The Need-To-Know About Electrical Panels


An in-depth guide to the thing that lets power into your home

Electricity is a great thing. We all depend on it hundreds, if not thousands, of times a day. Well have you ever wondered how power is distributed to the devices in your home? Have you ever wondered why occasionally the power to a room or appliance will just go out? Electrical panels are responsible for all of the above, and here is everything you’ll ever need to know about your home’s electrical panel:

Other Names

First off, there are over a dozen different names for an electrical panel. So we don’t confuse anyone, here are some of the other names your electrical panel may be referred to as by professionals and in this article:

  • breaker panel
  • circuit breaker panel
  • consumer unit, or CU
  • distribution board
  • fuse board
  • electric board
  • fuse box
  • breaker box
  • load centre/center
  • panel board
  • power box
  • power breaker
  • service panel
  • DB board (South Africa)
  • ACDB (alternating current distribution board)
  • DCDB (direct current distribution board)

The Invention of the Electrical Panel

There once was a man from Ohio who became one of the best inventors in the world. He created things like the phonograph, the motion picture camera, and the electric light bulb. He also had his hand in almost every industry including the production of rubber, mining, railroad construction and electrical work. This man, Thomas Edison, was also the man who first described the idea for a circuit breaker in 1879 in a patent application. Its purpose was to protect lighting circuit wiring from accidental short circuits and overloads.

However, modern miniature electrical panels similar to the ones now in use were patented by Brown, Boveri & Cie in 1924. Hugo Stotz, an engineer who had sold his company to BBC, was credited as the inventor on DRP (Dutsches Reichspatent). Stotz’s invention was the forerunner of the modern thermal-magnetic breaker commonly used in household load centers to this day. He was the one that first discovered that the interconnection of multiple generator sources into an electrical grid required development of circuit breakers with increasing voltage ratings and increased ability to safely interrupt the increasing short circuit currents produced by networks. Thank goodness for these guys…

What They’re For and How They’re Used

A circuit breaker is an automatically operated electrical switch designed to protect an electrical circuit from damage caused by overcurrent or short circuit. Its basic function is to interrupt current flow after protective relays detect a fault to reduce the risk of fire or electrocution from a power overload.

The maximum amount of electricity that a home can use at one time is dictated by the size of the main breaker. Most modern homes will have 200 amperage service. You can check your home’s electrical service by opening the main breaker panel and looking for the largest breaker switch in the panel, which is usually mounted at the top of the panel. The number on the switch is the total amperage of your home’s electric service.

Below the main breaker there are many smaller breakers that are divided up and are marked with amount of electricity available to each of those breakers. Each divided slot usually represents individual rooms, but they may also represent hard-wired appliances like air conditioners, furnaces, and water heaters.

For example, of the 200 amps available to a home, the kitchen may have two 15 amp circuits, the bedroom may have a 10 amp circuit, the air conditioner a 30 amp circuit, etc. These circuit breakers are exactly the same as the main breaker; if an electrical overload occurs, the breaker automatically shuts off the electricity to (or “trips”) the circuit and reduces the chance of danger.

Make sure that each of the circuits in your electrical panel are clearly labeled on the inside of the main breaker panel door by what they are powering (the kitchen, bedrooms, air conditioner, etc.). This will make it easy to know what breaker is what and will make it easier to control rooms or appliances when you need to turn them off to replace a switch, or outlet, or to perform maintenance.

Everyone Has Them!

In order for your home to receive power you must have a breaker box. The typical amount of power that is allotted for your home is 200 amps but it may vary depending on the size of your house. With that amount of power being fed into your home, if you were to plug anything in without a circuit breaker the device that was plugged in would blow up — too much power was going into the device. The circuit breaker acts as the middle man to stop that from happening, and that is the reason why EVERY home must be equipped with a circuit breaker in order to safely receive power.

Where an Electrical Panel is Located in your Home

For the most part, your home’s breaker box is typically easy to find. They are usually located in utility rooms, the garage, or in a basement. Unfortunately for Floridians, we frequently get thunderstorms and we even get to experience the occasional hurricane. Because these things tend to shut our power off and cause us to reset our circuit breakers, many of us know exactly where they are in our homes.

The 2 Dangerous Types of Outdated Electrical Panels

1. Federal Pacific Electric (FPE) Panels

During the 1950’s-1980’s Federal Pacific Electric was one of the most popular manufacturers of electrical panels in the United States. Millions of these panels were installed, but they are extremely unsafe. 

FPE circuit breakers fail to trip when when there is a short circuit or circuit overload. This has lead to thousands of fires across the United States. There have also been many reports that FPE circuits in the off position still send power to the circuit. This can cause electrocution when working on a circuit you believe to be off. If you have one of these panels Federal Pacific Electric will most likely be written on the cover of your breaker box, and inside look for the name Stab-Loc (the brand name of the circuit breakers). 

2. Zinsco Panels

Throughout the 1970’s Zinsco or GTE-Sylvania panels were popular electric panels that were installed in many homes. Although Zinsco is now obsolete, some homes still have these panels.

The problem with these Zinsco circuit breakers is that the inside of many of the panels melt to the main ‘bus bar’. This means the breaker can’t ever trip, even when there’s a short or overloaded circuit. If a short or overload ever occurs, the surge of power melts wires and can easily start a fire in your home. If you see the name Zinsco anywhere on the panel you need to get rid of it immediately! Many GTE-Sylvania or Sylvania panels are simply rebranded Zinsco panels or contain the problem Zinsco design, these should also be replaced. 

However, not all Sylvania and GTE-Sylvania branded panels are dangerous. If you have one, it is best for an electrician will to inspect it to see if it has the problematic design.

When in Doubt, Call the Professionals

If you ever need help with your electrical panel please don’t take matters in your own hands. Electricity and wiring problems can obviously be very dangerous and it’s not worth the risk. Give one of our licensed electricians a call if you need help with repair or replacement of your electrical panel today.

Understanding Electricity And Breaker Panels | OSHA Safety Manuals (safetymanualosha.com)

Understanding Electrical Panels (stepbystep.com)

The Main Electrical Panel & Subpanels | HomeTips