Replacing my electric panel.
July 18, 2011 1:24 PM   Subscribe

Upgrading electric wiring in an old house. Help me sound smart when I call contractors.

I'm in contract to buy an old rowhouse (from 1928). During the inspection, the engineer said the electric panel (vintage Fed Pacific) needed to be replaced. I've heard that FP panels are dangerous from many, many sources, so I'm taking him at his word and trashing it when we move in.

The currently installed panel is 100A, which I've been led to believe is pretty insufficient for most people's habits. When I replace the panel, is it as simple as installing one rated for higher amperage, or does something need to change about the house's electric service?

Should I buy the new panel myself, then hire the electrician to install it -- or buy it from the electrician? If so, how do I identify the panel I need?
posted by zvs to Home & Garden (14 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Call up a residential electrician, tell them you need a new 200A service and breaker panel. Let them buy the panel; there's no damn way you can beat an electrician's wholesale+markup, and you'd piss him off to boot.

The work involved includes having the electric company disconnect your house from the pole, replacing the wiring from the pole to the house, taking all the wires into your current box into the new box, labelling all the new breakers, and having the elctric company hook back up your new, more heavy-duty wiring to the pole.

I had this done in 2002. Cost about $1200 for a union electrician in St. Louis, if I recall correctly.
posted by notsnot at 1:36 PM on July 18, 2011

Is your internal wiring also from 1928? Are your plugs grounded? These are things to consider upgrading while you have the electrician there.
posted by tommasz at 1:46 PM on July 18, 2011

Best answer: I bought a house with a FP panel a few years ago. To upgrade the panel, the electrician needed to get a permit, relocate the panel (which meant re-doing the "strike" or the wire that brings the electricity to your house) and bring other stuff up to code. Definitely not a DIY thing if you're not an electrician. It cost us about $2500.
posted by rabbitrabbit at 1:49 PM on July 18, 2011

200 Amps to 300 Amps is probably what you want depending on square footage and whether you have or plan to install central air. Chances are you will want to go with whatever box and breakers the electrician suggests.

The primary problem you are likely to face is that an old house like that is almost certainly not up to code. Chances are that the wiring does not have a ground and in order to pass inspection the electrician will likely have to upgrade wiring throughout the house.

It can be an expensive job depending on the number of outlets how hard it is to get access to the walls. But honestly it's probably worthwhile and it's really better to have it done prior to moving in because otherwise it's really easy to avoid doing it.
posted by vuron at 1:54 PM on July 18, 2011

It depends on your state/municipality, but you *might* get stuck having to replace all wiring. Depending on the rules of the jurisdiction, a licensed electrician may not be able to just upgrade part of a system like that. OTOH, you might get an electrician who *says* you have to do that, when you really don't. So it might pay to figure out what is in the walls, what it required by law, and then figure out what is desirable.
posted by gjc at 2:02 PM on July 18, 2011

Response by poster: The existing wiring is NOT original (it's three-wire rather than two-), but it is old. Some outlets are grounded, many are not. I believe there are some GFCIs in place but have to check that out to confirm.

This is in NYC, for code purposes.
posted by zvs at 2:03 PM on July 18, 2011

Best answer: A relative of mine just had a major electrical overhaul done of an apartment she rents out - the apartment also dates from 1928, funnily enough. The electrical issues with that apartment was that the entire apartment was wired with just two circuits, and the wiring was the old knob and tube stuff, with no grounds in any of the outlets.

I agree with the commenters above that having the electrician put in the panel which he purchased makes the most sense, he has easier access to electrical supply warehouses with a wider range of stuff than a big box home improvement store has. Maybe ask about a panel with room to grow - something with extra slots in case you decide to on more circuits in the future.

Further afield, ask about the type of wiring in the house (if it is original to its construction, then it is likely knob and tube), the condition it is in, does any of it need to be replaced, it is grounded, how many circuits are in your row house, are there separate circuits for the kitchen and utility areas, and how many circuits does the electrician recommend for a modern household overall. A modern kitchen built today would have several circuits just in the kitchen to accommodate all those kitchen appliances - fridge, stove, dishwasher, toaster, microwave, etc., - that would have not even been on the horizon when your house was built. Another thing to consider - are there GFCI outlets in the kitchen and bathroom areas and if not, can they be put in? Also, if your heating, stove and dryer are electric, then ask whether having the newer 4-prong style 220 outlets put in would make sense - the 4-prong style has a ground which is safer. This isn't relevant if you use gas.
posted by that possible maker of pork sausages at 2:08 PM on July 18, 2011

I should also note: you DO want to have this done (in case there was any doubt). We lived in the house for a couple months before having our panel replaced and we had two scary incidents just in that two months. And I think I still have the burned lamp in the garage to prove it.
posted by rabbitrabbit at 2:11 PM on July 18, 2011

Oh, and -- the electrician provided the panel. They took care of everything (panel, permit, contacting the electric co. and the county inspector, etc.)
posted by rabbitrabbit at 2:13 PM on July 18, 2011

Best answer: The National Electrical Code specifies what the minimum service for a house will be, based on basic expected load for a dwelling plus special-purpose loads (electric baseboard heating, electric stove, electric dryer, dishwasher, etc), and also taking into account an expected level of simultaneous usage (since it's very unlikely you're going to run everything all at once with extra space heaters everywhere). If you're likely to ever install major electric special-purpose loads (anything that heats or cools, basically), mention this to the electrician. In the real world, though, an experienced electrician can successfully estimate the necessary service.

The electrician should be able to tell you if you're good with 150A or if you need 200A. Unless your house is much bigger than most rowhouses I'm familiar with and you're planning to put in electric everything, 150A is likely to do it for you, but you may want to go for 200A anyways. The electrician will probably have to pull a permit for the work, and will have to have it inspected by the local inspectional services department. The local utility may also want to get involved and approve the location of any external meter.

Just tell the electrician you want to upgrade your service. When he or she comes out to look at the job, talk about what things you have and expect to install in terms of heavy load. Find out if the electrician will be billing you with a set estimated price or on a time-and-materials basis.

For 1928, I don't *think* you're looking at knob and tube - I'd expect old BX. Around the 1940's, you start seeing the crufty old romex (briefly, there was 2-wire romex without a ground), and then in the 50's or 60's, you get regular romex in residences. For a short period of time in the early 1970's, you had people installing aluminum, rather than copper, wiring. But I digress.

Don't buy a panel. It'll possibly be the wrong thing and even if it's not, you'll annoy the electrician. It's like showing up at your auto mechanic saying "hey! can i get an oil change? also, please use this oil filter i found in my cousin's basement - it looks like it'll fit!"
posted by rmd1023 at 2:16 PM on July 18, 2011

Response by poster: Thanks all, great stuff.
posted by zvs at 3:56 PM on July 18, 2011

Get several quotes. I'd consider getting a membership in Angieslist, as you really need references. The lowest isn't the best if the person isn't really good.
posted by theora55 at 5:55 PM on July 18, 2011 [1 favorite]

The electrician should be able to tell you if you're good with 150A or if you need 200A. Unless your house is much bigger than most rowhouses I'm familiar with and you're planning to put in electric everything, 150A is likely to do it for you, but you may want to go for 200A anyways.

FWIW, I just spoke with an electrician about upgrading service during a rowhouse remodel two weeks ago. He told me the cost difference between going with 150A and 200A would be about $150. I'm East Coast, though, so prices may be different where you are.
posted by weebil at 6:45 PM on July 18, 2011

weebil writes "the cost difference between going with 150A and 200A would be about $150."

The price difference is almost entirely in the larger service conductors required (the panels are essentially the same cost) so the difference in price depends on the distance between the utility connection and the panel.
posted by Mitheral at 10:42 AM on July 19, 2011

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