What does it cost to replace a circuit breaker box?
Electrical work is extremely dangerous, so make sure you hire a licensed pro for work around the home.
Most homeowners can sleep soundly knowing their electric panels will protect them by tripping off when a circuit overload occurs.
But many homes built between the 1950s and 1990 still have circuit breakers made by the defunct company Federal Pacific, which may not trip, thus posing a fire hazard. Or maybe you've traipsed down to the basement and discovered you have a faulty circuit breaker or an outdated fuse box. How much can you expect to pay to have a qualified electrician replace it?
We contacted 2012 Angie's List Super Service Award winning electricians in areas that do brisk business replacing circuit breaker panels, especially Federal Pacific's Stab-Lok brand.
“It depends on how many circuits you have, the existing conditions, whether it’s a single-family dwelling, multi-family dwelling and the amperage of the pane — whether it’s a 100, 150, 200 amp,” says Mike Volpe III, owner and license holder for All City Electrical in Kenilworth, N.J. “It could range from anywhere from $500 to $1,300 depending on site conditions.”
“Our price to replace a breaker panel ranges from $660 all the way up to $2,900,” says licensed master electrician Reed Chambers, who owns Peerless Electric in Euless, Texas.
“I don’t tend to take extreme measures using the F-word — fire — when talking to my customers about their breaker panels,” he says. “Personally, I’ve never seen a Federal or really any other breaker panel that actually caught on fire itself, but I do agree that they should be replaced.”
Chambers tells homeowners, “I tend to go with that logic that almost everyone has something electronic in their home with valuable information inside that electronic equipment. Whether you’re a video game person or a stock market trader or you collect family photos, whatever your area of interest, that’s the best reason to have up-to-date, functional electrical equipment protecting your home.”
How prevalent are Stab-Lok breakers?
“I change at least 300 a year,” Volpe reports “We see a lot of them in Jersey because they were actually based in North New Jersey, so they were a local company,” explains Volpe. “Each electrical supplier is going to sell a manufacturer that they support. When you have a company that’s producing them three towns over from where you’re supply houses are, most suppliers sold Federal Pacific electrical panels, and that’s why everybody had them.”
“The Dallas-Fort Worth area is saturated with Federal Pacific panels,” says Chambers. When American Airlines moved its headquarters from New York City to Texas in 1979, the influx of jobs created a housing boom in the Dallas/Fort Worth area. “The Federal Pacific breaker panels were cheap and if you were a builder and building homes in a building boom in the Dallas/Fort Worth area, you were trying to make every dollar you could,” Chambers explains. “One way electricians could save a few dollars is instead of installing Square D or Cutler Hammer — which is the best there is — they would install Federal Pacific.”
Both electricians reported customers who stubbornly decline service to replace their old breaker boxes. “I have Federal Pacific panels in customers’ homes who are not willing to replace them…and these are multimillion-dollar homes!” Chambers says, incredulously.
“When I do a job and a customer doesn’t want to change the panel, I do a signed affidavit because I just don’t want to be responsible for it,” says Volpe.
What to consider when replacing your electric panel
When replacing that circuit breaker box, don’t assume you’ll need to upgrade your capacity. Most modern homes actually use less amperage, so unless you’re planning a big addition to your house, you should be good with the amps you have now. “When they first came out, computers with hard drives were energy hogs,” says Chambers. “New computers and televisions are actually using less energy. An LED wall-mounted flat screen TV uses less energy than a 30-inch tube-type TV from 1980. If you use a laptop, you just charge those things up and off you go.”
If your old 100-amp breaker box goes kaput, Chambers recommends a 100-amp replacement because, for instance, “Your stove is gas-fired, your water heater is gas, your heating is gas, and you really only need electricity for air conditioning and lights and 120-volt outlets, so a 100-amp breaker panel is plenty for a house like that.”
You also want to steer clear of reconditioned breakers that you can find online or in a local supply store. “Say one of your breakers goes bad,” Volpe says. “You can’t go to the store and buy that. You would have to use an original used circuit breaker in order to pass inspection. The reconditioned ones that they sell online won’t even pass inspection.”
Make sure the electrician you hire has good working knowledge of the National Electrical Code and how it varies with the rehab codes in your city and state. “Some electricians — especially those who haven’t been around for a while or who aren’t really savvy with the code — will steer customers in a different direction just for not having the correct knowledge,” says Volpe.
Why you should replace those Stab-Lok breakers
If you do have a Federal Pacific breaker box, you definitely should replace it. Here’s why:
- They’ve been implicated in more than 2,800 house fires each year.
- Having Federal Pacific Stab-Lok breakers can nullify your insurance policy or increase your rates. Volpe uses an example of shopping around for a better rate on your homeowner’s insurance. The insurance company will send out an adjuster to your house. “Once they see that Federal Pacific, they’re either going to deny your insurance or they’re going to [make you] pay another $500-800 a year premium just to have that particular panel inside your house because they don’t want the liability.”
- You’ll have trouble selling your home. “When people go to purchase a home, it’s a red flag for the insurance company,” says Volpe.