Does My Electrical Panel Need to be Upgraded When Going Solar?

Solar Lesson #18
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Does My Electrical Panel Need to be Upgraded When Going Solar?

Does My Electrical Panel Need to be Upgraded When Going Solar?

Many of our customers in Massachusetts wonder how much a solar energy system costs. Our prices vary depending on the brand of solar panel and if there are solar batteries to have power during grid outages. However, another factor that impacts the total cost of a solar system is whether or not the property needs an electric service panel upgrade.

You may need to upgrade your electrical panel if you have an older home with an older breaker panel or live in a newer home where the panel is undersized.

What Does My Main Electrical Panel Do?

An electric service panel, breaker box, or fuse box receives power from the utility company and distributes it to all the circuits throughout your home. Some homes also have a sub panel that connects to the electric panel and feeds power to a specific part of the property.

Wires run from your electric service meter to the main breaker on your breaker box. This is how your home is connected to the power from National Grid, Eversource, or the electric company that services your area. The utility company owns the electric meters and the wires coming in from the street. However, everything else is owned by the homeowner.

An electrical service panel is usually located in an out-of-the-way location, such as a utility closet, basement, or garage, and is built into the wall. It is a metal box that is commonly painted gray and contains the main breaker that controls power for the whole home and individual breakers (or fuses in older homes) for specific loads or segments of your home.

The main breaker also provides overcurrent or overload protection to the property. It is rated to handle a certain amount of electrical current. If this value is exceeded, it will trip to protect the property. When the breaker trips, the power will stop flowing. If you want to turn off the power to your whole home, you can switch the main breaker off. This will turn the power off to everything downstream from the main breaker.

Usually, several smaller loads can be on one circuit, such as lights, fans, and small electronics.  As a general rule, power-hungry appliances that use more than 1,000 watts have their own circuits, such as an air conditioner, electric range, water heater, hot tubs, and dryers. Usually, each breaker or fuse is labeled, so you know what loads it feeds.

Breaker boxes also contain insulated wires from the power meter, a neutral wire from the meter, grounding bus bars, and hot bus bars. Sometimes, older homes have fuses instead of breakers and may require a screwdriver to remove them. Unlike a circuit breaker where you merely switch it back into place, if you blow a fuse, you need to replace it.

How Can I Tell If I Need a Main Panel Upgrade (MPU)?

When you go solar, one of the first things that will happen is that a technician will come to your home to inspect it for readiness to go solar. They will determine if your house's main panel needs an upgrade. You may need a main panel upgrade for several reasons:

  • An outdated electrical panel that is no longer listed as approved by the Authority Having Jurisdiction (AHJ).
  • Not enough space to add an additional electrical breaker.
  • An MPU may be needed if the breakers in your electrical box cannot handle the extra electrical load provided by the solar power system. 
  • Will not be able to handle a higher DC input voltage that is required for the solar system size.
  • Having an improper size or an outdated breaker box can be dangerous. And should be replaced to reduce the risk of an electrical fire in your home.

Is it Worth Upgrading an Electric Panel for Solar?

If your panel isn't able to accommodate your solar system, you cannot safely install solar. The Viridis Energy team is skilled in upgrading electric service panels and can complete this when installing your rooftop solar energy system.

One benefit to upgrading the panel at the same time is that you might be able to get a larger federal solar tax credit. A tax credit is a dollar-for-dollar reduction in income taxes owed to the federal government. The Federal Solar Income Tax Credit was just increased to 30% of the total cost of your solar system.

If your current electrical panel is inadequate for your home, there will be additional benefits if you upgrade it. For example, if you tend to overload some of your circuits, you may need to be mindful of how many loads you put on one circuit simultaneously. In some homes, you might be unable to run the coffee pot, microwave, and toaster all at once without tripping the breaker. Upgrading your service panel will prevent this issue and could even improve the performance of some newer appliances.

Sometimes age, corrosion, damage, or incorrect installation can create safety issues. Take corrective action immediately if you ever smell a melting or burning odor near your breaker box.

How Much Does An Electric Service Panel Upgrade Cost?

It usually costs about $4,000 to upgrade a main electrical panel, including the labor and materials. But the price depends on the amperage of the panel, the number of circuits, and the amount of labor required to swap out panels. It typically takes between four and eight hours to complete the project. If you need additional wiring work or to move the panel, it could take longer.

A 100-amp service panel is on the lower end of that range but isn't adequate for most homes in New England.

If Viridis Energy completes the electric service upgrade when we install a solar panel system, this expense can qualify for the Federal Solar Income Tax Credit. This means it can lower the cost of the work by 30% if you install solar along with it. We recommend speaking with a tax expert to make sure you have a sufficient tax liability to take advantage of the tax credit.