Electric upgrade: circuit breakers, sure, but 200 amps?

We need to upgrade the electrical panel of our ‘new’ circa-1941 home.

We’ll replace fuses with circuit breakers, add a few plugs, change the bath and kitchen plugs to GFI, add a pull-chain light in one of the closets, run individual lines to the washer/dryer, gas heater & garbage disposal as the building code dictates. The cost here in San Francisco bay area is about $4500, not including the permits.

The electrician wants to upgrade the entire system to 200 AMPs. Is this necessary?

Many of the existing plugs are 3-prong, but apparently not grounded. The electrician wants to replace them with 2-prong sockets (at $5 each, x 10 or 12 units). Why not just leave them alone?

In the office we have two computers, the assorted computer paraphernalia, our TV (someday with home theater). We’re online often, and I can see us cooking and doing the laundry while we work in the evening with the heater on, but is 200 AMPS necessary?

What can you electronically-proficient Wizards tell me to keep me from getting swindled?

Your input is much appreciated.

I left my house at 100 amps, and haven’t had a problem of any kind. It could be an issue if I remodel the attic, power the detached garage or try to put in a hot tub / big AC unit / Car charging station. I can jump off that bridge when I get there.

When it comes to the sockets, if a 3 prong outlet isn’t actually grounded, you risk plugging in something that NEEDS a proper ground, and you won’t have it. Replacing with a 2 prong outlet will prevent you from doing that, but you will have to deal with grounded appliances potentially having no convenient place to plug in.

IANAE but I live in the Bay Area and I’ve done a fair amount of electrical work on my house.

Unless you have a lot of high-draw electrical appliances (electric range, water heater, etc) or intend on doing much arc welding it doesn’t sound to me like you need 200 amp service - I got rid of the ancient 60amp fuse box in my home (4BR/2BA) and put in 125amp service and I’ve never tripped a breaker.

Ask your electrician why he’s recommending 200amps over 100 or 125. Also find out what the added cost is - I’m not positive but I recall hearing that 200amp service requires some extra hardware at the service entrance although I may be wrong. If it’s a small incremental cost then I’d say go for it, extra capacity doesn’t hurt, but if it’s an extra $1000 and you just don’t need it then skip it.

On the outlets, I believe that it’d be a code violation to put a 3 prong outlet into a box and leave it ungrounded. Since an inspector will probably have a $5 tester with him to check the outlets he’d spot that problem in a second. One recommendation is to use a GFCI outlet instead. It’s 3 prongs and does offer protection even without the ground being hooked up. As always, confirm that it meets code but I’ve seen that suggestion in several guides and home electrical wiring books so I think it’s kosher. A GFCI will cost more than a plain outlet but you do get some extra protection.

I’d recommend picking up a good DIY wiring book (any home improvement store will have them - Black & Decker, Home Depot, Sunset for example all make these) and for about $15 you can get the “Code Check” flipchart which hits the highlights of the electrical code. Even if you aren’t doing the work yourself it’ll help you understand what’s being done and why, and how tough it is. If somebody tries to charge you $100 to change a circuit breaker or something you’d know it was too much.

yes that is typical for a home now, also it allows easy remodeling and use of large electrical appliances if you or next owner wants to use large electrical (water heater, range, dryer) . cost difference above 100A is not great, since you will be replacing your service entrance.

if the wiring is ungrounded then to have a 3 prong receptacle is a violation of the electrical code (in most of the USA). it is a safety hazard to have it incorrect. the electrician has to bring your system into compliance with the electrical code.

IAAE. Go with your electrician’s recommendations.

Given that you’re going from fuses to breakers anyway, the additional work and materials for stepping up to 200A is minimal, and may well save you headaches and future expenses.

Replacing ungrounded three-wire receptacles with two-wire is a cheap safety measure. People who intentionally defeat grounding (which includes breaking off third prongs, or using “adapters”) deserve the shocks they get.

If his proposal doesn’t already include it, I suggest that you also ask him to install a whole-house surge suppressor on the new panel.

You’re not upgrading your house to 200 amps, you’re upgrading it to the potential of 200 amps. The cost between a 100 amp panel and 200 amp panel is not a major factor in your overall estimate. A 200 amp box ranges from $130 to $165 depending on how many potential breakers you want. It just makes sense to spend an extra $75 for the larger box. You will only feed it the number of circuits you’re currently using while allowing for more lines at a later date.

As far as upgrading to 3 prong outlets I would see that as a normal upgrade. What is most important is the type of wire in the house.

It would probably be better to leave the outlets 3-prong and upgrade the wiring to actually ground them properly, but running new wire is always more work and usually more material than replacing outlets, and there’s no problem in the code with having 2-prong outlets-- That’s just a matter of convenience, in what you can plug into them.

I think the first step is another electrical contractor and a second opinion. Did you have the house inspected before buying? Sometimes the seller gets the shaft, but I think everything in the house, wiring, plumbing, furnace, etc. at least had to meet code when it was installed. The seller can be forced to upgrade at their expense. Remodeling is tricky. Do very much and you are required to bring things up to current codes. Did the electrician mention arc fault breakers for the bedroom and GFCI in the kitchen, bath, basement, outside, and garage?

I hope the $5 for 2 prong outlets includes instalation. GFCI outlets labeled ‘‘No equipment ground’’ should be code compliant.

I doubt the difference between a 100 amp or 200 amp box is that much. However, you can’t have a 200 amp main breaker unless your incoming service wiring is good for it. Your breaker protects the incoming wire as well as your house. This is a matter for the power company. In some cases, they don’t have the capacity to upgrade to 200 amps. I have 100 amp service that is adequate for our needs, but it only has 20 slots. Even with an 8 slot sub panel, we could use a few more circuits. I have one with 16 outlets on it.

My son bought a house about the same age a few years ago. In negociating the sale, he offer to go halves on repairing the chimney. The seller refused. The building inspector ordered the seller to repair it at his expense.

Yes, the type of wiring is important. My son’s house was already upgraded to a breaker box, 100 amps I think. It is mostly wired with BX as I would expect your house. In most places, the steel sheath can serve as the ground. Your 3 prong outlets may already be grounded. My son’s house still needs a lot of work. Every time his father in law or I visit, we do a little work. My son had picked up a plastic box for a project in the bath. I don’t know if code allows grounding through BX with a plastic box. I picked up a metal box and went on from it with 12-2 with ground, tying all the grounds to the box.

Note, code is what the local building inspector says it is. Winning arguments with them can be done, but best not. Best not to take shortcuts one inspector says is OK either.

Oh, I agree on getting a book and learning as much as you can.

Interesting, I thought I’d heard it was more of a price difference for 200amps but that’s not much at all.

I’d recommend rewiring the outlets so that they are three-wire grounded outlets.

And since you are running new outlets for the washer/dryer, you might want to get the washing machine connected to a device that will shut off the water when the machine is not in use. Something like this thing, which appears to connect between the washing machine and the wall.

Edited to add that that device would prevent a flood if and when the hoses to the washing machine fail.

if your wiring is 2 wire ungrounded then to switch it to 3 wired grounded is a major expense. it will include holes in the walls and repair on that.

you could, if you have a basement, more easily replace some or all ground floor receptacles. changing these for the area of computers, entertainment equipment, kitchen and bath would be good.

receptacles on new circuits would have to be 3 wire grounded.

changing wiring in the rest of the house could wait to spread out your home improvement costs.

2 wire systems can be safely used. many devices are no longer grounded and use 2 wire polarized plugs.

I assumed the electrician was changing out not only the panel but the meter and service riser and all, and calling the utility for a new service drop from the pole–“the entire system.”

If that’s not what was proposed, then the price quoted starts to seem a touch high, maybe even for San Francisco.

Right. Of course it’s better to have every electrical location and device in the house fully grounded. That often means tearing holes in walls and ceilings all over the place. The OP here is already concerned about cost.

I bet they aren’t effectively grounded. I expect the electrician made that recommendation in the first place after testing “open” ground, then opening the boxes to find two-conductor cables improperly landed on grounding receptacles.

Even if they do show somewhat effective grounding through metal boxes and cable armor (if it is BX/AC), relying on armor alone (with neither the insulated grounding conductor nor the bare bonding strip of newer designs) is a code violation, for the precise reason that such pathways have been known to fail and result in shock and fire hazards.

Can you just use a GFI circuit breaker and leave the outlets 2 prong with that sticker?

What alternatives did he offer? 100 amps? 150? What’s the price difference between them?

Is your dryer electric or gas? Is your oven electric or gas?

Quoth johnpost:

Sometimes, if you’re lucky, you’ll be able to do it with just a snake behind the walls, using the holes that are already there for the outlets/switches. But even that’s still a huge pain, since wall snakes never go where you want them on the first attempt (nor, usually, the first dozen).

That would make more sense. It sounds like the op needs a primer on wiring to understand the estimate. I’m a do-it-yourself person and I’ve only installed new boxes. It’s a PITA just swapping out a panel without making any other changes. That’s a chunk of change by itself in labor. Rewiring is impossible to guess at without seeing the house. I have a 2 story house so I can rewire rooms from the attic and basement without ever chasing a wire.

The house was inspected by an independent pro our real estate agent/brother-in-law recommended. He did not mention the 3-slot plugs except to say “open ground, reverse polarity”, which he said about all sockets. No necessary action was indicated.
We had two other electricians make estimates, one was too unsure of himself, the other wanted $6500 for all-deluxe, including making all the plugs grounded, which the third guy said was not necessary.

The dryer is gas, the stove is electric, but will be gas when we remodel next year or year after.Perhaps splitting the baby and going with a 150 Amp system is best and perhaps we can put off somethings until the kitchen remodel, such as running a direct line to the garbage disposal, which we don’t have yet.

This discussion is most illuminating. Thanks to all for the contributions so far.

I’m in the middle of totally re-wiring a 1941 era home. 2 bedrooms, gas furnace, gas water heater, gas stove, AC. We’re sticking with 100 amp service. We are replacing all wiring, and it is a huge pain in the ass.

My brother and I spent all day yesterday, me on the second floor, him in the attic, pulling out the old wire and pulling in new 12-2. We gut rehabbed the kitchen and bath and while we had the wet wall open, it made sense to pull new wiring up. The only wiring that remains from the original is the jumper from one 3-way switch to the other, and from one switch to the dining room ceiling fixture, neither of which could be replaced without opening even more walls.

This will give us grounded outlets everywhere with plenty of amperage and safety.

I have to agree that replacing the old wiring is desirable. However, using the BX armor or conduit was long the standard way of wiring non residential buildings. There always were failures. I cringe when I spot EMT hanging loose on 2 wires. Where it was properly installed and not damaged, it usually does provide a good ground. If it met code when installed, it is grandfathered in.

Now if your outlets have open grounds and open polarity, that doesn’t meet code. I would talk to the inspector, not the one that inspected the house, but the one that works for the city or county building department. If you had a lawyer for the closing, talk this over with him too.

You need to talk to the power company too. 100 amps may be enough for a small house with mostly gas appliances, but get more than 20 slots. Go to Lowes and wonder around the breaker box aisle. Look at prices. Read the fine print on the door to the boxes. You are limited by how large of wire the electric company is willing to run to your house.

Please note, a 200 amp box is not a 200 amp box.

Sort of.

Per the electric code, you should not go over 80% of your capacity. So, a 200 amp box can deliver, per code, 160 amps.

For Christs sake, get the 200 amp box.
Heck, I wired just a kitchen, a while back, and it is running off a 100 amp sub panel. Microwaves and garbage disposals need their own circuit, so too the under sink boiling water dispenser. Water cooler, appliances of all sorts, dishwasher, lighting, etc. Don’t put a plug in in the ‘appliance garage’, some day some one will pug in a 400 watt crock pot, shove it in the garage, and shut the door. I you have an island floor plan, and envision ‘Aunt Edna’ bringing over two roasters full of baked beans for your kids high school grad party, remember, each one can draw 1200 watts, and you can’t plug in 2 on the same circuit.

Do not scrimp on wiring.