Unlike your home's plumbing, your home's electrical system is less likely to suffer from minor yet annoying issues. Wiring problems tend to be fairly obvious (and potentially serious) when they occur, making them particularly worrisome on the rare chance that they do pop up. Although certain issues may indicate an underlying wiring fault, many electrical problems are actually signs that your home's electrical system may be in need of an upgrade or an update.
The Basics of Your Electrical System
Every home's electrical system has its own quirks, but most are designed in a generally similar manner. Power enters your house and goes to a main electrical panel. This panel distributes electricity throughout your home using a number of circuits. The main panel is where your home's circuit breakers or fuses or located, with each one controlling a single circuit. The circuits themselves are "paths" for electricity to flow out to each appliance, outlet, or fixture located on that circuit and then back to the panel.
Since circuits are isolated from one another, wiring faults usually show up as problems on a single circuit. Any interruption to the wire in a circuit will cause the entire circuit to fail, so a wiring fault will usually create only localized problems. If that's the case, then what does it mean when you are experiencing problems throughout your home?
Signs That You Need an Upgrade
The capacity of your main breaker box is rated in amps. This is typically 200 amps for a single-family residential structure, but some homes have smaller or larger boxes installed. The capacity of the panel is distributed across the various circuits in your home, so the total capacity of all circuits is limited by the capacity of the box. If you live in an older home with a smaller panel (often around 100 amps), then your main panel box may be living on borrowed time.
Of course, some times even larger panels aren't enough for more demanding homes. Common signs that your panel is overworked include breakers that are tripping repeatedly, a box that is warm to the touch, or even burns when the breakers plug into the box. This last symptom is particularly serious and should be investigated by a trained electrician immediately. You may also notice lights dimming in your home when power-hungry equipment such as a water pump or an air conditioner turn on.
Dealing With a Service Upgrade
If you determine that you need an electrical service upgrade, you will need to work with both an electrical contractor and with your power company. Once your power company is aware that you will be upgrading your home's electrical service, an electrician will be able to finish the job for you. Luckily, replacing a main service panel and upgrade your service won't require the wiring in your home to be torn out and replaced. The work is done at the panel and the pipe (referred to as the riser) where service enters your home. Once the work is completed, it will generally need to be inspected to ensure that it is up to local codes.