My Main Electrical Panel Is At Capacity: What Does That Mean?

Date Published: June 10, 2024

The main electrical panel is one of the most important aspects of any home. It is responsible for gathering electricity from the local provider, and distributing it safely to the active circuits throughout the house. Each panel is designed with a maximum limit of breakers or branch circuits that can be added. When performing a home inspection, we note when panels are completely full of breakers and they are “At Capacity.” So what happens when the panel reaches its capacity?

What Happens When My Electrical Panel Is At Full Capacity?

When a panel is at full capacity, there simply aren’t any more slots left in the panel to add any more circuits. The more appliances and devices that are in use in the house, the more power is being drawn from the panel, and the more circuits are needed. Most modern residential panels are designed to draw 100 – 200 amps of electricity. This is quite a bit of power and lots of branch circuits can be connected. However, if the main panel is out of slots, nothing can be added in the future and it also indicates that you may be drawing a lot of power off of your panel.

During our standard home inspections, we always take a good look at the electrical panel. We will be sure to note if all breaker slots are being used (as show in the picture below). When all breakers are occupied, we will note in the report that the panel is at capacity.

electrical panel at full capacity

Image sourced from: https://www.reddit.com

But just because all circuits are occupied, that does not necessarily mean that the panel is being overloaded. This is because, generally, not all circuits are being used to their fullest potential. You might have one circuit that is only servicing one low wattage lightbulb, and another that services several unused outlets. Overloading your panel is a problem and can cause your main breaker to trip. However, there is no good way to test for this during a home inspection.

So it is usually not a big problem if we do identify a panel at full capacity. Well, not unless you are looking to add additional circuits. Or if the electrical panel is showing symptoms of an overload.

What Are the Solutions to an At Capacity Panel?

Say your electrical panel is at full capacity – all available circuits are occupied. What happens if you want more circuits? There are two main options.

  • Add a Sub-Panel – A sub-panel, also known as a satellite circuit breaker panel, is a smaller electrical panel that is branched off of the main panel and draws power from it. By installing a sub-panel, you can add an additional grouping of circuits to the household. Sub-panels are commonly used in homes with auxiliary features, such as a finished basement, carriage house, detached garage, or a pool.

Image sourced from: https://www.thespruce.com

  • Replace the Main Panel – If installing a sub panel won’t provide you with enough additional power, an alternate option would be to replace the original panel with an upgraded one that has the capacity to pull more amperage. This is especially common with older homes. If you have a home from the 1960s or earlier with an original electrical panel, it is more than likely pulling in less than 100 amps. That amount of power may not suffice for today’s domestic energy demands. Keep in mind that, whenever upgrading a main panel, you must be sure that your main power supply can support it.

What are the Issues of an Overdrawn Electrical Panel?

As we have discussed, a panel at capacity does not necessarily mean there are going to be issues. However, there are cases when the household is in fact drawing more energy than the main panel can provide. When the sum of all power drawn exceeds the main breaker amperage, problems can arise.

  1. Breakers Tripping –  One of the main signs of an overdrawn panel will be that your breakers will start to trip frequently. It’s common for breakers to trip from time to time, perhaps from a power surge caused by a storm. But if your panel is tripping over and over – that is not normal. You are likely overdrawing power, and should contact an electrician for further evaluation.
  2. Electrical Issues – You may also be experiencing strange electrical issues such as flickering lights, light bulb failure, or even inconsistent power delivery to certain appliances.
  3. Heat-Related Symptoms – In extreme cases, the circuits on a overdrawn panel can start to overheat. This could eventually lead to burnt or melted wiring/breakers. Damaged electrical components can lead to arcing and even fires. So if you notice the smell of burnt plastic or can see any signs of heat-related damage, call a professional immediately.
burnt electrical panel

Image sourced from: https://www.electrical-contractor.net

Inspecting Electrical Panels

Here at Scott Home Inspection, a division of Scott Home Services, we recognize the importance of a properly functioning electrical system. That is why we include a comprehensive examination of all the electrical components of the house – including all outlets, lights, smoke/CO detectors, and of course the electrical panel. We always remove the cover plate to make sure there are no signs of defects or damage, and ensure there are no signs of improper wiring.

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Keep in mind that, although all of our inspectors are ASHI or InterNACHI- certified, and very knowledgeable about electrical systems, they are not electricians. So if there are any red flags, we will recommend that you hire a certified electrical professional for further evaluation and/or repair.

If you’d like to view a sample report from one of our standard inspections, click here.

Helping Colorado families live in safe, healthy and comfortable homes is our passion. So if you need any home inspection services, we are here to help! For more info about our company, visit us onlineor book your inspection services today!

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About the Author: Chris Kimmel

Chris Kimmel worked as an Associate Home Inspector for two years, handling numerous services including sewer scope inspections, pest inspections, mold air sample testing, radon testing, and water quality testing. Chris now works with Scott Home Inspection as a Content Writing Specialist.

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