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We have an old original subpanel located (ridiculously) in the second floor bathroom 2’ from the sink in our 1937 Cape Cod style home.

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Our upstairs has two bedrooms (sans overhead lights) and 1 bathroom. The upstairs only has two circuits (one for the bathroom lights and an outlet; one for the hallway light and the outlets for the two bedrooms), and they both run through this subpanel. There are no ground wires in the subpanel. Both circuits have 15 amp breakers in this subpanel like so:

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Down at the main panel (located in the basement) the feeder comes from a 20A 2 pole breaker. The subpanel is flush-mounted in a true 2x4 wall—the other side of this wall is the upstairs hallway. I’m in the process of remodeling the hallway (the bathroom is next up), so I thought I’d flip the subpanel access around and face it into the hallway (and conceal it with a decorative [removable] wooden panel).

I can’t foresee ever trying to run more circuits out of a subpanel in this location. We would like to add overhead lights to both bedrooms (I know, so glamorous), but it would be no easy task to run wires directly from this subpanel location to the bedrooms. So I don’t see a need for a much larger subpanel—or a subpanel on the second floor at all. Am I missing something? So perhaps I could replace this subpanel with just a flush-mounted (plastic?) junction box with a blank cover facing the hallway, or is there some advantage to having a second floor subpanel? If there’s an advantage to a subpanel on the second floor then I’d replace the current subpanel with a very small modern subpanel. I’ve included some photos and a wiring diagram in case that tips anyone’s opinion. Many thanks everyone--I appreciate this community.

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    Ah, just realized....that those wires are likely run within BX--hence the lack of ground wires in the box. So I'd need to install a metal, not plastic, junction box if I went that route.
    – Jason
    Jan 17, 2023 at 5:31
  • Had no idea Colt used to make circuit breakers
    – user28910
    Jan 17, 2023 at 16:49
  • Me neither. I've not been able to find much information about them on the web, but there's a few things about the box (besides it's location) that make me feel uneasy. For one, the breakers don't have a hard off and there's no "click" when they turn off. So just 1 mm of movement, or so, means the difference between a live wire and and dead wire. For that reason, I'd never performing any electrical work upstairs without turning the power off for these circuits at the main.
    – Jason
    Jan 17, 2023 at 18:23
  • @Jason -- are the existing branch circuit wires 14AWG or 12AWG, and is rewiring those branch circuits an option? Jan 17, 2023 at 23:17
  • @ThreePhaseEel I checked the feeder wires and they're 10 AWG. The branch circuits (all BX) are all 14 AWG. Some of the circuits are easy to get to and run through our knee walls and cross to the other side of the house by running under the floor (parallel to the joists). So those would be easy to pull and replace. A few sections disappear into the insulated 3' tall space between the 2nd floor ceiling and the rafters. This "attic" space has no access. except for some gable vents. What are your thoughts?
    – Jason
    Jan 18, 2023 at 18:53

2 Answers 2

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I have something virtually identical in my basement. Different brand, but same "Type MO Multi-Breaker", etc. So close that I wouldn't be at all surprised if they were the same exact device just a different label:

Westinghouse Multi-Breaker

I treat it as a pair of switches that happen to have breakers. I never thought of it as a subpanel, and it is inside a single-gang box.

Based on the patent numbers, this is either made by or licensed from Square D, which was and still is a major electrical equipment manufacturer. According to Wikipedia, Square D made Westinghouse breakers, so my Westinghouse fits perfectly. According to Wikipedia, Colt also acquired a company that manufactured electrical products, so it is possible they either manufactured this under license or that there may have been a set of products where each company made some of the products and both companies (Colt and Westinghouse) sold each other's products under their own name to have a more complete product line.

What I suspect you have is an old subpanel box that was later replaced with this Multi-Breaker. It could be that it only ever had the two circuits (one MWBC actually) and that originally there was a fuse panel. Or it could be there used to be more circuits but the others were abandoned or are now fed from other panels.

Update based on comments: The incoming wires are 10 AWG, the outgoing wires are 14 AWG. Together with the subpanel box that surrounds the breaker/switches, I believe the situation is:

  • Originally a 30A subpanel with feeds to multiple circuits. This would have almost certainly been a small fuse panel, with protection upstream (at the main panel) of 30A.
  • Some of the circuits were removed or moved to feed from other panels as part of a larger update. But due to location, two of the circuits continued to be fed from here.
  • The original 10 AWG (30A) feed was designed for a subpanel, so it has two hots and a neutral - i.e., it is one MWBC and not two separate circuits.
  • While in theory the feed breaker could have been left at 30A, it was changed to 20A (or very likely this was originally fused at 30A in the main panel and is now breakered at 20A) as that is closer to the actual usage.
  • In order to allow for 15A circuits to be split from the MWBC, these 15A breaker switches were installed in the old subpanel box, allowing existing 14 AWG wires to be used for those circuits previously fed from separate 15A fuses in the subpanel.
  • This is no longer a subpanel, except that the box from the subpanel is still being used and it has unprotected wires in it. It may not be practical to convert this to just a small junction box because the protected cables won't reach to a smaller box.

If you replace it with a full subpanel then you have to have 30" x 36" clear space in front of it. And you really don't gain much unless you replace the feed with much larger wires.

If you decide to replace it with either ordinary switches or just splices in a junction box, use a metal box, not plastic.

One interesting little complication. 20A breaker means 12 AWG wire. But the 15A switch breakers could legitimately have 14 AWG wire on the load side. If you actually have 14 AWG wire and remove the switch breakers then you need to change the 20A breakers to 15A.

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  • Why not just repurpose the existing box as a junction box? Find a cover plate for it or just disconnect the breakers let them be the cover plate ? Or maybe even find a cover for the existing box with a Decora opening and install an outlet?
    – jay613
    Jan 17, 2023 at 16:38
  • Thank you @manassenkatz. I'll verify how much space would be in front of the panel if I swapped it to face the hallway. It'll be pretty close to 30x36. Given the size of the feeder wires, I see what you mean about being limited in my ability to add more circuits if I kept it as a subpanel. Roger on the metal box--not plastic. I'll look at the wire in the outlets--I suppose it's possible they ran 12 AWG everywhere from the this Colt, but I suspect you're right that the circuits contain 14 AWG. If needed, I'll swap breakers for 15A. Great stuff, thank you.
    – Jason
    Jan 17, 2023 at 19:06
  • Thanks @jay613. Yes, I'll see if I can find a cover for it. This Colt box front is held on with two large (maybe 1/4" diameter by 2" long) machine screws. I like the idea of confusing the future home owners by disconnecting the breakers. ;) I'll think about keeping the box where it is, but not with the breakers. Many thanks.
    – Jason
    Jan 17, 2023 at 19:13
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    The feeder wires are 10 AWG, and the branch circuits are 14 AWG.
    – Jason
    Jan 18, 2023 at 18:54
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    And there is greater than a 30x36 space in the hallway. It's 39" directly across the hallway width, and more than 15" on each side of where the box would go (between door openings).
    – Jason
    Jan 19, 2023 at 16:19
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Super easy. Subpanels aren't allowed in bathrooms, so upgrading is not an option.

Couple options though.

  • You could flip the subpanel so it opens into the hallway. That's fine. And by the way, the reason to have a subpanel in a place like this is, it allows you to have additional circuits without long home-runs back to the main panel. Saves copper (especially since the subpanel feeder can be aluminum; note the subpanel lugs are aluminum).

Even a 20A-fed subpanel could be useful for providing statutory circuits such as the 20A bathroom countertop circuit.

  • Flip it so the junction box faces the hallway. But rather than have a totally unexplained blank J-box, simply use a Junction Box Disguise Kit (otherwise known as a receptacle with normal cover plate). Nobody questions the presence of a receptacle lol.
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    I've seen blank junction boxes in homes and accepted them as normal and not worth questioning. what do you mean by questioning?
    – user253751
    Jan 17, 2023 at 11:32
  • Thank you @Harper. Much appreciated, and I'll do as you suggested--I'll keep a subpanel but flip it around to face the hallway.
    – Jason
    Jan 17, 2023 at 18:48
  • @user253751 what I really mean is someone going "Why is this junction box cover here? It is unsightly. I want to get rid of it" and then deleting it with some patch, spackle and paint. People who care about aesthetics like that don't care about the electrical codes. However, put an outlet there and now the box looks like it belongs there. Jan 17, 2023 at 19:54

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