If you have an older home or have recently bought a fixer-upper, your electrical service panel may have a fuse box. Many homes built before the 1960s have a fuse box instead of the circuit breaker that is now the norm in residential and commercial construction. Like a circuit breaker, each fuse in a fuse box controls the flow of energy from your power source (city electrical grid, solar panels, etc.) to the individual electrical circuits throughout your home. Each area or zone of your house has an electrical circuit that provides the energy for the appliances you use in that zone. Your fuse box is a critical juncture in the home, because it regulates the flow of energy for all the different circuits in your house and makes sure no circuit is overloaded. If too much electricity surges through any particular circuit, the fuse for that circuit will "blow," which means a small piece of metal inside the glass fuse melts, halting the flow of electricity.
One of the main differences between a fuse box and a circuit breaker box is that when a fuse blows, the fuse no longer functions and must be replaced before you can restore electricity to that circuit. A circuit breaker only requires you to switch the breaker back on for your power to flow again. Unless you know how to replace a fuse, you'll want an electrician to put in a new fuse for you, while even the most unhandy person can turn the power safely back on for a circuit breaker with a quick flip of a switch. While they are older technology, fuses are generally very safe because they completely interrupt the electricity, preventing a fire hazard. Fuse boxes have gotten a bad rap because when they are overloaded or owners install fuses that are too large for the wires (to prevent the fuse from blowing), that can be a fire hazard. But that's a user error, not an inherent danger in a fuse box.
Some experts recommend that homeowners stick with the type of juncture that they already have when making updates, while others recommend replacing fuse boxes with circuit breakers wherever possible. As you're deciding, consider that most fuse boxes installed in older homes are not equipped to meet the electrical needs of a new home with air conditioning, TVs, garbage disposals, dishwashers, microwave ovens and other modern electrical equipment. In older homes, people used far less electricity and the fuse boxes had lower amperages (a measure of the strength of electrical current), with fewer fuses to run your electrical circuits through. Most fuse boxes were made to handle no more than 60 amps, but modern homes often rely on 200-amp circuit breakers. A fuse box could happily handle this electrical load _if _it had the proper amperage. But, if a circuit is using more energy than the fuse box is equipped to handle, the fuse will blow and the power in that circuit will go out until you install a new fuse. You also may want to replace your fuse box is if it is required to meet loan requirements for a Federal Housing Administration (FHA) loan. Some insurance companies charge higher premiums for residences equipped with a fuse box than for residences with a circuit breaker.
If you want to upgrade your fuse box or replace it with a circuit breaker, an electrician must properly and safely install the new panels. Changing your electrical panel is never a DIY task. In fact, most cities and municipalities require you to get a permit before making any updates to your electrical service panel. The cost to replace or upgrade your fuse box can depend on the amperage your home or business needs, the labor required for the job, the number of circuits in your building, any permits needed, and possible upgrades (such as wiring) to the home's existing electrical system.
If you're worried about overloading an outdated fuse box, or if your fuse box has reached the end of its life, here are the factors that affect the average cost of replacing or upgrading a fuse box.
Labor generally makes up the lion's share of the cost to install a new circuit breaker or fuse box. Many electricians charge by the hour, and this type of work requires several hours, sometimes even an entire business day. Other electricians charge a flat fee for labor. Labor costs around the country vary. Depending on where you live and the particulars of your installation job, the cost to upgrade an existing electrical panel might range between $1,250 and $3,000. According to Hawkins Electric Service of Laurel, Maryland, a typical electrical panel installation in their region costs approximately $2,000. If you need to move the electrical service panel, that could cost approximately $500-$1,000 more, depending on circumstances.
Existing electrical system upgrades
A new circuit breaker or fuse box won't be as effective if the rest of the house isn't up to its standards. If your home was built many years ago, your wiring system may be efficient at best and dangerous at worst. Consult with your electrician to confirm whether your home's electrical wiring, outlets and fixtures need to be upgraded to handle the new circuit breaker or fuse box. The additional cost will depend on what type of wiring you currently have (knob and tube, nonmetallic sheathed cable, etc.), how large your home is, whether demolition is required, and the cost of materials. For example, Alpha Electric and More in Fremont, California, says that rewiring a 10-foot by 10-foot room might cost between $600 and $800, rewiring a kitchen with modern appliances and features might cost between $2,000 and $4,000, and rewiring an entire house in the San Francisco Bay Area might cost between $9,000 and $11,000.
Circuits and materials
The more circuits in the panel, the more expensive the circuit breaker or fuse box. Some larger homes require subpanels, which cost extra but not as much as the main circuit breaker or fuse box. Electricians may also charge a minimal fee for accessory materials such as fittings, fasteners and connectors. If the replacement panel doesn't fit the existing box, a retrofit and new box will cost extra.
Typical amperages for circuit breakers are 100, 150, 200 and 400 amps. Don't just assume that your home needs the highest-capacity amperage; many homes can be served just fine by a 100-amp box, although many modern homes are being built with 200-amp electrical service panels. The cost of the panel itself is typically about 30 percent of the total cost for the installation. Homeowners can either purchase their own panel or purchase it through the electrician.
A permit is often required by the local municipality for an electrician to replace a fuse box or install a circuit breaker. The permit ensures the work is done by a licensed contractor and that the installation is up to code, keeping city residents safe. For example, in the City of San Jose, California, residents who want to upgrade the main electrical service panel of their home must obtain an electrical permit from the city and have an inspection done. In San Jose, residents are not required to submit plans to the city for this upgrade. Costs of these permits vary across the nation, so be sure to call your local government office to learn what is required.
Signs your fuse box needs replacing
If you've just bought an older home or have recently increased your electrical consumption, you may be noticing some electrical challenges caused by your lower-amperage fuse box. You'll have electrical problems if your fuse box doesn't allow enough amperage to pass through the electrical service panel into your home, or the components in your fuse box have worn out and are no longer performing well. Here are some signs that you need to replace your fuse box or upgrade to more amperage:
- You need to replace fuses more often than you used to.
- You blow a fuse anytime multiple appliances are running on one circuit (a hair dryer and the floor fan blow the power to the back room).
- Your lighting dims and flickers as if you have a ghost.
- You notice warmth near electrical outlets. If this is the case, cease electricity use in this area and call an electrician immediately.
- The fuse box or the fuses look corroded.
- The fuse box makes strange noises, like humming or buzzing. If this happens, call an electrician immediately.
How to hire an electrician
Whether you have a fuse box that needs repairs or you want to upgrade your home's amperage, the first step is to find a reliable electrician to do the work. Electrical work requires a licensed electrician in most states. Licensing is a public safety measure to protect consumers and prevent electrical fires. Even if you are confident you can do your own electrical work, most cities and states require you to get a permit for electrical panel replacements, which usually requires you to show that a licensed electrician is performing the work. If you don't have a permit, you may run into problems if you ever try to sell your home, and you can even suffer an electricity-related fire or home damage. Most insurance providers won't cover damages caused by unlicensed electrical work, so it pays to hire a licensed pro. Your state may refer to it as licensing or registration, but in either case, do your research to verify that the electrician has a valid license or registration number with the governing body. For example, residents of Montana can look up license numbers through the Montana State Electrical Board. Follow these suggestions for finding a qualified pro:
- Request quotes from at least three electricians, and check their references.
- Ask for their license number and confirm it through your state or county licensing body.
- Hire a licensed electrician who provides a warranty on their labor and on their materials.
- Get a written contract that outlines the services to be performed and the cost of parts and labor.
Repairing or replacing your fuse box or circuit breaker is an investment, but you can find ways to save money.
- Only acquire an electric panel that has the amperage capacity that you really need. Don't spend money on more amperage than is necessary for your size of home.
- To save on labor costs, clear as much space as possible around the work area before the electrician arrives.
- See how much you can save on homeowners insurance. Some insurance providers charge higher rates for customers with fuse boxes because of the higher incidence of owner misuse and the fire hazards that result from using the incorrect size fuse for the home's wiring. Upgrading to a circuit breaker from a fuse box can save you money in the long run through reduced insurance premiums.
- Save time (and therefore money) by being clear on the requirements of federally funded housing loans. Some federal loans stipulate the amperage of fuse boxes; knowing the facts before you begin a loan application can save you time and effort.
- Finally, fuse boxes made by Federal Pacific Electric (FPE) were installed in many homes from the 1950s through 1990s. These boxes were investigated by the United States Consumer Safety Commission due to fire hazards. Consumers who are considering using these fuse boxes should read the relevant research before buying this brand.
- Read client reviews and follow up with references to make sure you're choosing the right pro for your project. For more, check out our tips for smart hiring.