Electrical Service Upgrades (Podcast)

In this podcast, Tim Kent explains electrical service upgrades. He talks about why people upgrade their electrical panels. Then, he outlines the factors that determine how many amps you need. Finally, he walks through the process so that homeowners know what to expect.

John Maher: Hi, I am John Maher. I’m here today with Tim Kent, Electrical Field Supervisor with N.E.T.R., Inc., a heating and cooling company in Massachusetts. Today we’re talking about electrical service upgrades. Welcome, Tim.

Tim Kent: Hi, John. Thank you for having me.

Signs Your Home Needs an Electrical Service Upgrade

John: Sure. So Tim, what are some of the signs that a home might need an electrical service upgrade?

Tim: So the most common sign is basically just lack of space. You’ll notice basically your panels are completely full, physically you can’t add anything to it.

Some of the other signs you can notice is you have circuit breakers that are starting to trip. Or even in a worst case scenario, you have a main breaker, which basically governs, protects your entire panel. If that starts to trip, you can know that’s basically what we call an overload, which means you’re drawing more power than what your panel is providing.

In those cases, you need an upgrade, basically. Usually what we like to do is go one step up. So if you’re at a hundred amps, which is the most common, usually now the smallest size, you’ll see, you go up to 200 amps. That will double the size, basically give you… Whatever you want, you can basically put on that.

There are a couple of cases where homes are now getting so big and with whole home electrification that we do have to go up from 200 to 400 amps. It was unheard of probably 10 years ago to have a single family home with 400 amps, but now it’s just with the amount of electric vehicles and heat pumps or stoves, it’s just… it’s in the size of homes too. The square footage.

Does the Size of Your Home Affect Your Electrical Needs?

John: I was going to ask, is the size of the home a factor in that? We all used to be when we grew up in like 1500, 2000 square foot homes and now you’re seeing lots of homes that are like 5,000 square feet or more?

Tim: Yeah, definitely for our math that we have to do to determine the size of a home. The square footage is a major factor.

John: Okay.

Tim: But not only that, there’s now even a square foot limit that dictates that if you’re over a certain amount of square footage, you have to go up to 400 amps.

Basically, we’re talking, I don’t know the exact square footage, but we’re talking probably around 5,000 square feet and above, which is a pretty big home in general, but they’re trying to mitigate any issues down the line that would occur if you put a smaller service on a huge house. It’s a lot easier to do things when it’s getting built than when it’s all finished and looks all nice and pretty.

The Range of Amp Levels of Electrical Panels

John: Sure, yeah. Talk a little bit more about these different levels. So you mentioned going from a hundred amp to 200 amp. Do you still see houses with, I think it’s 60 amp service that’s even smaller than that.

Tim: Yes, you see them on occasion. They’re few and far between, but we actually did an upgrade from 60 to 100 amps because the couple had basically all gas and the home was in Boston. It’s been there, I don’t know, probably over 100, 120 years, and 60 amps was plenty, but now they needed an upgrade.

John: So in their case, going to 100 was fine for their needs. They didn’t need to go all the way up from 60 to 200

Tim: Exactly. Yeah. So basically the price tag for their specific scenario to go up from 100 to 200 would’ve been more expensive than the normal home and they determined that they didn’t need that. So I always present it and tell customers we can go up 200 if you want, but for their particular case they didn’t need it and for what they wanted from their home, it wasn’t even required.

Which Factors Determine the Amount of Amps Needed?

John: Right. You mentioned the size of the home being a factor in determining what amount of amps you need on your service. What are some of the other factors?

Tim: So basically on top of basically the size you have, I usually say, think of the future. A lot of people don’t realize, okay, they buy a new house, they move into it. A lot of the things they want to do, okay, I want a new kitchen. I want one of those pretty kitchens that I see on HDTV and with the island, which comes out great all the time, but there’s, for us, there’s even codes that mandate how many circuits we have to run to your kitchen. Your kitchen originally could have had maybe two circuits go into it total, maybe even one. But now we have to run usually about seven just by code, whether you’re getting it or not.

John: Because you have all these different appliances that have to be plugged into separate circuits and things like that.

Tim: Yeah, so you think about your microwave, your fridge, your countertop outlets, stuff that does your coffee makers and toasters, dishwashers, disposals. All of those need dedicated circuits by our code. So in a lot of old homes they could be all in one circuit.

I’ve had homes that have the microwave on with the bathroom GFI, and every time the wife goes to blow-dry her hair, it trips the breaker. So things like that will definitely make the decision of, okay, we need to go up.

And now probably the single biggest factor I’m seeing is car chargers. Car chargers draw a lot of power and a lot of people are buying Teslas or any other type of electric car, and it uses a lot of power to do that.

So when they know, okay, a lot of them know we are not going to get it now, but three years down the road, my next car is going to be an electric car. I already know it is.

John: Right.

Tim: Right, so they’re going to prepare now for it rather than waiting and having time to then have to come back and deal with it this time. So it’s a lot of forward-thinking you want to do of what my house wants to look like and what I want to put into it so that you don’t have to then spend all this money fixing it, then realize, oh no, I need to do a service upgrade and to spend more money now.

Steps Involved in an Electrical Service Upgrade

John: Okay. What are the typical steps that are involved in getting an electrical service upgrade done and approved? Are there code compliance that you have to be concerned about and electrical inspections that have to happen?

Tim: So yeah, so typically a licensed electrician will come out to your home, basically talk to you about your options and look at your current service.

What I like to call is the straightforward services that are basically easy ones. They are just no complicated issues whatsoever. Those are generally straightforward. Even those will require us pulling a permit and having an inspection when we finish.

Then there’s obviously the more complicated ones. We have a couple going out now that actually we need to relocate where the existing service is and we need to get the power company involved in that. And whenever you get the power company involved, it does slow things down and take some time to get them to approve certain aspects of your new location of where the power is coming from the telephone pole to your home.

Or even for us, we have a couple projects where we have to go through the roof just because of how the house is designed. So all that now requires getting a roofer out there and making sure that everything’s going to be okay and you’re going to have no leaks. So they can be definitely more involved than what people think.

It definitely depends on your typical home and how it’s designed, but on average, usually it’s basically come out, give a price, look it over, then you usually pull the permit, do the job, and then get the inspection. It’s usually this normal, straightforward beginning to end.

Cost of Electrical Service Upgrades

John: Right. In terms of the cost of these upgrades, how is the upgrade level, how does that impact the price tag in the end? I know you said that for that person that you mentioned going from 60 amps to 200 amps that it would be more than the cost of a normal other house going from just like 100 to 200 amps or something like that. How does that jump in the electrical service level affect the price tag?

Tim: Yeah, so not necessarily will someone who originally has 60 amps and wants 200 be more costly. It definitely depends on your house and definitely depends on your particular, how it was done in the beginning.

We have two types of services. We have an underground and above ground. So the underground is when there are no overhead wires to your home, they’re all done underground. You see those a lot around the city and inner city areas more than out in the suburbs. Those end up having higher price tags to them because you have to actually upgrade the entire wire and pipe size that runs underground, and that usually almost always entails the National Grid or Eversource or the municipality getting involved and they could have their own fees at times too.

Then the overheads are more straightforward, more simple because the wires do not, most of the time, need to be upgraded. Or if they do, those overhead wires are actually owned by the power company, so if they need to be upgraded or they’re old, they are responsible for fixing them, not you as a homeowner. So that tends to lower the cost a lot more.

Basically what we see, most of all is that higher costs are really related to weird locations for your panel. Rather than your panel being on an outside wall, it’s in the middle of the home, or you finished your basement and now a lot of people have framed in their panel and made their basement look nice. Well now you’re getting a bigger panel that’s physically larger, can’t fit in that cubby that they built around it. Well now all that has to be ripped out and then rebuilt around it. So that increases our time and what we have to do and our labor cost to get that to be code compliant.

What to Expect When You Upgrade Your Electrical Service

John: And what should homeowners expect in terms of timelines and disruption to their day-to-day life? Obviously, you’re going to have to shut off the electricity to the house in order to do an upgrade like that. How long can they expect that to go on?

Tim: I tell customers it’s usually a full day, so a strong day. So by a strong day, I would mean maybe eight to 10 hours depending. Basically ninety-nine percent of the time, we make sure we get power back up before we leave. I know that’s a big concern for people. Even if the job may take two days, we’ll still make sure we get power back up. So you get heat, your food won’t go bad, but it will be basically that at seven o’clock power is going out and it may not be back up till 3:30, 4 o’clock basically. That is usually the typical, it will be a full day.

So definitely customers have to prepare themselves for either if they need to work from home and they need the Wi-Fi to either go somewhere else, maybe go to neighbors or go into work that day, or I guess they could just read a book if they wanted to because fortunately they won’t have lights or TV. But it is always a full day usually at minimum-

John: Right.

Tim: Sometimes they go longer, but at a minimum it’s a full day you won’t have power.

John: And like you said, you try to get the power back up at the end of the day. If it’s going to go onto a second day, you try to get at least minimum power back up for the major appliances and then you might have to come back for a half day the second day or something like that in order to do some cleanup or complete some things that you were working on.

Tim: Yeah, usually the priority is getting power back up. There’s things like, for example, we label the panels once we finish them, things like that sometimes can go into the following day, but as long as you have power and heat and your food’s good, other things can wait until the following day.

If it is a two-day upgrade, we will usually know that ahead of time and let the customer know that, “hey, we can’t get this done in two days. Unfortunately, you’re going to be without power overnight.” So they can prepare and do what they need to do before we start doing that.

We definitely make sure that that’s not a surprise for them come three o’clock and we’re telling them that power isn’t going to be up overnight. That has never happened to us and we try to make sure that that won’t happen and any ones that do take longer than the typical day, we talk about ahead of time. So there’s a plan in place. We try not to surprise anyone.

Benefits of Upgrading Your Electrical Service

John: Right. And what are some of the long-term benefits of upgrading your electrical service?

Tim: So the biggest thing is future-proofing. Basically, you never know what new things are going to come out or what you’re going to want or what you’re going to need new power for. Especially with state and national codes changing a lot, maybe you plan on keeping that gas stove for whatever, but then all of a sudden it breaks. Then for some reason there’s a code in place. They have to, if you want a gas stove, you have to jump through some hoops to get the gas stove. Well, now you need an electric stove because you don’t want to jump through those hoops or the cost is too much…

John: Right.

Tim: But if you don’t have a panel large enough to support that stove, well now you need an upgrade. So the benefit is, I really think any home nowadays that’s a typical single-family home, you can’t go wrong with 200 amps.

It’s something that everyone should think about in the back of their mind is just upgrading to 200 amps at least. Very few homes need 400 amps, but 200 amps will basically cover you for car chargers, heat pumps. Any whole home electrification that you need, you’re basically covered and you don’t have to worry about it.

Because usually what happens is things like this tend to come back and bite you at the worst possible time rather than when you can kind of plan for it, maybe save some money and kind of put that on the to-do list, so to speak.

It’s not fun giving bad news to customers when they think you get called out for a light not working and you realize that their panel is shot and now you’re giving them a price to replace their panel when they thought, okay, I need a light or that’s all I’m going to pay for.

So that’s definitely part of the biggest advantage of it. It future-proofs your home, it allows you to upgrade however you want to and basically obviously you’ll be able to, if you plan for it, you won’t have that surprise happen.

So that’s a huge plus as well. Things are expensive nowadays, so being able to plan for it and know what is happening and what you want, your price, excuse me, what you want your order to be as far as you’re fixing your home and being able to plan for that is a lot, is very important.

Upgraded Electrical Service and Your Home’s Resale Value

John: Right. `I’d imagine that it would actually increase the value of your home as well, so it’s probably a good investment. Anybody who’s buying your home, if you’ve already upgraded the 200 amps, that’s just going to be a bonus for anybody buying the house that they know that they’re not going to have to then upgrade further.

Tim: Yeah, exactly. Most home buyers look into it and if they have plans for the home, they’re going to look at that existing service and how much power they have, and if they go in thinking, okay, well now I have to price this up, or now I have to spend the money to get this upgraded, it may deter them away from a home or it may just, they don’t want to pay as much as you want for your home. So it is definitely good to do for the resale value of your home and also it’s newer technology, it’s safer, which is always a good thing.

Ready to Upgrade? Then, Contact Us Today

John: Absolutely. All right, well that’s really great information, Tim. Thanks again for speaking with me today.

Tim: Thank you for having me.

John: And for more information, you can visit the N.E.T.R website at netrinc.com or call 781-933-NETR. 781-933-6387.