A very common, and anxiety-producing question that many homeowners have asked me through the years is whether or not they need to upgrade their electrical service. Their anxiety is well founded because changing a service is disruptive, complicated, and costly. However, these homeowners recognize that not changing their service can limit what they can do or add to their home, or in some cases, can lead to the unimaginable disaster of their home burning down to the ground (maybe even with their family in it).
So the first thing is to understand what a service change is.
What is a service change?
- Electrical capacity. All homes have limited electrical capacity (as expressed in ampacity, the little number on your main breaker or on your fuses). When a service is upgraded or changed, that capacity is increased, allowing the potential for more circuits and more stuff (like a spa bathroom) to be installed and used.
- Electrical supply. Virtually all homes that are connected to the power grid have an
electrical supply of both 120 volts and 240 volts (expressed 120/240v,
and sometimes 115/230v). Your service change does not affect this at all.
- What gets changed? The only things that change with a service change are the connections with the grid on your house, the meter and all the cables leading in and out of it, the distribution panel (which is the thing that holds all the circuit breakers and where all the circuits come out of) and your grounding system. A service change does not inherently entail any changes or repairs to your circuits. What was funky before the change will remain funky until it is specifically addressed.
Now why in the world would you want to go to all this trouble?
- Convenience: Many older homes still have their original 100 amp service, so that when it comes time to remodel the kitchen or to add a room, often there is no room in the distribution panel to install the required additional circuits. There are special breakers called tandem breakers that can give you two circuits in one space, but there are severe space limitations in the panel itself or on the grounding and neutral bars that can make a dangerous mess in your panel.
- Capacity: As mentioned above, the amount of electricity available to use in your home is limited by the ampacity of your main breaker (hence the terminology of 100 amp service, 200 amp service, and so on). So when major things that need electrical power are added, or the size of the home is increased, then very often the electrical capacity of your service needs to be increased as well.
- Safety: Many electrical services have been hanging on the side of houses for an awfully long time, subject to deterioration caused by the environment and the weather. Some have become damp and corroded in those musty wet basements. Some have been chronically overloaded through the years and due to overheating, joints and connections have become loose. And some services still rely on fuses, which, because of their age, are corroded, overstuffed, and overheated. These conditions are dangerous, and good enough reasons to spend the money to change your service. Then you can ignore it in peace for the next 40 years.