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Replacing an Electrical Panel or Circuit Breaker? Here’s How to Choose the Right One

Replacing an Electrical Panel or Circuit Breaker? Here’s How to Choose the Right One

It’s important that your home’s electrical system works properly. In addition to keeping your family safe from electrical fires and shock hazards, it also helps ensure that all your lights, appliances and receptacles run smoothly.  

You may decide to update your breaker panel to increase its capacity, to improve the resale value of your house or as part of new residential construction. Read on and learn how to choose the right electrical panel and circuit breakers for your home.  

TIP: Before purchasing a breaker panel, consult with a professional, or check with your municipal office and utility company to make sure the selected panel conforms to code requirements. It’s also essential to make sure you have any required permits before beginning electrical work.

Choose the Right Parts for the Job

Once you decide to purchase a breaker panel and/or breaker switches, it’s important to determine exactly what you need. 
  • If it’s a new residential installation, what amperage is required in your location? What amperage do you want to install? 
  • If it’s a retrofit application, what is the existing amperage and style of panel? Are the new electrical devices compatible? 
  • If you’re adding circuit breakers to an existing panel, are they the correct brand? It’s important to install the same brand and model for safety and functionality, and to make sure you don’t void the warranty.

All About Amperage

Amperage (or amps) refers to the strength of an electrical current. 

Electrical Panels 
  • A breaker panel is classified by the amount of amperage it provides and the number of circuits it can house: maximum amperage is indicated on the main breaker 
  • Amperage typically ranges from 60 amps (older homes) to 200 amps (new construction) 
  • For most homes, a 100-amp breaker is sufficient to meet all electrical needs 
  • New homes often feature 150 amps or more, ensuring plenty of capacity 
Electrical Breakers 
  • Circuit breakers are located in the panel and have ON/OFF switches that control the flow of power 
  • All circuit breakers have an amperage rating to indicate the maximum amount of electrical current the breaker will allow before it automatically "trips" and shuts off power to the circuit 
  • A circuit breaker is rated for the type of wire and load required by its circuit: for safety, the breaker must be sized correctly according to the current of the circuit  
TIP: The safe load for a circuit breaker is to operate at 80 percent of its maximum capacity.

Types of Circuit Breakers

There are different types of circuit breakers for different uses. The three main types are standard, GFCI and AFCI.

Standard Breakers

The most common type of breaker is a standard circuit breaker. They come in single pole and double pole options. In the event of an overload or short circuit, the breaker will trip and break the current to prevent overheating and electrical fires. 

Single Pole (or 1 Pole) Circuit Breaker 

  • The most common breaker used in homes 
  • Protects 1 energized wire 
  • Supplies 120 V to a circuit 
  • Handles 15–30 amps Double Pole (or 2 Pole) 
  • Occupies 2 slots 
  • Protects 2 energized wires 
  • Supplies 120 V/240V or 240V to a circuit 
  • Comes in 15–200 amps 
  • Typically used for large appliances like ovens or water heaters

GFCI Breakers

  • Like a standard breaker, a ground fault circuit interrupter (GFCI) cuts power in the event of an overload or short circuit 
  • It will also cut the power when a ground fault occurs, which can happen when an unwanted path forms between an electrical current and a grounded element 
  • A GFCI breaker helps to protect against accidental electric shock: it’s ideal for wet areas such as bathrooms, kitchens, garages, unfinished basements and outdoor areas

AFCI Breakers

  • An arc fault circuit interrupter (AFCI) distinguishes between normal and dangerous arcing and shuts off power to a circuit when it detects dangerous conditions  
  • An arc is an electric spark. Worn, damaged or loose wires can cause an electric spark or “arc” that can cause a fire 
  • An arc fault breaker is used to protect circuits in bedrooms and common areas
Canadian Electrical Code 
When installing arc fault circuit interrupters, check the latest requirements. The Canadian Electrical Code states that arc fault circuit protection is required in 125V AC, 15 A and 20 A circuits supplying receptacles throughout the home. Exemptions were reduced or removed in the 2018 code.

Additional Breaker Types

Additional types of circuit breakers you’ll come across include:

Dual Breaker: Protects against both arc faults and ground faults to deliver the combined benefit of an AFCI and GFCI circuit breaker in one unit.  

Tandem Breaker: A tandem breaker saves space. It feeds two 1-pole circuits but occupies only one space in the breaker panel. Also designed to save space, a quad breaker occupies only two spaces but feeds two 1-pole circuits and one 2-pole circuit. 

Main Breaker: Usually located at the top center of the electrical panel, the main circuit breaker: 
  • Allows you to disconnect power to the entire breaker panel, shutting off power to the entire house 
  • Is the largest breaker: it handles the large amperage load of the main feeder wires that bring electrical power to the house 
  • Identifies the breaker panel’s amperage capacity 
IMPORTANT: Make sure to always shut off the main breaker before carrying out work on your electrical panel. 
Good to Know! 
A sub-panel is a smaller electrical panel that services a specific area of the home or property. A sub-panel: 
  • Holds separate circuit breakers from the main breaker panel 
  • Is typically powered by a circuit from within the main panel and doesn’t have its own disconnect 
  • Is often located in the area it serves, making it great for use in a garage, workshop or greenhouse (if your tools trip the breaker it’s close at hand for a quick reset) 
  • Adds space: a sub-panel allows you to add new circuits when all the breaker slots in the main service panel are full 
  • Does not increase the amount of available power

Avoid These Common Mistakes

It’s important to do your research before choosing a panel box or circuit breakers. Consider the following before purchase to avoid potentially costly mistakes. 

Does the breaker panel offer enough capacity? Does it have available space for additional breakers? A panel with spare slots will make it easier to expand your setup in the future. 

Are you in compliance with local regulations? Make sure your panel installation and configuration meet the latest electrical code requirements and that you have any required permits. You’ll avoid rework, while keeping your home safe and functioning properly. 

Did you choose the correct circuit breaker(s) for the breaker panel? While some circuit breakers are interchangeable, most are brand-specific. Make sure to replace or add breakers designed for the brand of panel. Also, make sure to choose the correct type of breaker within the brand to ensure it fits. Check the breaker panel door for compatibility information. 

Does your house need more power? In this case, you’ll need a new breaker box, electrical metre and other accessories. For complicated electrical jobs, hire a licensed professional and make sure it’s done correctly.
Properly installed breaker panels and circuit breakers will help keep your home and family safe and your appliances running smoothly. Browse our selection of circuit breakers and electrical panels to create the ideal electrical setup for your home.
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