Updating Old House Wiring:
In This Article:
A brief summary of the major steps involved in adding a subsidiary breaker panel to an existing main breaker box.
3+ (Intermediate and Higher)
About 6 Hours
Bruce W. Maki, Editor
In a small house, it's easy and inexpensive to place a main breaker panel in the basement, garage or hallway, and then run wires to each part of the house for the individual circuits.
In larger houses (and most commercial buildings), it's common to have a high-capacity main breaker panel that supplies power to several subsidiary electrical panels (commonly called sub-panels) located closer to the individual circuits.
The concept is simple: A big fat wire feeds the main panel, and several not-so-fat wires feed the sub-panels, which supply power to their local circuits. This technique saves labor and materials because the wires for each circuit don't need to be routed across the building to the main panel.
Also, a sub-panel can be placed adjacent to the main panel as a way to add more circuit breakers to a main panel that has no room for more breakers.
I have some friends who own a century-old house, and for the past five years I've been helping them remodel the place from top to bottom. When the wall and ceiling plaster was removed, we took the time to replace the old knob-and-tube wiring.
Many years ago (the 1950's or early 60's) the house had been divided into two apartments, and the wiring was partially updated at that time. A subsidiary panel was installed on the second-floor to service the upstairs apartment. This remote breaker box was fed with a 6-3 cable (that's 3 conductors, each a Number 6 size) with no ground wire.
The sub-panel had been installed in an old attic, but the attic had been converted to a bedroom. The room had no closet, and the previous homeowner installed closet rods above the sub-panel, so the panel was blocked by hanging clothes. The National Electrical Code requires a 3' x 3' clear area in front of a panel, so this arrangement was a code violation, albeit a minor one.
We decided to solve several problems by simply replacing the old sub-panel with a new sub-panel of the same capacity, and then re-wiring all of the existing circuits. The new sub-panel would be located in a hallway instead of a bedroom. Perhaps the trickiest part of installing a new sub-panel in an old house is running the sub-feed cable from the main panel to the sub-panel. Since we had stripped the ceiling and walls below, we were able to easily run a new 6-3G cable from the basement to the second-floor hallway.
There are two main factors to sub-panel size:
We used a 125 Amp capacity panel with spaces for 20 breakers, but we did not use the full amperage capacity.
The size of the conductors (individual wires) inside a sub-feed cable dictates how much current (measured in Amps) can flow through that cable. We used 6-3G cable, which is normally capable of handling 50 Amps. But... there is a maximum length to that cable, 55 feet, before there is a possible problem of a voltage drop happening.
As with all electrical wiring, the circuit breaker amperage capacity must be equal to or less than the ampacity of the cable that it serves. We used a 50 Amp 2-pole breaker.
The logical question is: Why not route the new sub-feed cable in the exact location of the original cable?
The original cable ran on the outside of an interior wall, beside a drain pipe and supply pipes for the upstairs kitchen. The entire bundle of utilities was protected with a U-shaped cover made from 1x6's. These pipes and wires interfered with our main-floor kitchen remodeling project, so when the walls were opened up we routed the new sub-feed cable through the wall cavity, where it belongs.
I didn't get a chance to shoot any pictures of running this cable. Some important points are:
After cutting a rectangular hole in the wall, we secured the sub-panel to the studs with 1¼" sheet metal screws.
After installing a 3/4" cable clamp, we inserted the sub-feed cable into the panel.
After the sub-feed cable jacket was stripped, we connected the four wires:
We ran the 6-3G sub-feed into the main breaker panel.
The neutral and ground wires were connected to the neutral/ground bus bar.
The hot wires were connected to a 50 Amp 2-pole circuit breaker. The breaker was snapped into place so it connected to the hot bus bars.
Then we removed two knock-outs from the cover panel, to accommodate the new breaker.
We ran a new 14-2G cable into the panel.
After the cable jacket was cut away, we secured the ground wire in the ground bus.
Note that one screw in the ground bus is permitted to hold two or three wires.
I stripped the end of the neutral wire and connected it to the neutral bus bar.
The hot wire was stripped and connected to a 15 Amp circuit breaker.
The breaker was connected to the panel.
This type of breaker simply hooks onto a metal tab and pushes onto the hot bus bar.
Before you hurt yourself, read our disclaimer.
After we installed all the individual circuit breakers, we were ready for the "rough-in" electrical inspection.
Then we installed the drywall. When the wallboard was finished and painted, we finished the electrical work by installing the switches, receptacles, and light fixtures. When all the electrical work is done the electrical inspector can be called for the final electrical inspection.
I strongly recommend anybody who plans on doing their own electrical work to do more research besides just reading these articles. I am not an electrician and I certainly do not know everything about wiring. I could be wrong. The electrical codes in your area may be different than in my area.
While minor electrical changes and repairs may not require a permit, larger projects usually do. Consult your local Building Department (look in the "local government" section of your phone book) before making your own major electrical changes. Local electrical inspectors usually are available during their early morning hours to answer your code questions, normally free of charge. If you've done your homework, you can speak intelligently and learn about lots of valuable rules and regulations.
I highly recommend the book Wiring a House (For Pros By Pros) by Rex Cauldwell, which is available on Amazon.com.