Solar

Your Electrical Panel - Homeowner’s Guide To The Breaker Box

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Homeowner checking a circuit breaker in their electrical panel, aka breaker box or service panel, in preparation for home solar installation.
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When you’re installing a new solar power system, it's helpful to understand what your home’s electrical panel does, since you might have to replace it with a higher capacity model before you can go solar. Whether you call it the electric panel, breaker box, or service panel, this device plays an important role in the distribution of electricity to your home, while protecting your home from potential damage.

With this article, you’ll learn about the core functions of the electrical panel, including what it does, how it works, common alternative names like breaker box and service panel, and the relationship between your electric panel and your solar panels, so you can better understand how electricity works in your home.

What is an Electrical Panel?

An electrical panel is a common enclosure that contains equipment that controls the flow of electricity to specific circuits around the house, including a protective fuse or circuit breaker for each circuit. Think of it as the brain of your home electrical system, as it connects the power from your home solar and the electricity grid to your home’s appliances and outlets.

What Does an Electrical Panel Do?

An electrical panel is designed to distribute power around your home. Your outlets and switches are grouped together into circuits, which just means that power flows out of the electric panel, through wires that connect the outlets and switches, and then back into the electric panel to form a complete loop, or branch circuit.

Your electrical panel is also designed to protect the home from electrical damage resulting from power surges and overloads:

  • A power surge occurs when the electrical current spikes beyond the expected range, such as when there is a lightning strike, a grid problem, or an issue with a large appliance.
  • An overload can happen when a circuit receives more amperage than it's built to handle, such as when numerous running appliances require more power than the panel can give. Whenever the current moving through any given circuit breaker exceeds a set limit, the electric panel will automatically break the flow of power for that circuit to protect your home.

The Various Names for an Electrical Panel

Electrical panels often go by other names because of their function or appearance. Here are some of the more common names for this important part of your home’s electrical system, and why it may have been given that name:

  • Breaker Panel or Breaker Box – It’s the location where the breakers live.
  • Circuit Breaker, Circuit Breaker Box, or Circuit Breaker Panel – It’s the box where the circuit breakers are contained.
  • Distribution Board (DB Board) – The panel is shaped like a board and it distributes power to the entire house.
  • Electrical Service Panel or Electrical Control Panel – If your home’s electrical systems need servicing, this is the place where that work begins.
  • Fuse Box – Before circuit breakers, home electricity was protected by fuses, so some people still call these “fuse boxes”.
  • Load Center – It’s the central area where electrical loads are distributed through the house.
  • Panel Board – The area inside the metal box that divides electrical power into different circuits.

How Do Electrical Panels Work?

To understand how electric control panels work, we can start with their anatomy, including the various components and the functions they perform.

The Enclosure

This is the actual box that contains the various components operating your electrical system. The electrical panel box is usually made from metal, typically grey in color, and usually has one or two doors covering the equipment and circuit wiring to ensure access to the home’s breaker box is restricted.

In addition to individual circuit breakers, the enclosure houses the ground bar or neutral bus, which is where the ground wires from each circuit are terminated.

The enclosure prevents water from getting onto the wiring, contains electrical discharges, and keeps dust and other pollutants at bay.

The Main Breaker

This switch controls the entire flow of current to your house, including power from utility companies. While you can manually flip it yourself, the breaker panel will automatically trip the main breaker to stop current flow whenever a major overload happens. In case of an electrical emergency at home, this is the switch you should flip to cut the supply of power to your house.

Single Pole Breakers

The single pole breaker (often 15 amp or 20 amp rated) facilitates power flow to your appliances and outlets, protecting them from electrical damage whenever there is a short circuit. If this component detects abnormal current, the breakers are designed to trip (flip to the off position) to stop the flow of electricity and ensure no damage is done to your electronics. As a result, they can safely stop a problem on one circuit without affecting power flow to the rest of the circuits.

Double Pole Breakers

Double pole breakers support the larger appliances in your house, such as an air conditioner, electric range, electric clothes dryer, electric water heater, and even hot tubs. Normally these breakers are wired to serve a single 240 volt circuit, but they can also be wired to serve two separate 120 volt circuits. A double pole breaker contains two hot wires with a single neutral wire, allowing the flow of electricity to be stopped if there’s an issue with either hot wire.

Arc Fault Circuit Interrupters

An Arc Fault Circuit Interrupter (AFCI), also known as an Arc Fault Detection Device (AFDD), prevents electrical fires from breaking out inside your home by detecting issues before they can generate the heat and sparks that cause a fire. Think of an AFCI like a smart breaker that contains filters and logic devices to detect problems. Electrical fires are difficult to detect unless you are on scene, so these circuit breakers identify arcs in electricity and respond automatically to stop power flow whenever the risk of fires is detected.

Empty Slots

If you look closely at your breaker box, you might notice some blank spaces without a circuit breaker. These empty slots give you the opportunity to install additional circuits in the future if needed.

Subpanels

If you have a large home with multiple separate areas or wings that need electricity, a subpanel helps direct electricity with increased efficiency. Instead of running all of the circuits through one breaker panel, you can subdivide the distribution of your home’s electrical loads through these smaller panels designed for specific areas of your home.

Where Is The Electrical Panel Commonly Located?

Usually the electrical panel is located in a dry, indoor location away from the main household activities, to prevent it from being tampered with or accessed unintentionally and causing an electrical shock. In rare cases, the home electric panel may be located outside, though this is more common on older homes where the panel replaced an existing fuse box.

If you’re looking for your electrical service panel, some likely locations include:

  • Garage
  • Basement
  • Closet
  • Hallway Leading In From The Home’s Exterior
  • Kitchen Pantry

The Relationship Between an Electrical Panel and Solar Panels

To understand how your electrical control panel affects the installation of your solar panels, you should first review How Solar Energy Works.

  1. Solar panels convert solar energy into electricity.
  2. Inverters convert the electricity from direct current (DC) into alternating current (AC) that your home and appliances can use.
  3. The electricity goes from the inverter to your breaker panel for distribution throughout the house.

Your Home Might Need a Better Electrical Panel for Your Solar Power System

Not every electrical panel is suitable for residential solar panel system installation, as it depends upon the capacity of the panel and its ability to handle the electricity created by the solar panels and the electrical grid. You might need your solar company to upgrade your home's electric panel before going solar to ensure your solar panels can work effectively, and everything follows the electrical codes.

If you’re unsure of whether or not your electric panel is solar-ready, contact Palmetto at (800) 858-6649 or consult an electrician to review your home's electricity needs.

Fortunately, if you need a new electric panel before you can go solar, there are solar-ready panels specifically designed to be compatible with modern solar panels and all electrical codes, complete with energy-monitoring functions that give you an overview of your home's electrical production and consumption.

Power Your Electrical Panel With Solar

Your electrical panel is a fundamental part of your home, as it ensures you have electricity when you need it, and your home is protected from damage if there’s ever an issue with that electricity. This role is especially important when you consider adding a solar energy system to your home electric system.

The process of matching your home’s electric panel to your solar power needs may be challenging, since you want everything to work together smoothly. To get started, we suggest that you get a Free Solar Estimate from the clean energy professionals at Palmetto.Our solar energy experts will assess your home’s electricity needs and the status of your electrical systems, and give you the options you need to make the right decision for you.

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