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What is an electrical subpanel?
Thursday, December 9, 2021
The best way to define a subpanel is to describe what it is not. A subpanel is not a service panel (often called a main panel), which is the first panel after the electric meter and is capable of shutting off all the incoming power to it. A subpanel is downstream from the service panel and electricity flows through a circuit breaker in the service panel to get to it.
A service panel can have multiple subpanels, each of which may be used to control power in different areas of a building or nearby buildings. And a subpanel can have other subpanels downstream from it. Also, a subpanel may have a main breaker inside that disconnects all power from it; but that is not required, because it can be accomplished by its breaker in the service panel. And a subpanel must be wired a little differently from a service panel, with neutral wires connected to a separate bus that is not bonded with the ground wires.
Although a subpanel might be smaller, like the one shown above, it can also be large, with dozens of circuits. Many homes today have a service panel at an outside wall, and the panel inside the house with most of the circuit breakers is a subpanel.
To learn more about subpanels, see our articles Why is it unsafe to bond neutral and ground wiring at subpanels? and Why is there no main shut-off breaker in my electric panel? and What is the main bonding jumper and where do it find it in an electric panel?
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