What’s an Electric Panel?

Great question. It took me a while to find the panel in our first home. The previous homeowner finished the basement and did a nice job building a custom cover for the panel, which became a fun hide-and-seek hour for yours truly. So, it made me think — just because you own a home doesn’t mean you know what an electric panel is, what it does, and where it is located.

What is an electric panel? An electric panel is a metal service box where the electricity enters your home. The electric panel then distributes electricity through different circuits that run throughout your home.

This article will take a deeper look at the electric panel, give you an idea what it does, and where you might find it in your home. This is an important piece of equipment so you should make sure you’re familiar with it. During an outage, it’s imperative you know what to look for.

What Are the Different Names for an Electric Panel?

This might be a good first step as the term electric panel may throw some people off. An electric panel could be referred to as a:

  • Fuse panel
  • Circuit breaker panel
  • Service panel
  • Panelboard
  • Panel
  • Distribution board (UK)
  • And, many more

Again, while they have different names they all serve the same purpose.

Where Is My Panel Located?

The location of an electric panel does vary from home to home. In some instances the panel may be located outside the house (most likely on the side or back). In many cases, the panel is inside the house but the location can vary. You could find them in utility closets, basements, and even back hallways. In some apartments, you might find the panel near the kitchen. It’s a good idea to take some time before a power outage to know where it is.

What Does an Electric Panel Look Like?

In most cases, you’re looking for a gray box with a door on the front. If the electric panel is located outside, or in an unfinished basement, you might see wires entering the box either from the top or from the bottom. If your electric panel is in a closet, kitchen area, or finished basement you’ll only see the face of the metal box with a door.

What Does an Electric Panel Do?

By now, you’ve identified where your electric panel is and you’ve potentially opened the front panel door to reveal a series of switches. Technically they’re called circuit breakers. If you don’t see cirbuit breakers but rather round colored circles, you’re in the right place and you’ve found your fuse panel. Those fuses act in a similar manner as a circuit breaker so don’t fret.

Depending on the age of your home you could have anywhere from 100-amps to 200-amps entering your home. In the event of a fuse panel — you’re likely at 100-amps. To check – look at the top of the panel and see if there is a master switch. Most of the time you can find a white 200 on the switch to signify 200-amp service. If you don’t see a label like that — just add up the numbers on all the fuses. Each fuse has an amperage number on it.

What does it total?

CAUTION: If you add up the numbers and it exceeds 200 that’s not good. If you have fuses, which is likely 100-amp service, and you add up the fuses and get a number greater than 100 – you have a potentially dangerous setup. You should call an electrician to take a look.

Ehh, okay – so what does that mean?

Okay, so the electricity enters your house a 100-amps or 200-amp, but that’s far too much electricity for the appliances we use, which means the electricity needs to be split or divided. That’s accomplished by creating various circuits within your home. A circuit could control the lighting and outlets in a bathroom. Another circuit might be dedicated to your stove.

When you’re home was made an electrician ran wires inside the walls that service many different circuits. Each circuit is managed by a circuit breaker. Think of a circuit breaker or fuse like a gatekeeper. Its job is to manage the flow of electricity and when it cannot handle the load, the circuit breaker should “trip” or “turn off” and a fuse should blow.

Why is this important?

Well, aside from being a gatekeeper these breakers and fuses are safety mechanisms designed to protect circuits from overloading, heating up, and potentially catching fire.

Ever have the lights go out when running a hair dyer or popping popcorn? If both devices are on the same circuit — it just might be too much for the circuit. The end results is a tripped breaker.

What to Look for During a Power Outage

One of the first tests during a power outage is to determine if the outage is localized to your home or a larger problem in your neighborhood, town, or state. The first thing you can check is your electric panel. Check to see if any of the circuit breakers have been tripped or any of the fuses are blown.

How Do I Reset a Breaker?

Your electric panel is likely to have two series of circuit breakers. One column on the left and one column on the right. The ‘on’ position would mean the switches are flipped toward the center of the box. Put another way – the series on the left side will be flipped to the right. The series on the right side will be flipped to the left. Both sides should look as if the switches are pointed to the center of the panel — make sense?

A tripped breaker will look as if it is stuck in the middle. Not quite ‘on’ and not quite ‘off’. To reset your circuit breaker, flip the switch completely off then turn the switch all the way back on. In most cases, you’ll see the immediate results of lights coming back on. If not, continue to look at each and every circuit to ensure they are all on. If they are, you may be the lucky winner of an outage that extends beyond your home.

If you have a blown fuse, you’ll notice a broken filament in a clear circle in the middle of the fuse. It might look black like a blown light bulb. The fuse unscrews like a light bulb and you’ll need to replace it with a new one. It’s a good idea to have a handful of fuses that cover the different circuits on your fuse panel. When replacing fuses — you must replace a fuse with another fuse of the same amperage.

CAUTION: do not swap fuses with ones that have a different amperage rating. Even if the amperage rating is higher.

In pinch? If you have a blown fuse with no extras — you can borrow a fuse of similar amperage. You’re obviously robbing one circuit to power another, but let’s say you need to cook, but the stove fuse has blown. If the washer and dryer are on a fuse of similar amperage you make a swap to cook dinner. Then, when its time for laundry you can swap them back again until you have a replacement fuse.

Ideally, you really should have some spare fuses on hand to make it easy on yourself. They’re roughly $7.00 each so you could grab two of each amperage and have a good supply on hand for less than $50.

What Do the Labels Mean?

The labels on your electric panel identify the room names covered by that particular circuit. The label were likely done by the electrician who installed the panel in the first place.

The labels could appear on white labels next to the circuits or they could appear on the larger label on the inside door panel. Regardless, it’s your map of what each one of those circuits control.

If they are not labeled it isn’t the end of the world but it will make things more difficult. You can grab some help from someone else in the house and individually flip the switch to determine what it controls or from a safety perspective, it might be wise to hire an electrician.


The electric panel inside your home is one of many important systems you should become familiar with. By now, you know where your panel is, what a tripped breaker looks like, and what you can do to reset it. C’mon — flex those new skills!

On a serious note — please be aware the average homeowner is OK to flip the breakers on and off but that’s about it. If you need to have the breakers replaced or the panel expanded — you really should consult a professional to make sure that you’re doing it safely.

And, if you’re like the owner of my previous home. You may want to take a peek at some creative electric panel cover ideas we’ve collected on our Pinterest page.

Good luck. Be safe.

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