We have known since the inspection day that we needed a new electrical panel. In fact, the ranch house’s electrical system is so outdated that it needs a complete overhaul. Here are a few major problems we have, just to name it:
1. We have the famously terrible Federal Pacific Stab Lok breakers. They have been known to be problematic for a long time. It has been reported that some of them failed to trip when needed, which could be a potential safety hazard. There was even a class action suit in New Jersey on this product. Recommendation: replacement.
2. Our panel is full to the brim. There is no space to hook up anything else. Since we plan to install a HVAC soon, the panel has to be upgraded.
3. Our house is not properly grounded. Out of the three grounds that required by city code – concealed, ground rod, water main – we only have the “concealed”, which comes from the electrical pole.
As a consequence, none of our outlets is grounded (!). As shown in the picture below, our existing outlets do not have ground wires coming in (left). These outlets have nonetheless been upgraded to a modern grounded type, as shown on the right, but the ground wires are still missing. This is not uncommon in older homes. The problem is that some plug-in electrical devices need this ground connection for their built-in safety features, which will not work if the outlet is not properly grounded.
4. Reverse polarity outlets
As shown above, the two different size of the slots on an electrical outlet, and the different-sized blades on a plug, designate their respective polarization. Some of our outlets has the polarity reversed, which means the wires were connected wrong. What is the problem? Allow me to give you an example. A light-bulb socket has exposed threads, and polarized socket threads are attached to the neutral wire. If our lights are plugged in a reversed polarity outlet, the exposed threads would be connected to the “hot” wire, which brings a risk getting a shock when changing light bulbs.
5. None of our receptacles is GFCI, which is required for bathrooms, kitchen and garage.
It would be great if we could correct these issues all at once, but limited by budget and time, we decide to upgrade our panel first. We will be rewiring and ground outlets as we go around and renovate each room.
The old and outdated
Here are our old braker inside the garage, and the old meter box outside:
The grey-ish box to the left is the Comcast internet cable box, which needs to be grounded as well. See how it was done? It was grounded by a naked wire (no insulation) to the metal pipe that hold all the electrical wires above the meter box. A big code violation.
Taking the dry wall down in the garage
We have decided to take down the drywall on the entire garage back wall before the electrician started his job. Changing the panel and adding more outlets in the garage (Slav’s request) requires some dry wall being taken down. And doing it ourselves will save the electrician’s time and consequently cost us less. In addition, our inspector suggested us to take down the dry wall in the garage to check if there is potential water damage (due to our roof conditions). So it made a lot of sense to take down the entire wall before our electrical work.
Cleaning the garage
Taking down the wall-mount shelves
Dry wall was down!
We were surprised to find insulation behind the exterior walls. After probing around, it seemed like that both exterior wall are insulated with R11 fiberglass (with gaps on top and bottom though). This is a nice surprise because we were planning to insulate the garage so we can work in it during winter time. However, the wall between garage and the house is not insulated. So in summer, when there is a lot of heat trapped in the south-facing garage, the heat will be transferred to the kitchen and add our cooling cost. So we will be insulating this wall soon. However, it is a lot cheaper to insulate one wall then three! So we are definitely happy with the discovery.
Upgrade 1 – a brand new 200 AMP breaker
Next morning, our electrician got to work. All the wires from the breaker went into the attic above the garage, then went into the house through the main attic. Some of them were not even insulated! To extend the wires and adding proper insulation, our electrician worked inside the attic:
New junction box were installed:
And new wires were put into place!
These wired eventually all came out to the new breaker, which located outside of the house by city code.
Next, our electrician moved to the outside to set up the new panel.
The old setup
You can see the new panel on the ground! We are happy that this new panel stays outside – it definitely offers a cleaner look being one unit, and we can always use wall space in the garage! The new panel is 200 AMP (our old is 150 AMP), since there is not much price difference between installing a new 150 AMP box and a 200 one.
Notice that the new panel is a lot taller than the old one. Because that it has to be installed at a certain height by code, our electrician had to raise the incoming electrical wire pole (above the meter box) three feet higher. This was a nice surprise for us because the electrical wires coming into the house were hanging pretty low across the yard. When we move a ladder around the yard, we had to be really careful not to hit it. It might be because that our wires are coming from a midpoint between two street poles, which made the starting point a lot lower. So raising the incoming wires from the house’s end by 3 feet is definitely a win in our book.
Our electrician unhooked the wires coming from the street poles, and took the pipe off. It looked like that some squirrel had too much fun with the wires…
Can you believe that the whole house’s electricity was relying on these two poorly insulated wires? Crazy stuff.
Our electrician put the new panel up, threaded the new pipe through the roof, and connected them together:
Things started taking shape!
All the wires from the garage side were brought out of the wall to the new panel. The new wires were bolted to the studs so we can put in new insulation, and the old breaker box became a junction box.
Upgrade 2 – adding an outdoor outlet
We did not have any outdoor outlet before. When we needed to use electrical tools in the backyard, we had to pop the backdoor open to pass the wire through. Taking advantage of the breaker box being outside, we asked our electrician to put in a new outdoor outlet:
As you could see, the internet cable box was grounded properly to the breaker box in a small box below. Just look at that whole package – the new panel, new outdoor outlet, and new connection between the cable box and panel – aren’t they beautiful? We are VERY excited.
Upgrade 3 – ground to the ground
One of the biggest problem about our electrical wiring system is the lack of proper ground. Only ground through concealed wire is not enough. By code, we have to have two other types of ground: ground copper pipe and a connection to the main water line, both connecting to the panel with copper wires.
By code, the “ground to the ground” system has to have two interconnected copper pipes deep into the soil, and 6 feet apart. Here is the first one:
And the copper wire runs away 6 feet to connect with the second one:
The “water main” system means that there should be a copper wire coming from the breaker box, and connecting to the main water pipe. Like most of the houses, our main water pipe is located in our basement. Our electrician ran the ground wire above the ceiling of the garage, the brought it down all the way into the basement:
This copper pipe was connected to the main water pipe behind the paneling:
Upgrade 4 – adding GFCI outlets in the garage
We had three outlets in the garage before, and none of them was GFCI outlets. By code, all the outlets in the kitchen, bathroom, and garage have to be on GFCI circuit. Since Slav plans to add a long work bench in the garage along the back wall, we decided to put in a bunch of outlets right above the height of the work bench. Our electrician put in a few and spaced them evenly, 2 feet apart:
Look at them. Just breathtaking. I love this kind of stuff.
We marked on the floor with painter’s tape where the work bench will be. A 9 feet x 3 ft beast! With six outlets above it! Slav’s better work like a horse in here.
Upgrade 5 – wiring for HVAC
We are getting a HVAC and by code we need to have a dedicated outlet for the condenser unit outside, on the same wall where the unit sits. We are also required to put in an exterior outlet nearby, in case the unit needs to be serviced. Our electrician ran the wires through the attic and brought down to where the condenser will be (between the window well and the corner of the house). He installed the exterior outlet using the wires from an outlet we had in our bedroom.
Here you have it! Five big electrical upgrades in two days! We learned a bunch and are very happy with all the upgrades. It is hard not to step outside to admire our new panel…
Now our “electrical” to-do list becomes:
Replace the old Federal Pacific Stab Lok breakers.
Upgrade our electrical panel to code
Properly ground our house
Adding an outdoor outlet
Adding an outdoor HVAC connection
Install GFCI outlets in garage
7. Upgrade kitchen and bathroom outlets to GFCIs when renovating
8. Fix the ground and reverse polarity issue on our interior outlets, room by room
9. Redo garage overhead lighting