Electrical Panel Upgrade (Podcast)

In this podcast, Brett Rogenski talks with John Maher about electrical panel upgrades. He outlines when homeowners may need to upgrade their panels. Then, he explains the process including challenges and tax incentives.

John Maher: Hi, I am John Maher. I’m here today with Brett Rogenski, General Manager of N.E.T.R., Inc., a heating and cooling company in Massachusetts with a focus on Mitsubishi ductless heating and cooling products. Today we’re talking about electrical panel upgrades. Welcome, Brett.

Brett Rogenski: Thanks, John. I appreciate you having me today.

Determining If You Need to Upgrade Your Electrical Panel

John: Sure. So Brett, can you walk us through the process of assessing a home’s electrical system to determine if an upgrade might be necessary, and especially when a homeowner is moving toward a goal of electrifying everything in their home?

Brett: Sure. Absolutely. Well, what that really starts with is getting a licensed electrician on site to, number one, look at your current infrastructure. And really what he’s doing is something called a load calculation. So he’s looking at what you currently have… What sort of service is coming into your home, how many amps are coming into your home from the pull, and then he’s looking at your existing infrastructure, mostly appliances and heating systems, cooling systems and stuff, and he’s determining how much load is being put on there.

That’s what they call a load center ultimately is kind of what an electrical panel is, and he’s determining exactly what capacity is being used there. And why that’s important is if, for instance, in New England, we have a lot of older homes that were built around maybe gas heating and cooling and dryers and stoves, and they may have 100-amp service to their home.

Okay? Not that uncommon. And that’s great when you’re using a gas clothes dryer and you’re using a gas stove and you’re heating with a gas furnace. But now as you move towards electrification, you may not have enough capacity there to support a heat pump, all your day-to-day stuff, your lights and your televisions and your computer. But also now you’re looking at an induction stove, you’re looking at an electric dryer, you’re looking at a heat pump hot water heater, you’re looking at a heat pump to fully heat and cool your home.

So all those items, because they’re electric-based, draw much more power than their fossil fuel burning brothers. And so what we need to do first is assess what is your current usage versus what’s available, and what is your planned usage in the future to determine if we need to make an upgrade to your home to support those things. So if you’re currently using at max, I don’t know, 90 amps in your home, but now you’re going to put in an induction stove and a heat pump hot water heater and a heat pump into your home, you may now get up to 160 amps maximum, and obviously your 100-amp panel and 100-amp service aren’t going to be able to support that. Which is okay, we can work with you to help upgrade that to the necessary 200-amp service.

The Process of Upgrading Your Electrical Panel

John: Right. Does upgrading your panel, say, from 100 amp to 200 amp just mean putting in a new electrical panel, or do you actually have to change the line coming from the pole to your house?

Brett: Sure. Great question. Yeah, no, it’s basically new from the pole to the home. So the pole, the electric company upgrades from the pole, the transformer really to what’s called the weather head. Usually on the side of the house you see where the line comes in and it’s then captured usually in a piece of conduit. Sometimes it’s just kind of, if you will, stapled down the side of the house.

So we take it from there, so they upgrade to that weather head, we take it from there down into your electrical panel. So yeah, to move from a 100-amp service to 200-amp, they have to do that upgrade to the weather head, and then we need to upgrade from that point down to and including your electrical panel. So on occasion, we find a 200-amp panel with only 100 amps going into it, but usually it’s an older system, so they have 100 amps of service with a 100-amp-rated panel. So we have to then upgrade that breaker box for you as well.

Safety Considerations for Electrical Panel Upgrades

John: Okay. Are there any safety considerations that homeowners should keep in mind when considering an electrical panel upgrade?

Brett: Well, yeah. I mean, you have to make sure that you have an electrical panel that can support that full amperage, which any licensed electrician is going to make sure to do for you. So you can’t take a 200 amp service and try to shove it into a 100-amp panel. From a safety consideration as well, you want to be able to break down each of those breakers into small subsets.

Too many times we find folks who have an older panel with only eight or 12 breakers in it, and what’s happened is over time and their electrical load in the house has gone up by adding things, things that didn’t exist 40 years ago when the house was built, they now start overloading circuits. Okay? And next thing you know, you have wires that were designed to only support maybe 12 or 15 amps being taxed with 20 amps at times, and that’s truly a fire hazard.

The other thing that we do find from a safety point of view is there are panels out there that were common in years past that have been determined to be unsafe and by electrical code, when we see those, we have to identify them and upgrade them because they’re literally a fire hazard in your home. So those are definitely some safety things that we have to look at. But one of the biggest things is essentially zoning by using breakers to break your home up into little manageable pieces as opposed to jamming a whole bunch of things on one and hoping they all don’t all turn on at the same time.

Tax Incentives for Electrical Panel Upgrades

John: Right. When you’re changing over your fossil fuel heating system to a ductless heat pump system, I know there’s rebates that are available. Are there any types of government incentives or rebates available to encourage homeowners to just upgrade their electrical panels as part of their home electrification plan?

Brett: Absolutely, there are. So the Inflation Reduction Act that was passed this past year has money available for the upgrade to 200-amp service as well as the upgrade of certain types of electrical panels. So yeah, there are tax credits available through the Inflation Reduction Act that homeowners can take advantage of right on their taxes. So it’s a little specific to every situation, but there’s definitely incentives there to upgrade your service as well as to upgrade your panel.

How to Choose the Right Type of Electrical Panel

John: Are there different types of electrical panels that are available, and how should homeowners choose the right one for their needs?

Brett: Sure. Again, a lot of that comes down to working with a professional electrician, and they’re going to kind of guide you down that road. But yeah, there are different types of panels. The biggest difference I would tell you is there are now smart panels. Well, something that’s gone the way of the buffalo is the fuse panel. If you go down cellar and you still have fuses, you’re staring at a dinosaur. Okay?

So if you still have a fused panel that’s tremendously outdated and probably has some safety concerns with it as well. The next level there is the type of electrical panel you have. Again, there are some that are out there that have proven to be unsafe over time and need to go. And then once you get into modern panels, it comes down to a standard panel, which is very much like the breaker boxes that we’ve used for years and smart panels.

So for instance, there’s a company named SPAN that has smart panels where you can actually manage the electrical load in the panel and divert it from place to place as opposed to simple on/off switches, if you will, within the panel. So yeah, there’s smart panels and then I guess we would call them conventional panels. And then there’s other panels that are looking to burn your house down, but we don’t want those.

Challenges of Upgrading Electrical Panels

John: Okay. What are some of the common challenges or obstacles that homeowners might encounter when upgrading their electrical panels and how can we overcome those?

Brett: Sure. Probably the two biggest obstacles that we see on a regular basis is sometimes we’ll get someone who wants to upgrade their electrical panel and say, “Hey, I need more breakers. I know I’m overloading them.” And we find out that they don’t have really sufficient service to the house.

So again, that person who has an old 100-amp panel with maybe eight breakers in it, and they’ve really overtaxed it already. A lot of times we have to work with them and what’s the challenge? You really need 200 amps here, and we work with them to do that service upgrade to the house, so let’s get you to 200 amps and then we can properly break this out in a modern panel to meet all your needs.

The other thing is that we see, again, a lot in New England because we have a lot of older homes, is some leftover knob-and-tube wiring, which it almost looks like to me, they always look like shoelaces. But it’s in the old days where now you have what’s called Romex, where there’s two or three wires encased in a single piece of sheathing. Back in the old days, they used to have these individual wires that got run separately in homes, and there’s some of that still in New England, and a lot of times maybe a home’s been remodeled and some of that got left behind, and that knob-and-tube wiring is hazardous.

And again, that’s one of those things where when we find that we’re obligated to inform the homeowner and really help them remediate that. So those are just some of the things that can come along where it’s not just a matter of, hey, let’s replace my panel. Sometimes there’s some other infrastructure that has to go with that, but ultimately it’s going to make you either more efficient or safer, and that’s one of our biggest goals.

The Role of Electricians in Panel Upgrades

John: You mentioned having an electrician come in and look at your home and look at your panel and figure out what your needs are and help you to choose what you might need. What role do the electricians play in planning and executing electrical panel upgrades, and how do you go about finding a qualified professional electrician for the job?

Brett: Sure. Well, I mean, first of all, in my opinion, there’s only one type of electrician. It’s a licensed electrician. So your cousin Billy, who hooked up a light one time, or your friend’s friend who he’s done a lot of electrical, unless he can produce a license, he’s a licensed journeyman or a master, he’s not an electrician. Okay?

So they go through a great deal of training, and the training is around, the biggest source of the training is around keeping yourself and everyone else safe. So how do you go about finding one? Well, there are certainly many electricians out there that you can find in a lot of places. A lot of times you can work with a contractor such as N.E.T.R., where we have our own in-house electrical.

If all of this is coming around because you’re trying to move to an electrified home and you want to move to heat pumps and maybe EV charger for your car and stuff, you can work with someone like us, and we’re going to be able to provide you licensed electricians who are now helping you with that whole scope of work. We know that what you’re trying to accomplish in terms of your heating and cooling electrification, maybe your hot water electrification, as well as, again, do you need an EV charger for your vehicle and what else are you doing? Are you doing solar?

So I would tell you to really look at someone who can touch on a lot of those things and get them in your home and get a qualified estimate and ask for their credentials as well as see what people think of them. Go check out their Google reviews. Do they have five people who said they were okay, or do they have a few hundred people who said they were wonderful?

Advice About Whole Home Electrification

John: What advice do you have for homeowners who might be interested in starting a whole home electrification plan? Maybe they’re interested in installing heat pumps to replace their fossil fuel heating system or something like that, but they might be hesitant about the process of having to upgrade their electrical panel and go through all of that. Do you have any advice or thoughts for them?

Brett: Yeah, you know what? Contact a qualified company, have them get a consultant out there and tell them what your long-term goal is. So you may have just theoretically, maybe you’ve been in the house 20 years, maybe you bought it yesterday, but you’re like, okay, I do want to get all these fossil fuel based things out of my home, I want to have better indoor air quality, I want to take advantages of rebates and incentives that are available.

If so, get that qualified company out there. Companies like N.E.T.R. will put a consultant on your site and tell them what your goal is. You don’t have to do it all day one, but it’s really important if you can kind of share that vision that, hey, Brett, I’m going to do heat pumps now to get rid of my gas furnace. My gas furnace is old. It’s inefficient. I want to do heat pumps. I want to take care of those incentives.

Next, I want to be able to do my hot water through a heat pump hot water heater. And then my goal after that is maybe to integrate solar into this or to buy an electric vehicle. If you can share that with us, we can then help map out that process with you for you to do on your own time, on your own timeline. But, for instance, how we design heat pumps may vary depending on what the customer’s end goal is. If at the end of the day they’re saying, “Hey Brett, my goal is five years from now to be totally off the grid. I want to be driving as much of this as I can off solar. I don’t want to be paying the electric company anything.”

We’re going to design a system slightly differently based on that being your end goal, as opposed to your neighbor who might be perfectly fine just staying plugged into the grid, but wants to get rid of those fossil fuels in their home. So share your vision. Let us help you. We like helping people get to their goals.

Contact Us at N.E.T.R., Inc. Today

John: All right. Well that’s great advice, Brett. Thanks again for speaking with me today.

Brett: Thank you so much for having me, John.

John:  And for more information, you can visit the N.E.T.R. website at netrinc.com or call 781-933-NETR. That’s 781-933-6387.