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The power in several rooms has randomly gone out then comes back on seconds later. We consulted with an electrician that told us to replace the whole panel but we can’t afford $5000 to do that right now so instead we decided to replace the problem breakers. When my husband turned off the main breaker to replace the others it sparked a little. While replacing the first breaker he bumped the main breaker still in the off position and it sparked some more. If we replace the main breaker will this remedy the problem??? Also in the picture the two breakers in the off position we have no idea what they power.The breakers we are replacing are from left to right, the first 3 20amp breakers.

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    Sparking main breaker plus the picture of the panel I believe gives you reason to replace right now. Have the power company turn off the power and you can do most of the changing with an electrician inspecting.
    – crip659
    Feb 20, 2023 at 17:38
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    I think that is one of the known bad panels that is dangerous to have. They have been known to burn up, and most of the breakers do not trip when there is a problem.
    – crip659
    Feb 20, 2023 at 17:40
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    That is a Zinsco panel. They are notorious for bus arcing and breakers that don't trip when they should (fatal design, replacements won't help). See diy.stackexchange.com/questions/193809 You need to replace it ASAP before it burns your house down.
    – nobody
    Feb 20, 2023 at 17:44
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    That was the name I could not think of. They are a bad design. The breakers do not trip on shorts but tend to burn. If a breaker does trip, it is lucky.
    – crip659
    Feb 20, 2023 at 17:44
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    Have to support all others here, that's a zinsco panel. Here in Washington state (probably others) you can't even get house insurance if you have a zinsco panel. Feb 20, 2023 at 18:01

2 Answers 2

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This is a ZINSCO fire-starter panel. It's gotta go.

It's not old; it was built defective. The breakers are defective. The bus design is also defective, so even if magic safe breakers could be obtained, the bus is no good.

It cannot be fixed by replacing breakers; that's throwing good money after bad.

Whoever quoted $5000 is clearly "naysaying", that's a highball quote specifically so you could use it as an excuse not to do the work. If that's how local electricians want to be, then for Pete's sake this panel only has 9 circuits in it! I'd hit the library and read every book they have on home electrical, cover to cover... and see if it's something you could DIY.

Since this appears to be an "All-in-one" meter + main + breakers, the utility would be involved and they'll want to see permits, but after you've skilled up with those books maybe talk to your permit issuing authority and find out what it'll take.

... another option, especially if you are thinking of a service upgrade, is to install a new meter-main or all-in-one right next to it. Complete with its own new riser pipe and weatherhead. Connect the breaker panel areas of both with several short conduits. You can do all this work at your leisure, since your house is still running on the old panel while all this is being built and inspected. You can also take low-priority circuits and extend their hot and neutral to the breaker and neutral bar in the new panel. (via the conduits I mentioned). Then, you have Cutover Day, where the power company comes out and moves their drop wire from the old weatherhead to the new weatherhead. Now all the circuits you moved are powered up, and the circuits still in the old panel are dead. Move them at your leisure (it's pretty easy).

The only complication I see is some aluminum SEU wire in use on some large circuits. Don't panic! Nothing wrong with it when you follow the rules.* To extend those you'll need ILSCO Mac Block Connectors - which are screw-down miniature Polaris connectors (similar to your neutral bar, but with only 2 screws, and with an insulating jacket). Like all such connectors, their bodies are made of aluminum, so they work fine with aluminum wire.

* 1. Use connectors and terminals rated for aluminum wire, but not purple wire nuts. 2. Torque the terminals to specification with a torque screwdriver. (#2 is a very recent discovery, actually).

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  • Thanks for the info. We are going to try and do it ourselves. I thought $5000 was outrageous! It seems easy enough and the new panel and breakers only cost me $300. I’m hoping it’s an easy switch job. Thanks again.
    – Stacie
    Feb 20, 2023 at 19:50
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    @Stacie yeah I just added a bunch to that DIY option. You will have permitting costs because you can't do it without the power company's support (doing it on live wires is out of the question)... and they won't turn you back on without a permit. Feb 20, 2023 at 19:51
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    @Stacie don't worry about it. The aluminum panic is wrong. But the one I see is the range. Aluminum is harmless when properly terminated, but 3-wire range and dryer connections are quite dangerous. Feb 21, 2023 at 6:03
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    I'm not sure "do it at your leisure" and "this panel is defective and starts fires" are compatible with each other...
    – Michael
    Feb 21, 2023 at 16:06
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    @Michael Presumably, OP doesn't want to live for a week in a hotel, and wants "Cutover Day" to happen in one day. Pros can do that easy enough; they've done hundreds of them. For a first time DIYer, though, the more tasks you can offload away from Cutover Day, the smoother it'll go. So I'm saying "at your leisure" as shortcut for "not needed to do on Crunch Day". Feb 21, 2023 at 18:43
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Unfortunately, you have a Zinsco panel. These are known to have problems, and the problems you describe are symptomatic, and dangerous.

In some panels, problem breakers can be replaced with newer, more reliable, breakers. As I understand it, the replacement breakers available for these panels are not necessarily any better, and really the only proper thing to do is replace the panel.

$5,000 is a lot. My panel replacement last year cost a lot less, and I think it was quite a bit more involved - replacing 2 1950s fuse boxes + 1 small CH panel with a big CH panel, plus new meter pan and cable, and more breakers installed. On the other hand, I have known my electrician for a long time and if you just get someone at random (in any trade, not just electrical) they'll tend to charge more.

If you can do an actual replacement "in place" (with mine everything moved a few feet because...reasons) and your utility (which will need to be involved, because you will need the meter pulled to do this) is OK with not replacing the meter pan and the feed from the pole to the meter and from the meter to the panel and your local jurisdiction does not require putting in AFCI/GFCI on everything (generally not required for a straight replacement) then this should be an easy job.

Definitely worth a few calls. I would start with friends/neighbors. Ideal, in my experience, is to find an independent electrician (a "one man shop") who has been in the business for decades. But hard to say for sure as the market is still very tight. But definitely worth replacing. This is a dangerous situation.

When (not "if") you replace the panel, consider a much larger panel. By my count, excluding the main breaker and the unknowns, you have 12 breakers in use. That's including at least 2 (dryer, stove) that are really double-breakers and not two single breakers. Translated into a new panel and, at least initially, avoiding "1/2 size/tandem" breakers, that means 12 spaces. Do not get a 12 space panel. Assuming you have the physical space for it, get at least a 20 space panel, in order to have room for future expansion. Make sure it is 20 spaces, not 20 circuits. "20 spaces/40 circuits" is OK, "12 spaces/24 circuits" is not. Larger, if you have the physical space, is even better.

One possible problem (it was a minor problem for me, but I planned around it because I knew about the problem in advance) is working space. Current code requires a 30" wide (including the width of the panel) and 36" deep space in front of the panel for working space. If you have fixed items (plumbing, HVAC, whatever) in front of the panel then that could be a problem, and moving the panel makes things more complicated. Anything portable - just move it out of the way.

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    Thank you for answering. Looks like I will be replacing the panel.
    – Stacie
    Feb 20, 2023 at 17:47
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    I know it is a big deal (and expense). I waited on mine until it was generator time (no practical way to do that with my old panels) but most people in my neighborhood replaced there panels decades ago. But I didn't have serious deficiencies that I knew about (did find some in the replacement process, but fortunately had not caused problems). But you have known problems at both the specific (you've seen sparks) and general (Zinsco) levels. Feb 20, 2023 at 17:49
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    How much is the house worth to you in un-burned-down condition? More than $5000? But also, yes, shop around for a better deal. There is such a thing as the "I don't want the job" price (quote high and hope someone else takes it, but if you get it, you get paid extra for taking on a job you were not thrilled about doing in the first place.)
    – Ecnerwal
    Feb 20, 2023 at 18:51
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    @AndrewMorton In my experience, it doesn't make much of a difference for residential work. There's plenty of jobs out there so there's just not that much competition over smaller jobs. Big, high-dollar commercial projects are a different beast, though.
    – bta
    Feb 21, 2023 at 23:01
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    @AndrewMorton I have found that most tradesmen consider whether the homeowner is honest and reasonable, and many will give a better price to someone they expect will be a better customer. Letting them know in a pleasant (maybe indirect) way that theirs isn't the only price you're getting is one way of helping to establish that for yourself, IMHO, because it helps them to know that and it's not confrontational or distrusting or coercive. If it comes up, you could let them know that you're considering not only price. There's probably no need to tell them how many other quotes.
    – Jeffiekins
    Feb 23, 2023 at 5:24

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