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I have an outbuilding will be 125 feet from panel to panel. Sub panel in put building will be 100 amp. Main panel at 200 amp. Want to have a direct burial line 24 inches deep. Wet ground. What size wire?

Will need two hot, one neutral, one ground.

Load will be lights, fan hot wTervheater on demand for one sink electric wall heater. No more than 60 amps at one time with all running. Thanks

  • Have you looked for similar questions on here? – Solar Mike May 21 at 16:01
  • How much actual load will you be putting on this circuit realistically in ordinary use? – Harper May 21 at 16:32
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  • What drives you towards direct burial here? Is it concern about copper theft, or is conduit not an option for you for some other reason? – ThreePhaseEel May 21 at 23:04
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At 125’ 4 awg copper would provide 1.79% voltage drop using 4 gauge wire would allow for 70 amp breaker in your main panel. Since this is detached you will want a ground rod also. To save on wire cost you could use #2 aluminum and still have 70a breaker at the main.

If you would like to play with wire sizes google southwire voltage drop calculator, that’s what I use the only part that’s not obvious is the box that asks for parallel sets put 1 it will give you the wire size and voltage drop info, it’s a handy tool.

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You have two separate questions to think about.

Practical load -> Voltage Drop

How much do you actually intend to load up this panel? (remembering that 120V loads only accrue to one leg or the other).

Calculate voltage drop based on that, and use 5%+ for your voltage drop number, because otherwise the calculator might find the standard wire is 3.06% and make you bump a size over 0.06% - that's ridiculous. If the number is pushing 5%, then change it to 4% and see what it says.

For instance let's say you have a "30A" 240V compressor that draws 23A, a "20A" 240V table saw that actually pulls 12A, and a 12A/120V dust collector. The two 240V loads put 23+12A=35A on both legs, and the 12A dust collector adds 12A to one leg so your two legs are 35A and 47A.

Take the average of that - 41A - and put that into the voltage drop calculator. I get 1.95% at 4 AWG Aluminum wire, as the minimum needed to carry practical current in this example. Hold that thought.

Breaker Trip Ampacity

Now there are two breakers involved. One is at the main service panel, and that has a very important job - protecting the wire run to the subpanel, and protecting the subpanel itself if the subpanel doesn't have its own main breaker.

Now, at the subpanel in your outbuilding, there is also a main breaker in the subpanel. Its size doesn't matter -- it's not even required! What is required is a shutoff switch, and the cheapest way to get a shutoff switch in a subpanel is to use a panel that features a main breaker. This main breaker size does not matter.

However, size matters. The size of your panel in terms of number of spaces is very important to not running out of spaces. That creates an expensive, high-labor problem when you add things in the future, like a 240V table saw, a better welder, a water heater, electric car charger etc. Whereas avoiding this problem (with a big panel) will set you back a few latté's.

Some panels specify x spaces and y circuits (a larger number). That's a marketing lie. It depends on you being in a commercial application where AFCI and GFCI breakers are not required. The only number to believe is spaces. A "plenty of spaces" subpanel will probably have a main breaker bigger than 100A. Remember, that breaker doesn't matter.

What matters is the size of the feeder breaker inside the main panel. You want to size that large enough that it won't cause nuisance tripping from peak loads. In fact, it should be at least 125% of the maximum routine load you ordinarily expect.

In the example above, the higher leg was 47A... 125% of that is 59A, so 60A would be bare minimum there, but even that overlooks lighting and other routine potential loads. Fire up a heater and those loads get big fast.

You said "100A" off the cuff, and that's a good, cautious, safe choice (although a bit more expensive in terms of wire). Ed Beal suggests 70A... maybe. Anyway, once you know the feed breaker you want, that dictates the wire size to use:

  • 40A: #8 Cu or #6 Al
  • 60A: #6 Cu or #4 Al
  • 70A: #4 Cu (rather pricey wire, aluminum is 1/3 the cost at this point)
  • 80A: #2 Al
  • 100A: #1 Al
  • 125A: 1/0 Al
  • 150A: 2/0 Al

Again this is dictated by the breaker size.

But wait. Remember the voltage drop calc we did above, where we figured wire size based on voltage drop for our practical load, and we got a wire size out of that too? If that conflicts, use the size that is larger.

For instance in part 1, we arrived at #6Cu/#4Al. But we decide to breaker at 70 or 75 amps for some future expansion room. After pricing #4Cu and #2Al, we decide to go #2Al and 75A. However, we also price #1Al, and it turns out to be not much more expensive, so we decide to bump to #1Al and 100A breaker.

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