We never think about it. Yet it serves us every day. It is the largest safety device in your home, but most do not appreciate what is does.
It is your electrical service panel. It is the heart of the home electrical system and is in essence the heart of our modern lifestyle. Every year that goes by we require it to do more and more.
If you went to your main service panel and shut off the main breaker what would your life be in your home? No lights, no heat, no cooking, no TV so on… and so on.
As a home inspector I had a curious thought. Why is it when I recommend a panel be replaced it becomes more of an issue than other components of the home?
As home inspectors we often cite that a roof need replacement or if an air conditioner or heat pump is old it is ready for replacement, or your water heater needs replacement. Most people understand and are used to the thought that these types of components reach the end of a useful lifespan and should be replaced.
But the main service panel, now that is a different story. This seems to get homeowners and some realtors get a little jumpy. They start to question my recommendation and ask more questions.
This brings me to my main point. Service panels and their associated components were built for the time they were installed. As such they were not designed in many ways for our modern lifestyles and demands. Americans use more electrical power per person than do people of any other country in the world, but that does not mean that we have a better understanding of electricity.
Safety features and design requirements have been developed, improved and implemented in newer installations.
Through time many of these older panels become overcrowded and their initial design was poor at best. Time is not a friend of electrical systems, and they should be replaced. So here is a thought, roof replacement cost is about 6-7 k and up. An air conditioner/heat pump can be 2-3k and up. The cost to replace a service panel is usually in the $1200 to $1500 range.
I know this is not cheap, but this is the one component that may save your life. A roof leak is bad but it most likely will not kill you. If your service panel catches fire or does not properly function it may have a devastating consequence.
Now I acknowledge that the events that have to happen to create a life-threatening situation is a low probability, but this is a safety device. It is like the airbag in your car, you sure hope to never need it but you will be glad it is there in the event of an accident.
The NFPA reported in 2009, an estimated 44,800 home structure fires reported to U.S. fire departments involved some type of electrical failure or malfunction as a factor contributing to ignition. These fires resulted in 472 civilian deaths, 1,500 civilian injuries, and $1.6 billion in direct property damage. NFPA electrical fires report.
A study conducted by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) in the 1980s indicated that the frequency of fires in residential electrical systems was disproportionately high in homes more than 40 years old. The thought is that the aging of older electrical systems, combined with the fact that older homes were not built to the more rigid building codes of recent times, were deemed the most likely contributing factors.
If you have a panel manufactured by Zinsco, Federal Pacific Electric (FPE) or even Bryant, these panels have a reputation for being problematic and a potential safety hazard and should be replaced sooner versus later but any electrical system 40 years or older needs a thorough evaluation.
As home inspectors we are hired to provide information. There is no pass or fail of a home. We all assume some risk but understanding that risk will help you make a better decision.