Electric Panel Upgrade

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To meet the goals of its Sustainability and Climate Action Plan (S/CAP), the City of Palo Alto Utilities (CPAU) is taking actions to support driving electric and shifting away from natural gas use. For many CPAU customers, this may require an electric panel upgrade. This page helps you understand how to determine whether or not your project will require an electric panel upgrade and the best way to proceed.

Permits

A building permit is required for most electrical projects. On this page you will find application forms, fee schedules and information, as well as additional information you may need to submit prior to obtaining a building permit or starting work.

What are the permits, requirements and fees for electrical projects?

In the City of Palo Alto, building permits are handled by the Development Services Department. Building permit information can be found on our Building Permits webpage.

The City of Palo Alto requires a “base fee” for all building-related projects. The base fee is approximately $129 – check the City’s Adopted Municipal Fee Schedule for updated values. A comprehensive list of all fees can be found in the Fee Schedule. Look in the Table of Contents to find the pages where Development Services fees for building permits are listed. The fees shown in the Fee Schedule are adopted by the City Council and are applicable for a specific year, so be sure that you are referring to the most current version.

In addition to the base permit, permits specific to individual types of projects are often required and specific guidelines must be followed. Below is a list of common electrical projects and their related permit fees. Again, check for the most up-to-date values in the City’s Adopted Municipal Fee Schedule.

  • Residential Photovoltaic Systems (Less than 10 kW):
  • EV charger, residential, Level 1 and Level 2:
  • EV charger, residential, Level 3: $263
  • Electric appliances, up to five per permit (for example, heat pump water heater, heat pump clothes dryer, induction cooktop): $66

When an electric panel is upgraded, the new panel’s location must comply with City electric-service requirements. These requirements include but are not limited to the following (from the section on Metering and Service Equipment, Metering Locations):

  • Electric panel must be installed at least 48 inches above grade.
  • Electric panel may not be installed above gas meter.
  • Electric panel may not be installed near swinging windows that may obstruct the meter.

When working with an electrician on a panel upgrade project, select an electric panel configuration that will accommodate your needs in the future as well as today. For example, if your electric service from the utility is currently above ground, be sure that your new electric panel is compatible with possible future undergrounding of your electric service.

Whether your electric service is above ground or underground, circumstances may occur in which an electric panel upgrade results in additional services such as modifying above-ground connections or underground electrical conduits and wiring. This work requires Utilities Engineering site visits and fees. Be sure to consider these fees prior to paying other fees in case costs become prohibitive and your plans to proceed with electrical upgrade projects change. A summary of Utilities Engineering fees can be found in the Electric Service Connection Rate Schedule E-15.

For assistance with understanding which projects require Utilities Engineering services and any associated fees, please contact Utilities Engineering directly:

Phone: (650) 566-4500

Email: utilities.engineering@cityofpaloalto.org

Steps

Interested in upgrading the electric panel at your home? An electric panel upgrade may be needed if you are adding an EV charger or considering converting your gas appliances to high-efficiency electric appliances, such as a heat pump water heater, heat pump space heater and air conditioner, or an induction cooktop. The City of Palo Alto Utilities (CPAU) offers resources to help you get started.

Step One: Assess your need for an electric panel upgrade

When sizing your electric panel, it's important to think about how your electricity needs may change over time. CPAU's Home Efficiency Genie offers free phone-based advice on topics that impact your electricity needs, like home efficiency upgrades, EV charging equipment and new technologies for heating space and water with high-efficiency electric appliances.

The Home Efficiency Genie program now also offers a Home Electrification Readiness Assessment, an in-home visit that will give you an initial idea of whether you need an electric panel upgrade in order to accommodate additions to your home's electric load.

Contact the Genie

Phone: (650) 713-3411

Email: advisor@efficiencygenie.com

The City also has online resources for electric vehicles and heat pump water heaters.

Step Two: Select an Electrician

If you determine that your electrical projects may require an electric panel upgrade, CPAU recommends that you engage the services of a licensed electrician to confirm whether the upgrade is needed and to perform the electrical work.

Get Bids. Request bids from multiple electricians. Ask friends and utilize neighborhood networks to find out which electricians have experience performing electric panel upgrade work in Palo Alto. Be sure you understand hourly rates and estimates of work time.

If you are planning whole-home electrification, you may need to consult with an electrical engineer, potentially available through green building contractors.

Step Three: Plan Your Project

Once you select an electrician, you can get your project underway. Whether you are planning to install an EV charger, rooftop solar or high-efficiency electric appliances, your electrician can guide you through the process. Most electricians can help customers with the City's permitting processes, but communicate clearly and be sure your electrician does not charge for permits before you have made a final decision to proceed with work.

Tips

Consider the following tips before selecting a contractor for home electric panel installation:

Check for the appropriate licenses, registration and insurance

Ask the electrician to show you his or her “pocket license” from the Contractors State License Board (CSLB) and a photo identification to make sure it is the same person. Compare this to the license information with CSLB using the CSLB online tool or by calling (800) 321-CSLB (2752).

Contractor licenses are issued for specific types of trades, including the following examples:

  • B General Plumbing
  • C-10 Electrical
  • C-20 HVAC
  • C-36 Plumbing
  • C-46 Solar

CSLB operates under the umbrella of the California Department of Consumer Affairs. CSLB licenses and regulates more than 300,000 California contractors and is regarded as one of the leading consumer-protection agencies in the United States. Visit cslb.ca.gov for more information.

Almost all electrical work in Palo Alto requires a building permit. Always confirm who will be obtaining required permits – you or the electrician. Communicate clearly and be sure your electrician does not pay for permits before you have made a final decision to proceed with work, and make sure you understand how much your electrician charges for obtaining permits.

Review Public Feedback on the Contractor

  • Better Business Bureau: Search for any complaints filed against the contracting company.
  • Ask your neighbors and use local Listserv sites like Nextdoor or other neighborhood resources. Homes made by the same builder often are pursuing similar upgrades and you may have a neighbor who has completed the upgrade you are considering.

Protect Your Investment

  • As a down payment, never pay more than $1,000 or 10%, whichever is less, for any contract. There is an exception for about two dozen contractors with special consumer-protection bonds that are noted on CSLB’s website.
  • Do not pay in cash ahead of work completion
  • Do not be pressured into signing a contract by intimidating tactics.

Frequently Asked Questions

Will my project require an electric panel upgrade?

Whether or not your project requires an electric panel upgrade depends on the amount of current (measured in amps) that your existing electric panel can handle, as well as the amps that will be required by your new appliance(s). The majority of older (built before 2000) homes in Palo Alto have 100 amp electric panels. These 100 amp panels are usually fine when it comes to handling the baseline electrical requirements of the home – existing lighting and appliances – which typically require about 60 to 80 amps when operating together. However, if a homeowner wants to install an electric vehicle (EV) charger as well as electric appliances, an electric panel upgrade may be needed.

Projects that may require an electric panel upgrade:

Project Example Product Description Estimated Required Amps*
Electric Vehicle Charger Level 2 30-40
Heat pump water heater 80 gallons 15-30
Heat pump space heater / Air conditioner 30K-60K Btu heating load, mini-split unit 15-45
Induction cooktop 4-5 burner cooktop 40-50
Heat pump clothes dryer 4-7 cubic feet drum capacity 15-30
Solar 5kW DC Consult with your electrician**
Battery storage 7 kW peak power 30

*Depends on specific model of equipment selected.

**The number of available breakers on your electric panel may also be a limiting factor for projects that add to your home’s electrical load. In some circumstances, breakers can be added to an existing panel, but in other cases increasing the number of breakers may result in the need for a panel upgrade. A licensed electrician can assess whether your panel has enough available breakers to accommodate added electric loads.

How do I know if I need to have a panel upgrade?

Generally, most older homes have an electric panel with a capacity of 100 amps or less. Homes today generally use more electricity than older homes because of changes in our energy use. Electric panels have evolved over time, and many designs that were common in the mid-20th century no longer meet contemporary electrical needs. Older panels may have safety concerns or even fuses. Safety issues can be resolved by upgrading to a modern panel. You can contact the Home Efficiency Genie for a Home Electrification Readiness Assessment as a preliminary step for determining whether your electric panel is sufficient to meet your current and future electricity needs. Contact the Genie at (650) 713-3411 or visit efficiencygenie.com to make an appointment. You can also contact a licensed electrician to obtain a panel evaluation and estimate for upgrading your electric panel.

How much is an electric panel upgrade going to cost?

Most older homes have a 100 amp panel and upgrading to 200 amps can cost between $1,500 and $3,000 or more. The price of these projects can vary greatly based on a number of factors, including meeting the requirements of current electrical codes, which are in place to promote safety, reliability and ease of use.

I only need 250 amps. Do I have to go up to 400 amps?

Standard electric-service panels are generally offered in the following sizes: 100, 200 and 400 amps. Review your near-term and long-term plans with an electrician, taking into consideration whether you are thinking about adding electric-powered equipment such as a heat pump water heater, an electric vehicle charging station, a heat pump space heater or air conditioner, or a heat pump dryer. You may not need to upgrade to a 400 A panel because not all electrical appliances will be running simultaneously. Electricians are familiar with these considerations and can help you size your electric panel accordingly.

I have a sub-panel connected to my main panel. Can I still upgrade the main panel?

Yes.

Is the cost of an electric panel upgrade eligible for a federal tax credit?

When combined with an efficiency or solar project, the cost of an electric panel upgrade may be eligible for a federal tax credit. Consult with your tax advisor.

What additional fees may apply?

Consider working with an electrician who has experience with the City of Palo Alto. Whether your electric service is above ground or underground, circumstances may occur in which an electric panel upgrade results in additional services such as modifying above-ground connections or underground electrical conduit and wiring. This work requires Utilities Engineering site visits and fees. Be sure to consider these fees prior to paying other fees in case costs become prohibitive and your plans to proceed with electrical upgrade projects change. A summary of Utilities Engineering fees can be found in the Electric Service Connection Rate Schedule E-15.

If I’m installing solar, do I need a panel upgrade?

You are not required to upgrade your electric panel when installing rooftop solar. However, it may be that your existing electric panel does not have enough available breakers required by a solar installation, and adding solar may be a good opportunity to upgrade your electric-service panel to accommodate future electricity needs. Again, consider electric loads, such as an electric vehicle charging station, that you may add in the future. Some solar installers include the cost of an electric panel upgrade in the solar project cost, and panel upgrades that are part of a solar installation may be eligible for federal tax credits.

What goes into the cost of City permit fees?

The goal of City staff is to help customers build safe, sustainable buildings that comply with applicable codes and regulations. Your permit and inspection fees cover the costs of City staff reviewing plans and performing site visits to make sure that you and your contractor have completed projects correctly, safely and to code.

Why does the City have rules about electric panel upgrades?

City of Palo Alto Utilities complies with code requirements to supply uniform and safe service to customers in the City of Palo Alto. Regularly tripped circuit breakers and overloaded circuits typically require a completely new electric panel.

According to the National Fire Protection Association, “Between 2010 and 2014, U.S. municipal fire departments responded to an average of 45,210 home structure fires involving electrical failure or malfunction. These fires caused annual averages of 420 civilian deaths, 1,370 civilian injuries and $1.4 billion in direct property damage.”

What is the basis for the codes and standards for electric panel placement?

When an electric panel is upgraded, it must meet all City codes and standards related to electric panels. The City of Palo Alto uses the National Electrical Code (NEC) as the basis for all city electrical codes. The NEC is part of the National Fire Codes series published by the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), a private trade association. These codes are typically adopted by states and municipalities in an effort to standardize the enforcement of safe electrical practices.

What are typical sizes for residential electric panels?

Electric panels are rated according to the amount of electric current they can handle, also referred to as the amp capacity, measured in amps (A). Standard sizes for electric panels in residential applications are 100, 200 or 400 A.In most cases, 200 A is more than sufficient. However, we are seeing an increase in the number of requests for upgrades to 400 A panels. Electricians are familiar with taking these considerations into account when sizing an electric panel. Have a licensed electrician assess the panel capacity needed for your home.