Many of our customers in Oregon and Washington wonder how much a solar energy system costs. Our prices vary depending on the brand of solar panel and if there are solar batteries to have power during grid outages. However, another factor that impacts the total cost of a solar system is whether or not the property needs an electric service panel upgrade.
You may need to upgrade yours if you have an older home with an older breaker panel or live in a newer home where the panel is undersized. Let’s examine this topic so you can understand when an upgrade is necessary, how much it costs, and the primary benefits of doing it.
What does my main electrical panel do?
An electric service panel, breaker box, or fuze box receives power from the utility company and distributes it to all the circuits throughout your home. Some homes also have a sub panel that connects to the electric panel and feeds power to a specific part of the property.
Wires run from your electric service meter to the main breaker on your breaker box. This is how your home is connected to the power from Clark Public Utilities, Pacific Power, Puget Sound Energy, Portland General Electric, or the electric company that services your area. The utility company owns the electric meters and the wires coming in from the street. However, everything else is owned by the homeowner..
An electrical service panel is usually located in an out-of-the-way location, such as a utility closet, basement, or garage, and is built into the wall. It is a metal box that is commonly painted gray and contains the main breaker that controls power for the whole home and individual breakers (or fuses in older homes) for specific loads or segments of your home.
The main breaker also provides overcurrent or overload protection to the property. It is rated to handle a certain amount of electrical current. If this value is exceeded, it will trip to protect the property. When the breaker trips, the power will stop flowing. If you want to turn off the power to your whole home, you can switch the main breaker off. This will turn the power off to everything downstream from the main breaker.
Usually, several smaller loads can be on one circuit, such as lights, fans, and small electronics. As a general rule, power-hungry appliances that use more than 1,000 watts have their own circuits, such as an air conditioner, electric range, water heater, hot tubs, and dryers. Usually, each breaker or fuse is labeled, so you know what loads it feeds.
Breaker boxes also contain insulated wires from the power meter, a neutral wire from the meter, grounding bus bars, and hot bus bars. Sometimes, older homes have fuses instead of breakers and may require a screwdriver to remove them. Unlike a circuit breaker where you merely switch it back into place, if you blow a fuse, you need to replace it.
Should I upgrade my main electrical panel before installing solar in Oregon or Washington?
If you have a newer home with a 200-amp or more service panel and it has additional circuits you can use for the solar system, you probably don’t need to upgrade it. However, you might need a new service panel if you don’t have space for a solar circuit or adequate amperage. Like other appliances in your home, your service panel will eventually reach the end of its useful life, and you will need to replace it.
Most homes need at least a 200-amp panel, although some small homes with limited electrical needs may only need a 100-amp service panel. Likewise, larger homes with greater electrical needs should have a 400-amp panel. If your amps don’t support your electrical needs, circuit breakers will trip.
Your service panel is designed to allow a maximum amount of circuits, or else it will not be compliant with the National Electrical Code (NEC) or NFPA 70, which is the national standard for the safe installation of electric equipment and wiring. The National Fire Protection Agency published the National Fire Codes to promote safety.
Common signs that you need to replace your electrical panel include:
- Frequently tripped breakers (sometimes a sign that only the breaker needs to be replaced and not the whole panel)
- Flickering lights when other appliances are active
- A burning smell or discolored outlets is a sign your panel is getting too hot: Have an electrician assess the situation right away
If you are planning for future electrical needs, you might need to upgrade your panel. For example, if you are getting an electric vehicle, installing a hot tub, or switching from gas appliances to electric appliances, your existing panel might not be adequate. If your electric panel is sufficient for adding solar panels but not for future electrical needs, it might make sense to upgrade it when you go solar because you will already have a licensed electrician at your home.
If your service panel contains fuses instead of circuit breakers, you may want to upgrade it. Although fuses aren’t inherently unsafe, breakers have more safety features and are easier to use. If a fuse blows, it needs to be replaced instead of merely flicking a switch, so you need to keep extra fuses in the home to prepare for this.
If you eventually sell your property, having a fuse box might be unattractive to homebuyers, so upgrading can make your home more appealing. Also, some insurance companies will not insure homes with fuse boxes because of the associated safety risk. Therefore, you might need to upgrade to have your home properly insured.
When Smart Solar Energy conducts a Thorough Home Solar Audit, we inspect the electric service panel to determine if it needs to be upgraded. If so, we include the cost of the upgrade in our proposal and can complete the work when installing your solar panels.
What are the benefits of a new electrical panel when installing a residential solar system?
If your panel isn’t able to accommodate your solar system, you cannot safely install solar. The Smart Solar Energy team is skilled in upgrading electric service panels and can complete this when installing your rooftop solar energy system.
One benefit to upgrading the panel at the same time is that you might be able to get a larger federal solar tax credit. A tax credit is a dollar-for-dollar reduction in income taxes owed to the federal government. The Federal Solar Income Tax Credit was just increased to 30% of the total cost of your solar system.
If your current electrical panel is inadequate for your home, there will be additional benefits if you upgrade it. For example, if you tend to overload some of your circuits, you may need to be mindful of how many loads you put on one circuit simultaneously. In some homes, you might be unable to run the electric kettle, microwave, and toaster all at once without tripping the breaker. Upgrading your service panel will prevent this issue and could even improve the performance of some newer appliances.
Sometimes age, corrosion, damage, or incorrect installation can create safety issues. Take corrective action immediately if you ever smell a melting or burning odor near your breaker box.
How much does an electric service panel upgrade cost?
It usually costs about $2,800 to upgrade a main electrical panel, including the labor and materials. But the price depends on the amperage of the panel, the number of circuits, and the amount of labor required to swap out panels. It typically takes between four and eight hours to complete the project. If you need additional wiring work or to move the panel, it could take longer.
A 100-amp service panel is on the lower end of that range but isn’t adequate for most Washington or Oregon homes.
If Smart Solar Energy completes the electric service upgrade when we install a solar panel system, this expense can qualify for the Federal Solar Income Tax Credit. This means it can lower the cost of the work by 30% if you install solar along with it. We recommend speaking with a tax expert to make sure you have a sufficient tax liability to take advantage of the tax credit.
Can I upgrade my own service panel as a DIY project?
Upgrading your main electrical panel requires a permit and inspection to ensure it complies with the National Electrical Code and local codes. In Washington State and Oregon State, a homeowner is allowed to do electric work if they occupy the property. Some handy Washington homeowners may choose to replace their electrical panels if they have ample experience, but remember that it is a big job requiring electrical expertise.
Also, replacing a panel can be dangerous if you aren’t highly knowledgeable, and it is critical to avoid creating code violations in the home. If you lack the knowledge and experience, we highly recommend having a licensed Washington or Oregon electrician complete the work.
Ensure Your Service Panel Can Safely Accommodate Your Solar System or Else Upgrade It
If your service panel needs to be replaced, it’s best to do it when installing your solar power system. The Smart Solar Energy team can help determine if this is necessary, and we have licensed electricians available to complete the work. If your circuit breakers trip a lot, there is a burning smell near your panel, or your lights flicker when running appliances, it might mean your electric service panel needs to be replaced.
Before upgrading your panel, consider your future electrical needs. If you plan to install a Level 2 electric vehicle charger, add an addition, get a hot tub, or new energy-hungry appliances, plan accordingly.