Could Your Old Electrical Panels Be a Fire Risk?

by | Jul 21, 2023 | Blogs

The Fire Department responds to 46,700 residential fires annually caused by electrical failure and malfunction, causing a staggering $1.5 billion in direct property damage yearly. But did you know that a considerable number of these devastating incidents are caused by outdated or faulty electrical panels? 

Let’s uncover the often-overlooked signs of aging and unsafe electrical panels and equip you with the essential knowledge to mitigate these threats, ensuring the safety of your home and loved ones.

What Makes Up an Electrical Panel?

At the heart of every home’s electrical system sits the main electrical panel, a seemingly complex assembly of wires. Its primary purpose is to distribute the electrical current flowing from the power grid to different circuits within your home. 

Each circuit is protected by a circuit breaker, a switch that automatically interrupts the flow of electricity when there is too much electrical current. This feature prevents overheating wires that can cause a short or overloaded circuit — the common precursors to electrical fires.

Within the electrical panel, the circuit breakers are attached to a bus bar, a conductive material that distributes power to the individual circuits. The main breaker controls the electricity supply for the entire wiring panel; if a problem arises, this breaker can deactivate the circuits to prevent damage and fire hazards.

What is the Difference Between an Electrical Panel and a Breaker Box

While both an electrical panel and a breaker box play crucial roles in our electricity-dependent lives, they serve different purposes. 

The breaker box is the conductor of your home’s proverbial electrical orchestra, meticulously directing current to various circuits, and ensuring a balanced load. It swiftly interrupts the flow during overload, preventing fires and electrical damage. 

On the other hand, the electrical panel acts as your home’s electrical shield. It’s specifically engineered to protect against unpredictable power surges that can harm your appliances and electronics. 

Together, these two components ensure your home’s electrical system is safe, efficient, and reliable.

Faulty electrical wires

Why are Old Electrical Panels a Fire Risk?

As the main component of your home’s power system, electrical panels manage the electricity flowing into your house and distribute it safely across various circuits. However, old panels can fall short in this critical safety feature, paving the way for fire hazards. 

Some outdated panels, like Federal Pacific Electric (FPE) or Zinsco panels, have been associated with an increased fire risk. These popular panel manufacturers in homes built between the 50s and 80s, were later found to have a problematic design. Both types were recalled but are still often found in many older homes.

The Hidden Dangers of Outdated Electrical Panels

Outdated panels aren’t just a concern because of their age; they often hide dangerous defects behind their metal doors. One such hidden danger lies with the bus bar, a critical component that distributes power. In the case of Zinsco panels, the bus bar is prone to corrosion, leading to poor electrical connections that can cause overheating. 

Another concern is panels that have been recalled but remain in service. The Consumer Product Safety Commission has raised alerts about specific models from large manufacturing companies, including Federal Pacific and GTE Sylvania, due to their higher failure rates and potential safety risks. However, a formal recall has never been issued, and many of these problematic panels still lie unnoticed. 

The Role of Electrical Panels in Electrical Fires

Your outdated electrical panel may seem inconspicuous, but it can be the epicenter of an electrical fire. When a circuit breaker fails to trip in an overloaded circuit, wires can overheat, igniting nearby materials and sparking a fire. An ineffective main breaker may fail to deactivate circuits during such an event, further exacerbating the danger.

Reducing Your Electrical Panels Fire Risk

Minimizing the fire risk associated with your electrical panels begins with acknowledging the importance of regular inspections and necessary upgrades. 

Firstly, monitor your circuit breakers. If they frequently trip, it may signal an overloaded circuit or a short circuit. Also, circuit breakers that don’t reset properly or warm electrical panels that feel warm are signs of potential danger. 

Lastly, never ignore flickering lights, buzzing sounds from the panel, or burnt smell near the panel, as they might indicate an imminent electrical fire hazard.

How to Carry Out an Effective Electrical Panels Inspection

Electrical panel

For an effective electrical panel inspection, we recommend that you start by looking at the brand of your panel. If it belongs to a manufacturer known for unsafe electrical hubs, like Federal Pacific or Zinsco, that alone could be cause for concern. Other signs of hazardous panels include the presence of:

  • Flickering lights
  • Electrical shocks
  • Rust
  • Corrosion 

The key to assessing the condition of your electrical panel lies in understanding the nuances of your home’s electrical system. For instance, detecting an overloaded circuit can be tricky without a firm grasp of the electricity flows within your home. 

While homeowners can conduct preliminary checks, the complexity of electrical systems necessitates the involvement of a licensed electrician for a comprehensive evaluation. Many electricians stress the importance of professional inspections, particularly for homes built between the 1950s and 1980s, when potentially unsafe panels from popular manufacturers were commonly installed.

The Benefits of Upgrading Your Electrical Panels

An upgraded panel accommodates more circuits, enabling your power system to handle modern appliances’ demands without risking a circuit overload. 

For older homes, upgraded panels bring the power system up to the standards set by the Consumer Product Safety Commission and Underwriters Laboratories, thus enhancing overall safety.

New panels have more effective circuit breakers that trip more reliably when needed, reducing the risk of overheating wires and subsequent fires.

Modern panels and switches also offer enhanced usability and convenience. With clearly marked breakers, it’s easier to deactivate circuits when needed, allowing for safer electrical maintenance and troubleshooting.

Is Your Electrical Panel a Fire Hazard? Let’s Get Started!

The safety of your home should never be compromised, and at PlumbingWurx, we share that sentiment wholeheartedly. Our team of licensed and insured electricians is equipped with the knowledge and skills to help you navigate the complexities of your home’s electrical panel.

Whether you need a comprehensive electrical panel inspection, a repair, or an entirely new electrical installation, we’re committed to providing services that not only meet but exceed your expectations, contact PlumbingWurx today!

References 

  1. Consumer Product Safety Commission — Access date: 5 June 2023.

Contact us for a consultation today

Lean on the trusted expertise of your PlumbingWurx family at 1101 Opal Ct, Suite 101, Hagerstown, MD 21740.

Contact us at (301) 264-7577 today!

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