Toaster ovens, lights, cell phones, air conditioning, office computers: We can all agree that electricity is vital to how we live and work each day. Within a properly designed and installed electrical system, it serves us twenty-four hours a day.
Electrical equipment and technology also move right in step with Father Time. Circuit panels can become obsolete as calendar pages continue to turn. Oswego, Naperville, Aurora, Yorkville and Plainfield include different homes built at different times. Many have been standing for decades, and among those, original or aging panels may still be used.
On average, tens of thousands of home electrical fires break out nationwide every year, causing nearly 500 fatalities and more than $1 billion in property damage. Hundreds more people are electrocuted. A home’s electricity distribution system – including its main panels – is among the top three causes of home-structure fires.
How Do Circuit Breakers Protect Our Homes?
All electrical systems are required by law to include circuit breakers, which are typically organized in a circuit breaker panel. The panel receives energy from the utility provider and distributes it throughout the home. At the same time, it helps protect the house from power overloads, ground faults and short circuits.
A circuit breaker box is a single, centrally organized system that provides access to all of a home’s main power lines. It includes a main circuit breaker that is the primary on-off switch for all of the other circuit switches that are assigned to different areas of the home.
When the panel detects a problem in a particular circuit’s area, the dedicated switch will open to sever the circuit and cut the power. This prevents the potential of a continuing electrical flow to start a fire, cause overheating or damage electrical components.
Current residential homes will typically include one of three circuit breaker types:
Standard circuit breakers. These work by stopping the power if a circuit reaches a temperature that exceeds its built-in understood range, which means it is drawing more power than it can handle.
In response, heat-sensitive metal inside the breaker will start to bend. This shuts off the power and stops the wires from becoming dangerously hot.
GFCI circuit breakers. Where standard circuit breakers detect a system’s heat, GFCI breakers sense if an electrical flow is imbalanced. A detected irregularity such as a grounded wire will cause the switch to trip.
A GFCI panel is often installed in outlets near water sources (e.g. kitchens and bathrooms) because those outlets can be easily grounded by moisture and create a shock. GFCI breakers can pick up even a small current of a few milliamps and respond to it in 1/40 of a second.
AFCI circuit breakers. AFCI breakers detect electrical arcs from damaged wires or extension cords or within appliances connected to the circuit. An arc fault takes place when an electrical cable’s insulation is compromised, such as by pet chewing or piercing by a nail.
AFCI breakers are usually installed as extra protection beyond a standard circuit breaker panel. Its prevention of faulty arcs helps to further secure the home from electrical fires.
Is It Time to Replace Your Electrical Panel?
More than half of American homes were built before 1980. At the time of this writing, that means those houses are at least 42 years old. There’s a chance that many may still have electrical panels that are outdated and potentially hazardous. Some panels also have been declared defective along the way.
If your home has had the same circuit breaker box for more than 30 years, you will benefit from having it inspected by a Trinity professional.
The following four panel types in particular should receive prompt attention.
Federal Pacific Electric (FPE). FPE was one of the most popular panel manufacturers in the U.S. from the 1950s to the 1980s. However, the panels are very unsafe, as their breakers have been found to not trip when they should, leading to many electrical fires. There have also been reports that FPE circuits in the off position still send power to the circuit.
In addition, because of their age, most of the panels do not satisfy today’s updated Underwriters Laboratory (UL) and National Electric Code (NEC) safety requirements.
Zinsco. Zinsco panels were commonly installed during the 1970s. The brand is now defunct, but many houses still have them. They are unsafe because breakers inside many of the panels melt to the main bus bar, which means the breaker cannot trip even when there is an overload or short circuit. A power surge can melt wires and start a fire.
In 1973 Zinsco was purchased by GTE-Sylvania, which changed the Zinsco product name to Challenger a few years later in 1978. Many GTE-Sylvania or Sylvania panels were rebranded Zinsco panels, or they contained the problematic Zinsco design. Not all of the panels were hazardous, but they should definitely be inspected.
Split-bus. A typical standard circuit breaker today has a single metal bus. After power enters the panel, it passes through the main breaker to the bus, which connects to each individual breaker. By turning off the main breaker, you can shut off power to the bus.
Split-bus electrical panels have two buses and no single main disconnect. They include up to six switches labeled as main breakers. One of these main breakers controls power to half (the bottom) of the panel’s total breakers. The remaining main breakers connect directly to the other bus.
Alone, split-bus panels aren’t hazardous, but they stopped being installed more than 40 years ago. Their breakers may no longer trip as they were made to. Today’s electrical codes also do not permit multiple disconnects by different main breakers.
Fuse box. This old panel uses fuses instead of breakers to protect wires from overload. When too much power enters a circuit, the fuse burns out and has to be replaced.
Fuse boxes themselves aren’t inherently dangerous. They operate just as circuit breakers do, except that they can’t be reset. Their main issue is that most have been modified for modern energy requirements, which can overload the fuses. Most fuse boxes were made during times of lesser electrical demand and delivery.
The issue can be amplified by placing too many things on a fuse circuit (e.g. multiple appliances) or replacing the fuse with something metal or an incorrectly sized fuse.
Professional Electrical Services for the Fox Valley
Daily functioning and personal well-being depend on safe and proper distribution of electricity. If you have any of the panels we discussed or one that’s up in age, we can inspect it for you and advise you on the best way to ensure a steady and secure power supply at home in Oswego, Naperville, Aurora, Yorkville or Plainfield. Simply give us a call at (630) 499-1492.
Trinity Electrical Services is Master Electrician certified.
24-hour emergency service and 1-hour emergency response time are available.