »
I do a lot of electrical work around the house, but I wouldn't do a main panel replacement. Your power company may also require that a licensed electrician pull the permit to disconnect power at the meter. So if you were doing DIY... you'd be working with a hot main. Not my idea of a good time.

You could half DIY it though. Buy a replacement panel. Run the new ground and post. Clean up any outstanding issues outside the panel. Basically make it as fast and easy for the pro to do their work. You don't want to be paying $200/hr for someone to pound in a ground rod.
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Greg

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Re: DIY-Replace house's main electrical panel?
« Reply #4 on: October 11, 2014, 09:48:29 AM »
I've done a lot of my own electrical work which is allowed for owners to do where I live. If it's allowed where you are I would say go for it if you want to, you've got plenty of knowledgeable help it sounds like. I would still get it inspected though, and you'll need a permit as well.

Your utility can pull the meter for you, which renders the feed to the panel safe. Label everything and get rid of that existing panel which as you know is a fire hazard. For you home's load, a 100A panel would probably be sufficient (and is the minimum where I live), but a 200A panel is more common and likely cheaper. The main breaker can be less than 200A, and should be sized to the panel supply, which is hopefully reflected in the main breaker in the existing panel. So you could have a 200A panel and a 100A breaker.

However, now is a good time to upgrade the supply as well if you can. This would involve the utility disconnecting the panel feed from the transmission lines, so that the supply can be sized for 200A. Then you can upgrade the panel to 200A as well, for any future upgrades. A few feet of large gauge feeder wire is a small investment.

I have used both Square D, Homelite and Cutler-Hammer panels. The Square D brand seems to be the most common and therefore cheaper. This would also be the time to upgrade the bedroom circuits to arc-fault detector breakers (which are required in my area) and the kitchen and baths to GFCI breakers (can also be at the outlets, but this is easier).

You'll likely have to open the wall around the panel to free up the wires and to enlarge the panel space as needed. This would be a good time to add some conduit to the crawlspace, attic, or outside box for future use.

All connections have to be accessible, so if any wires need to be extended you do that either in the panel, or in a junction box outside the panel, and then use a blank cover.

14g wire is protected with 15A breakers, 12g wire with 20A breakers, etc. Good luck!

Dan_at_Home

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Re: DIY-Replace house's main electrical panel?
« Reply #5 on: October 11, 2014, 09:05:17 PM »
ManyMountains, I do a lot of electrical around my own house, but it is for switches and outlets on 15 amp or 20 amp circuits. I don't even mess with the 30amp or 50 amp circuits.

If you talking 200 amps that is really dangerous. This is one of the few instances where you should have a professional deal with it. Remember its not voltage but amps that kill. The amount of money you save is simply not worth the risk you are putting yourself at.

Once you have the main panel in by a pro, then you are take it from there doing the smaller stuff to save money.


« Last Edit: October 11, 2014, 09:08:02 PM by Dan_at_Home »

Roland of Gilead

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Re: DIY-Replace house's main electrical panel?
« Reply #6 on: October 11, 2014, 09:38:18 PM »
ManyMountains, I do a lot of electrical around my own house, but it is for switches and outlets on 15 amp or 20 amp circuits. I don't even mess with the 30amp or 50 amp circuits.

If you talking 200 amps that is really dangerous. This is one of the few instances where you should have a professional deal with it. Remember its not voltage but amps that kill. The amount of money you save is simply not worth the risk you are putting yourself at.

Once you have the main panel in by a pro, then you are take it from there doing the smaller stuff to save money.

20 amps will kill you about as dead as 200 amps.

CDP45

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Re: DIY-Replace house's main electrical panel?
« Reply #7 on: October 12, 2014, 12:43:33 PM »
Obviously financial forums aren't the best place for informed home repair advice, so head to youtube or the real DIY forums for good ideas and also good book recommendations that cover this. It's not that hard to do and no you don't need to replace all the wiring in your house to upgrade the main.

ScottEric

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Re: DIY-Replace house's main electrical panel?
« Reply #8 on: October 13, 2014, 08:23:43 AM »
We had ours done recently.

A fair amount of the work needed wasn't super hard or dangerous. But the parts that involved the wiring from the street into the house are best left to a professional IMO.




skunkfunk

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Re: DIY-Replace house's main electrical panel?
« Reply #9 on: October 13, 2014, 08:58:59 AM »
You could half DIY it though. Buy a replacement panel. Run the new ground and post. Clean up any outstanding issues outside the panel. Basically make it as fast and easy for the pro to do their work. You don't want to be paying $200/hr for someone to pound in a ground rod.

Electricians hate that, really. You're talking about doing some of the cheapest stuff, and even after markup you often get a panel for less from the electrician than from your local electrical supply or home depot due to the extensive discounts they get up front. If you're going to have to have them pull a permit and redo the service conductors anyway, just let them do the whole panel.

I'm an electrical engineer, and that's what I'd do. Anything downstream from the panel is easily DIY type stuff though, wiring a house is childs play really.

ManyMountains

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Re: DIY-Replace house's main electrical panel?
« Reply #10 on: October 13, 2014, 12:33:32 PM »
Thank you all for the input and advice.

MikeBear - I have added receptacles, recessed lights, and two bathroom fans. Clearly, replacing the panel is another ball game, which is why I asked. It is legal for the homeowner to do this work. The panel can be upgraded without having to change anything in the house. But as I move forward in remodeling the kitchen or adding a bathroom, then of course those would need to be brought up to code with AFCI breakers, GFCI around water, grounded receptacles, etc. I can't make those upgrades, though, until the panel is upgraded first.

Greg - Thanks for the input on various details.

CDP45 - I view this as much more than a financial forum. I am reading through other forums on diy, electrical, plumbing, youtube, and so on. But I thought this forum would give me a different perspective, with less naysayers and more help. And it has!

SkunkFunk - Unfortunately, that's what I'm thinking about - how can I hire an electrician do the most complex work, while I take care of the tedious, time consuming, repetitive or simple tasks to save money and learn new skills?

To everyone - thank you for your comments. I see there is no general agreement about whether I should/could do the work, other than I should literally NOT touch anything from the power lines to the house. I'm meeting with some electricians this week to get price estimates and will talk with each of them about what tasks I could do myself. I'll keep you posted on what I decided to do.

guitar_stitch

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Re: DIY-Replace house's main electrical panel?
« Reply #11 on: October 14, 2014, 11:39:23 AM »
The panel can be upgraded without having to change anything in the house.

If you have Aluminum wiring, that's a different story. While it can be safe, more often than not, it's ignored and becomes a fire hazard.

skunkfunk

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Re: DIY-Replace house's main electrical panel?
« Reply #12 on: October 14, 2014, 12:35:40 PM »
The panel can be upgraded without having to change anything in the house.

If you have Aluminum wiring, that's a different story. While it can be safe, more often than not, it's ignored and becomes a fire hazard.

Eh, if you do it right there's nothing dangerous about aluminum wiring. AHJ's are notoriously snobby about wanting copper, but they've solved many of the problems of the past in regards to the connections coming loose.

Thegoblinchief

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Re: DIY-Replace house's main electrical panel?
« Reply #13 on: October 14, 2014, 02:01:07 PM »
You've gotten good advice.

My Dad has had good luck hiring electricians and then acting as their gofers to save time.
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guitar_stitch

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Re: DIY-Replace house's main electrical panel?
« Reply #14 on: October 15, 2014, 07:08:26 AM »
The panel can be upgraded without having to change anything in the house.

If you have Aluminum wiring, that's a different story. While it can be safe, more often than not, it's ignored and becomes a fire hazard.

Eh, if you do it right there's nothing dangerous about aluminum wiring. AHJ's are notoriously snobby about wanting copper, but they've solved many of the problems of the past in regards to the connections coming loose.

Like I said.... it CAN be safe. The mains wiring and most of the large appliance wiring is Aluminum, even in new builds today. That's why a permit and inspection is required to touch things like that (in my area).

devan 11

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Re: DIY-Replace house's main electrical panel?
« Reply #15 on: October 16, 2014, 10:52:00 AM »
I had an old Victorian queen that I rewired. I could not do the main panel for code reasons, but once it was in, I could replace all of the old post and wire with new stuff. It took me much longer to go to a room and run wiring than electricians, but I saved a bundle, and learned the electrical inside and out. One trick that came in useful a few times was to use a digital camera to stick behind a wall to get a view of what I was running into. For me, it was cost effective to spend more on outlets and sockets that were faster and easier to work with, rather than what was cheapest. I agree that 200 A is the way to go. I wasted some money on using 12 g wire through out the house. I wanted the flexibility to have a line run and available to use throughout the house, so that I could upgrade later, should the need arise, without having to rerun everything. By code, much of the electrical had to be in conduit. 12 g multistrand was much easier to work with. Safer too, imo. Read, learn, but religiously cut power on anything you plan to work on, then verify that the power is off. Be safe and you will have fun learning a new skill.

seattlecyclone

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Re: DIY-Replace house's main electrical panel?
« Reply #16 on: October 16, 2014, 02:29:28 PM »
I rewired my house after I bought it. Most of it was still running on the original knob-and-tube wiring. The branch circuits were pretty straightforward to do. The hardest part was getting the wires where they needed to go with a minimal amount of drilling and cutting through walls.

The actual panel had been replaced a few years beforehand, which I was glad for. I think I would probably hire somebody for that part of the job if it had needed to be done as well. Everyone's comfort level is different though.
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jaizan

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Re: DIY-Replace house's main electrical panel?
« Reply #17 on: October 30, 2014, 05:43:39 PM »
I've done about 4 of these over the years in various houses.

If you know exactly what you're doing, go ahead. If not, leave it.

Cinder

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Re: DIY-Replace house's main electrical panel?
« Reply #18 on: November 03, 2014, 10:49:03 AM »
The panel can be upgraded without having to change anything in the house.

If you have Aluminum wiring, that's a different story. While it can be safe, more often than not, it's ignored and becomes a fire hazard.

Eh, if you do it right there's nothing dangerous about aluminum wiring. AHJ's are notoriously snobby about wanting copper, but they've solved many of the problems of the past in regards to the connections coming loose.

Like I said.... it CAN be safe. The mains wiring and most of the large appliance wiring is Aluminum, even in new builds today. That's why a permit and inspection is required to touch things like that (in my area).

From what I understand, most of the problem with aluminum wiring isn't' the fact that it's aluminum, it's when you mix aluminum and copper. Aluminum and copper have different a coefficient of expansion, so anywhere that you have copper wire contacting with aluminum wire, you have to do annual inspections to make sure the connections are still firm, otherwise you could have gaps and arcing.

skunkfunk

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Re: DIY-Replace house's main electrical panel?
« Reply #19 on: November 03, 2014, 10:53:13 AM »
The panel can be upgraded without having to change anything in the house.

If you have Aluminum wiring, that's a different story. While it can be safe, more often than not, it's ignored and becomes a fire hazard.

Eh, if you do it right there's nothing dangerous about aluminum wiring. AHJ's are notoriously snobby about wanting copper, but they've solved many of the problems of the past in regards to the connections coming loose.

Like I said.... it CAN be safe. The mains wiring and most of the large appliance wiring is Aluminum, even in new builds today. That's why a permit and inspection is required to touch things like that (in my area).

From what I understand, most of the problem with aluminum wiring isn't' the fact that it's aluminum, it's when you mix aluminum and copper. Aluminum and copper have different a coefficient of expansion, so anywhere that you have copper wire contacting with aluminum wire, you have to do annual inspections to make sure the connections are still firm, otherwise you could have gaps and arcing.

If you have old plain-jane aluminum wires (not modern alloys) it can be brittle, but you're right the connections are the real problem.

Modern screws with their fancy alloys have solved this problem. Don't just throw copper and aluminum in a wire nut together, make the whole run between terminations out of the same thing and there is no problem these days.

Robert Garcia

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Re: DIY-Replace house's main electrical panel?
« Reply #20 on: June 29, 2015, 04:28:47 AM »
Totally agree with MikeBear that if you havent done it before, then you shouldnt be trying it. although it may seem doable, it still is a daunting task for anyone and a different ball game as you have stated yourself. You would have to have proper knowledge and one wrong step is all it takes for things to go wrong. Even I do work on plumbing and also have added bathroom fans but then when it came to situation for us to replace the panel, I contacted professionals from Muskoka The Shock Doctors who took it up and completed it in a highly professional manner. My neighbor advised me not to do it myself and seek help and am glad I listened to his advice because I might have ended up in trouble, just might but still, with the replacement.

SnackDog

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Re: DIY-Replace house's main electrical panel?
« Reply #21 on: June 29, 2015, 04:53:48 AM »
Iosef Adamache is a fabulous electrician and rewired our Zinsco box after it nearly burned the place down. He is fast and value-priced. Highly, highly recommended.
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Arktinkerer

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Re: DIY-Replace house's main electrical panel?
« Reply #22 on: July 06, 2015, 11:17:07 AM »
I would pay to have an electrician install a shutoff switch below the meter. Might have the incoming service upgraded at that time as well. After you have a way to kill the main power doing the work yourself is much less of an issue.

Prospector

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Re: DIY-Replace house's main electrical panel?
« Reply #23 on: July 08, 2015, 05:27:48 AM »
I have replaced a panel, and I have paid electricians to install a panel.

Installing a new panel really isn't difficult or dangerous, just label everything and work through the process one circuit at a time. As others have said, get the meter pulled before you start, and an inspection when you are done. The meter pull is for safety, the inspection is for liability.

Having said that, hiring an electrician was the better investment for me. He was aware of limitations on our system that I would have been blind to, and suggested things like whole home surge suppressors to better protect our house. With your aunt on your side, you may be in the enviable position of having this info for free.

Good luck in your project whichever way you go.
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