I have an 80+ year old house in which some the electrical wiring has been updated at various points in its history. The service panel is a relatively recent 200amp Square D panel, in which all the circuit breaker spots are full. Unfortunately, the inside of the panel was a bit of a mess, even when we moved in.

To try to bring us a bit up to code and to protect many of the non-grounded receptacles in the house, I replaced many of the circuit breakers with AFCI or dual AFCI/GFCI breakers.

The problem now is that there is so much freaking wire inside the service panel that it's going to be impossible to get the cover back on. (The new breakers are longer than the standard ones and introduce a new neutral wire for each breaker.) It's not that there's a lot of excess wire, it's just that there is so much of it (and it is so unorganized) that it doesn't squish down.

What are my options? Is there some sort of extension box I can attach to the side to hold the wire? Or a deeper cover with more space? (Having to undo everything and then reorganize and re-route all the cables within the box would be a MASSIVE job.)

Picture of the panel upon move-in, before any upgrades: Electrical Panel Open

2 Answers 2


The right way to shorten wires

First, do not snip off wires short. That is a rank amateur thing to do, based on a misreading of NEC 110.12 "Neat and workmanlike". As you discovered retrofitting AFCI, the "nipped off wires" leave your neutrals too short for the job.

The correct way to shorten wires is so that every hot and neutral is long enough to reach any breaker space in the panel. That gives you freedom to move them where they need to go, and neutral is included because of AFCI/GFCI or whatever they come up with next. The excess length isn't a problem - really.

The cable sheath (outer cable wrapper) MUST extend into the panel intact at least 1/4 inch per Code. You are welcome to extend it farther and use that white/yellow space to identify the circuit - this is a good thing - but it can help to not get too carried away with that. You want to be able to separate grounds from neutrals/hots a few inches into the panel.

Keeping track of breakers

Don't disconnect the wires from the breakers! Pop out the breaker and let it dangle by the wire. Do a couple things to prepare for this: #1 torque the screw actually to spec - which will make sure it holds. And #2 identify the breaker itself by what the circuit powers. That way even if you move the breakers around putting the panel back together, the circuit identification follows the breaker.

While you're reorganizing, just pull the breakers out of the way, hot wires and all; note that these will be the last layer you put back when you reassemble.

Take care to identify your multi-wire branch circuits, however, because in very rare corner cases, a disconnected hot from an MWBC can be energized by the other hot. So those breakers need to come off together, in fact Code requires they be handle-tied and I'd go further and tape the two handle-tied breakers together for handling here. (or use a 2-pole breaker). I only see 1 red wire going to a breaker, however it does go to a single breaker, so make sure you find out why.

How do we compress space?

First, you definitely have enough working space in the panel - UL requires that of any modern panel.

Ever played "pick-up sticks", the scattered pile of sticks takes a lot more room than the sticks lined up and bundled. The real problem is you have spaghetti-barf of wires going every which way, layered on top of each other haphazardly, because every time someone added a circuit, they just splashed it down on top of the pile.

So... you need to peel back the wires and rearrange the panel with 4 layers. One of the layers is not your choice: That is the main feed wires, that you have to work around (put other layers over or under). They cannot be moved because a) they're energized and b) they are torqued to a specification. The other 3 layers are, back to front:

  • All safety ground wires. Their run from end-of-sheath to ground bars should be groomed and tucked into the back. Feel free to purchase accessory ground bars for the panel - there will be several sites already pre-drilled and pre-tapped for the ground bar models stated on the panel labeling. You can use those accessory ground bars to shorten up ground runs. (this also frees up neutral bar spaces, and saves you from bad mistakes like having neutrals share a lug - a big no-no!) The ground wires once thus organized should be a neat layer well under 1/2" thick. It is OK to cut back grounds to reach a properly installed ground bar, they won't need to ever go to a GFCI or futureFCI.

  • Neutrals not needed for AFCI/GFCI. These should all be done in a layer much like the grounds. However keep all the wire length you have - at least enough to comfortably reach any breaker in the panel. Where the length is excess, run along the panel gutter past the attach point, then double back to the neutral bar. This too should lay fairly neat, and not take more than 3/4" of thickness.

  • Now all that is left is the hot wires, and the neutral wires which are going to AFCI/GFCI. There should be plenty of room now. When multiple wires from a cable go to the same breaker (e.g. MWBC, 240V lines or AFCI/GFCI), run them together, don't let them splay off into 2 pieces of spaghetti. It's allowed (required in conduit installations) to even wrap them a couple places with electrical tape, to communicate these wires are together. So they should handle largely as 1 wire. This grouping will also reduce electrical noise and buzzing in the panel.

Don't have neutrals and grounds cross over from left to right side of the panel. If you're doing that for "find an empty neutral screw" reasons, accessory ground bars will free up neutral screws.

If you have enough grounds with the needed wire length, feel free to put a ground bar near the bottom of the panel and run all the grounds there that you can. That will stretch out that wire length so it isn't taking up space up top, and will run down as a tight organized bundle.

  • "The right way to shorten wires" ... I almost had a heart attack when I read this..... glad you clarified it... lol
    – JACK
    Nov 19, 2021 at 23:21
  • Thanks for the great advice and thoughts. There are definitely many neutrals that were cut to land right on the neutral bar, and so now are way to short. GRRR... Am I allowed to butt splice more neutral wire onto it in order to get it to reach all the way down?
    – Q A
    Nov 20, 2021 at 3:11
  • 2
    @QA -- as long as you use UL-listed butt splices of the correct size, a pigtail wire of the correct size, and preferably a ratcheting-type crimper with the correct die, you should be good to go Nov 20, 2021 at 6:09
  • @QA Yeah, for small wires plain old wire nuts will suffice. Ironically, this un-does the wire-cutter's original goals of neatening the panel. Nov 20, 2021 at 23:18

That oft-overlooked by DIY electricians phrase: "In a workmanlike manner" - which means that if you have to do a "massive job" to properly organize the wiring, code expects you to do that, or to hire someone who will.

Remotely modern breaker boxes (which yours appears to be from the description, though you only give amperage, not number of spaces) actually have quite a bit of space. If there's "actually not enough space" you're expected to put in a sub-panel or a larger breaker box, though that is unusual (until you want "even one more breaker" with a full panel.)

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