Is Your Home in Need of an Electrical Service Panel Upgrade Here is How to Tell – Part One

If you’re reading this, chances are you’re wondering if it’s time to upgrade the electrical panel in your house. There are a few key things to look out for to help you decide.

Older Panels May Be Unsafe

If the electrical service panel in your home is over 25 years old, under 200 amps, or constantly tripping breakers, an upgrade would likely benefit you. Electrical panels don’t last forever and eventually need replacing. Over time, the electrical load puts a lot of stress on them, and electrical issues can develop.

There’s no definitive timeline for when to replace a panel. But if you notice any of the warning signs below, it’s probably time to consider upgrading yours. A few obvious things will clue you in that there could be a major issue with your panel or wiring. To be sure, have a licensed electrician do a thorough inspection.

Vintage Panels to Be Wary Of

Some older electrical service panels were not manufactured up to modern safety standards. During World Wars I and II, manufacturers used substandard aluminum metals for bus bars. Over time, these have been shown to overheat, making them dangerous. If your home has any of the following electrical panel brands, it would be wise to upgrade:

Federal Pacific Electric

The FPE Stab-Lok panels have a reputation for being fire hazards. They’re implicated in around 3,000 electrical fires per year in the U.S.

FPE panels have been deemed unsafe by insurance companies and the Consumer Product Safety Commission. When tested, FPE Panels are risky because of their vintage and defective components with high failure rates. When power surges occur, the breakers have been shown not to trip, causing the panels to overheat.

Contractors installed FPE panels in homes built between the 1950s-1980s. They are tricky because there has never been any formal recalls or oversight from regulatory bodies.

However, if we look at some of the testing done on these panels, we see very high rates of failing to trip in the presence of over-current or short circuit events.

In certain tests, the FPE panels failed to trip at alarming rates ranging from 25% up to 65% in some cases, making them a latent fire hazard. Replacing the breakers with new FPE breakers does not make them safer, so a full panel replacement is recommended.

Zinsco Panels

Zinsco electrical panels are another obsolete model that lacks proper electrical safety features. Zinsco panels also have high failure rates and the potential to overheat. The breakers can overheat and weld themselves to the bus bar, causing catastrophic failure.

The breakers also tend to make poor contact with the bus, leading to arcing events. Again, there’s been no formal action from regulatory bodies, but Zinsco panels have a well-known reputation for failing to function properly and even starting electrical fires.

ITE Pushmatic and Bulldog Panels

Unlike Zinsco and FPE, the ITE Pushmatic panels have not shown to be inherently faulty. However, they are still not without their concerns. ITE Pushmatic panels lack any official safety certifications, yet industry experts and insurance companies consider them hazardous. The main risks with ITE Pushmatic panels are their vintage and potential for ungrounded wiring or aluminum.

We recommend replacing any panels over 40 years old, especially where aluminum or ungrounded wiring is present. They are easily identifiable by their push buttons instead of traditional breaker switches. They were made in 1930s to 1960s making them extremely old and outdated.

One inherent flaw is that the push buttons use oil, and if not actuated regularly, they can become sticky and difficult to operate. Even if it appears functional, an electrician should replace an ITE Pushmatic panel due to its age and inferior safety.

Challenger Panels

Challenger electrical panels are another brand considered a potential fire risk. They were possibly the most prevalent panel installed in homes built during the 1980s-1990s.

The issue with Challenger is that some of the breakers they manufactured tended to overheat under normal operating conditions. Some insurance providers refuse to insure homes with Challenger panels. However, this is not universally true of all insurance companies.

The excessive heat caused the breakers to expand and contract, leading to very loose connections between the breaker and bus bar. Also, the CPSC recalled some Challenger breakers after they failed safety testing related to providing adequate ground fault protection.

Challenger panels often do not have the Challenger name on them. Some of these panels were also produced under the GTE-Sylvania brand.

Murray Panels

Murray is another old electrical panel brand that contractors installed in many homes years ago. There are modern Murray panels still being produced that are perfectly safe. These newer Murray panels meet current safety standards.

The original Murray panels were cheaper than some other brands at the time, yet still considered safe and without major flaws. The main issue with older Murray panels is their age. If your Murray electrical panel is 40 years old or more, it likely needs replacement.

In 2010, Murray circuit breakers were discontinued due to potential hazards. The CPSC found a design flaw where a spring clip could fail under normal conditions, leading to shock or fire risks.

Westinghouse Panels

Westinghouse is another vintage electrical panel brand that is now quite outdated. The company was acquired by Eaton years ago. Westinghouse panels were considered safe in their time.

The main problem with Westinghouse now is age. The breakers can also make poor connection to the bus bars, causing overheating failures at the connecting tabs. Loose breakers were not a widespread issue leading to recalls.

If your home has a Westinghouse panel, it would be wise to have an electrician inspect it, especially if you notice breakers from multiple brands present. If the Westinghouse has an assortment of non-matching breakers, it likely indicates past issues, and the bus bars may be compromised. The normal wear these old panels endure makes them a potential safety hazard due for replacement.

Wadsworth Panels

Wadsworth is another older electrical panel brand once known for quality. Wadsworth panels and parts have not been produced for a very long time. Wadsworth panels are now outdated as they no longer meet today’s strict safety standards.

According to electricians, other concerns with Wadsworth include potential ungrounded wiring or aluminum. Again, the main issue is simply old age. Homes with Wadsworth panels should prioritize upgrades as remodeling allows. A Wadsworth panel replacement typically includes some wiring upgrades as well.

While some Wadsworth panels remain in use today, replacement during renovations should be strongly considered for safety.

General Switch

General Switch is another obsolete electrical panel brand no longer manufactured. You may have difficulty finding replacement breakers if you have a General Switch panel. While other brands may fit and work acceptably, compatibility is not guaranteed.

General Switch panels were considered safe in their day. They will likely need full replacement if a breaker fails, however. Parts are long discontinued, and substituting breakers from other brands is not ideal. Other concerns like aluminum or ungrounded wiring may be present as well.

Bryant Panels

Bryant is another vintage electrical panel brand contractors installed in many homes. Similar to Murray, they date back many decades. Bryant panels were considered safe when new, although age and condition are the main factors as to whether they remain so today.

The Bryant name is now owned by Cutler-Hammer, who produces replacement breakers under their brand. Even if your Bryant panel appears functional, any model over 40 years old is due for replacement for your safety and peace of mind.

Warning Signs Your Old Panel May Have

There are a few clear signs that indicate your electrical panel should be replaced. Here are some of the most common red flags:

Heat Around the Panel

An electrical panel contains a lot of wiring and connections. Ideally, these dissipate heat safely to keep the system operating at a proper temperature. If you notice a hot or warm breaker box, it likely means the system is not cooling itself efficiently.

This heat buildup can degrade the integrity of the electrical connections over time. Have an electrician check if the warmth is due to loose connections, overloading, or some other underlying issue. Heat around a panel is always cause to have it looked at right away for your safety.

Rust or Corrosion

If you see rust or corrosion on the breakers, bus bars, or box, it may indicate moisture getting into the panel. This can happen from water spills or high humidity. Water ingress can lead to short circuit conditions and shock hazards.

Rust and corrosion can also cause connections to become loose or unreliable. Have a professional inspect the cause of any rust immediately. The fix may be as simple as sealing a hole in the panel housing. However, underlying problems will exist if water has gotten into your electrical system.