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I'm looking to add central A/C to my 1970s era home. The electric panel is a GE Load Center, 125 Amp max. It's basically "full" with no space for additional breakers.

The bids for the electric panel "upgrade" range from $600 to $3600. Crazy span. "Upgrade" is in quotes, because I think what it boils down to is 2 choices, hence the span in price. I don't believe the service needs to be upgraded:

  1. Replace the whole panel= $3600

  2. Install a "main breaker conversion kit" at the top of the box and "make space"=$600. Currently the power comes into the box and connects to the two lugs. There are 3 double-pole switches that must be thrown to truly power off to the whole house (oven, "main", and the sub panel). My understanding is this new main breaker kit would then kill power to the whole house, oven and sub panel included, but how does this free up space?

I haven't found much discussion or videos for what installing this main breaker kit actually does, can anyone dumb it down for me?

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Update: We’ve scheduled the work and will be doing a whole new panel. Again, this was part of a larger project (heating/AC), so the information I was after was “what would adding a main breaker “do””. I think the answer is “not much” or at least “not much good”. I still don’t have a clear picture of how the $600 bid guy was going to accomplish what he wanted to do and be able to pull a permit. All worked out in the end, as several commenters have said, the new panel makes a lot of sense from a resale point and we had a bid that included a new panel for just a bit more $$.

Also, I learned a ton! So I’ll definitely be posting in these forums again. Thanks all!

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    I think some one may have given you ??? Advice, it sounds like a rule of 6 panel that has an option for a main breaker, if you could bolt the busses together that would free up the double pole breaker that feeds the bottom section, I don’t remember this being a possibility, there are lots of different dead face covers just because there is a hole doesn’t mean you can upgrade the model # of the panel would be needed to see if you could free up 2 slots. A photo of the listing label that shows the wiring arrangement will also show if tandems or double stuff breakers are legal to use. – Ed Beal Jun 10 at 23:45
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    Oh wow, your dryer breaker straddles the split bus... that's interesting. – Nate Strickland Jun 11 at 0:17
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    @MikeGuth, would you be open to the option of installing a subpanel right next to this current panel, instead of replacing it entirely? – Nate Strickland Jun 11 at 0:20
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    The $3600 may be addressing other deficiencies like service size etc. Anyway Rule of Six panels are grandfathered, and a nearby subpanel is a perfectly reasonable approach. It will help a lot if you leave them lots of spaces in the new panel. – Harper Jun 11 at 11:09
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    @MikeGuth If you're selling the house and anyone with half a brain looks in there you're likely to have them tell you to fix it or forget it. Spend the $3600, get the service upgraded to 200A, fix the panel, and tag it onto your listing as a selling point. You'll probably pay the realtor more than that and it will do more than they will to get your house sold. – J... Jun 11 at 15:14
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Holy smoke, this is a "Rule of Six" panel!

A Rule of Six panel has a "Main Breaker" area with up to six main breakers. All must be shut off to shut off the power. All six have their buses energized at all times. Then, one of those breakers feeds an "internal subpanel" area with any number of breakers.

In this case, your panel is built as a "Rule of Three". The first two breakers are #1 in the upper left, #2 an essentially identical breaker in the 2 full spaces in the upper right, and #3 the mid-left breaker marked "MAIN".

Note that the #3 breaker actually sits in the subpanel area and is fed via those two fat wires. It is backfeeding the subpanel area. Those two wires are hot at all times and cannot be shut off without pulling the meter.

You are saying "But wait. The #2 breaker is not as you described. It is narrow "double-stuff" breakers not a full-sized one." Yes, and I don't want to know what kind of black magic got you there. It looks like someone broke off some of the physical gating to separate the Rule of Six area from the subpanel area. It is bad.

Look at the dryer circuit. It has one leg in the Rule of Six area, and one leg in the subpanel area. If you shut off the "MAIN" breaker, half the dryer would be hot and half dead. Very bad!

So it's worse than "need to squeeze in another breaker", it's actualy you need to move the dryer breaker away so you can restore the breaker in that location to a traditional full-size breaker as is required by the diagram.

Honestly at this point, you might as well go "in for a penny, in for a pound". Install a subpanel right next to this panel, relocate the dryer feed to it, relocate the garage subpanel feed to it, and add any new circuits there.

Feel free to use a GE Qline panel that supports double-stuffs, so you can keep using the same breakers. However you will probably not be able to use double-stuff breakers going forward because AFCI or GFCI is required on almost every circuit. So get a realy, really, really big subpanel! Spaces are cheap.

Bonus points if you plan it so you can cut over the subpanel to be a future main panel.

Adding a main breaker here is simply not an option (it already has 3) and this panel is obsolete (being Rule of Six, nothing wrong with GE Qline).

By the way, whoever the genius is who stuck numbers on the breakers, did not read the panel labeling. It indicates the numbering. Note how there is only 1 number for the upper right breaker, that is because the listing and labeling does not permit multiple breakers there.

Also whoever put the double-stuff in the upper right, don't invite him back either. he clearly mutilated the panel in order to make that dryer breaker go there.

  • Clearly this was a quality installation. It says so right on the sticker! – Mohair Jun 11 at 14:32
  • @Mohair And by Gash Electric, no less. – Machavity Jun 11 at 14:43
  • OP may also need to consider a service upgrade. Hard to tell what the feeder wire is, but it looks like 2AWG to me. The panel is already serving 50A (MAIN), 50A(range), plus 30A dryer (half!) and 40A garage sub. It's looking close to overloaded as it is. Adding another 30A/40A drop for A/C is probably pushing it. The range also looks like 8AWG on a 50A breaker... If it was my house I would probably upgrade to 200A and a new panel - just fix everything, this is a catastrophe. Yeah, it's expensive, but this panel is a scary monster. – J... Jun 11 at 15:04
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Hard to say based only on what you show and describe here. We can't really know exactly what you have without seeing what's inside.

The 2 pole 50A breaker what has the word "Main" written next to it is probably the main breaker for all of the power coming from your utility meter, or al least may have started out that way at one time. But when you say that turning off that breaker does not turn off the "oven", that means something else it off kilter here. So you may have something called a "Split Bus" panel, which makes this entire thing complicated if that's the case.

So if I had to guess as to the difference in cost, the person who quoted you $600 did not actually know what he was looking at and assumed this was simply a back-fed main situation, meaning that the service wires are coming into what would normally be considered the "Load" side of the 2 pole 50A "main" breaker, then when the breaker is On (closed), the power goes through the breaker stab assembly onto the main bus bar of the panel, feeding power to everything else. This is actually a variant of the "normal" way to do this, because normally a Main breaker is SEPARATE from the rest of the usable plug-on panel bus space. So whomever first did this knowingly sacrificed 2 breaker slots in order to avoid buying the Main Breaker Mounting Kit this panel required to put the Main AHEAD of the bus bars and feeding them. The part that you circled is where the Main breaker would go, but it requires internal parts that are not likely there. Even though this is 40+ years old, GE has not really substantially changed this design and the "kit" is likely still available to move that breaker into being a separate main. Once you do that, the two slots that hold the Main now become available to have a new breaker(s) installed in them.

However, you DON'T have that situation if the Main does not kill power to the oven! So I have no idea WHAT you have there, and most likely the guy who thought he could do this by simply moving the main to gain two new slots was thinking that too. He also was likely going to do this as a "repair" rather than a replacement and not pull a permit, because pulling a permit for replacement means upgrading your entire panel and breakers to modern codes, i.e. AFCI (Arc Fault Circuit Interrupter) and GFCI breakers where you don't have them now.

The Split Bus and Sub Panel situation makes this more complicated and even then, it doesn't explain the issue of you having to open the oven breaker to kill all of the power. So in reality you may have something here that someone before you hacked and screwed up, so my guess is that the $3600 quote was from someone who DID understand what you have here and would only do it as a complete rip and replace to modern codes, done with pulling a permit, inspections etc. etc., which then also meant using the new (more expensive) breakers to be able to pass inspection.

PS: Here is what the Main Breaker Kit looks like for this;

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The two tabs replace the main incoming lugs, so your incoming power leads would now go to the Main breaker lugs and this connects that main breaker to the bus. In your case someone would ALSO need to re-do the wiring of those two 2 pole twin breakers for the dryer and sub-panel and to connect the upper and lower bus sections, which I'm not sure of how that would be done, it might mean replacing the entire bus structure in that panel.

  • Thanks! I added a few photos, anything change for you? – Mike Guth Jun 11 at 0:18
  • Oh, sorry, i should've been clearer-- i don't need to "open" the oven breaker to kill all the power, it's just that what's labelled "Main" doesn't kill power to the oven or to the sub panel. – Mike Guth Jun 11 at 0:24
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    @MikeGuth ... or half of the dryer! Betcha didn't know that... – Harper Jun 11 at 1:16
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    LOL, yeah now with more pics it's definitely a split bus panel that was relying on the rule of 6 for the upper half, but as Harper pointed out, your dryer and sub panel are wired wrong. So that's why the $3600 bid was higher, he was going to actually make it all work. The $600 guy was probably going to just move the main and leave all the other problems intact. – J. Raefield Jun 11 at 2:33
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    @MikeGuth, did you actually have someone come out and look at your panel before giving these bids, or was this over the phone? I think the "$600 bid" is almost certainly based on some assumptions about your panel which are not true, and it's likely to increase to near the $3600 bid when they see the insides of your panel. – Nate Strickland Jun 11 at 20:42
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If you were a customer of mine and wouldn't let me rip out that equipment, I would walk away. There isn't a chance in the world I would add additional load to the existing over current protection. The load center you have is rated for energy consumption from the 60's. Modern day energy consumption creates more heat in the equipment because of harmonics, high frequency from appliances. The bus isn't great at dissipating heat from computers, HID lighting, non-linear loads.

If you don't require additional bonding, grounding or undescribed upgrades...I would charge $1,200 to replace the enclosure and install a 40 circuit GE or Siemens load center with all new circuit breakers. Square D would cost more. This would NOT INCLUDE COST OF PERMIT, AFCI, GFCI protection is required.

Please replace and don't add to existing, nothing lasts forever. Good luck.

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