Science Wednesday: Heavy Up?

About the Author: Aaron Ferster is the science writer-editor in EPA’s Office of Research and Development, and the Science Wednesday Editor.

Coming home on New Year’s Eve this year we noticed a “squishing” sensation underfoot as we walked across the carpet in the downstairs playroom. A big, soggy wet spot had mysteriously formed in a place well away from any obvious source of water. Yuck. I pulled up a big swath of carpet to reveal a considerable puddle on the concrete floor beneath.

New Year’s celebration over.

One week, and a hefty plumbing bill later, the mysterious source water was revealed: a steel pipe behind the kitchen wall upstairs had rotted out.

Since we had to take the walls down anyway, we decided it was time to update the 1970s-style kitchen. This week our contractor led me into the basement. “You’re out of space,” he explained, pointing to where a neat circle of clean, new wires coming from the kitchen met the old fuse boxes. He gently informed me it was time for me to make yet another decision.

image of electrical circuit panel boxes on wallI had two options: (1) replace the fuse boxes with a circuit breaker with more lines available, or (2) “heavy up,” in which the electrician would also essentially double the flow of electricity that could come into the house, from 100 amps to 200 amps.

Apparently, sometime between when my house was built and the time the kitchen pipe failed, the standard for electricity changed. Today’s homes are typically built with a minimum capacity of 200 amps, so they can easily handle modern loads from clothes dryers, central air conditioning, home offices full of computers and other electronics, various chargers for cell phone batteries and the like, and mega television screens.

It seems like a safe bet that my family and I will want more juice flowing into our home at some point. Doing the heavy up now would allow me to expand in the future, and I’d get a discount by doing the work now instead of essentially repeating some of it later.

Then I got to thinking about this month’s Year of Science Theme: energy resources. Will the current emphasis on conservation, efficiency, and the need to develop new, clean alternative sources of energy lead us in a new direction?

Perhaps by the time the kitchen needs its next overhaul, the future owner will have a good laugh about how the previous owner once thought they needed the capacity to have some 200 amps of electricity flow into the house.

Now that’s something to celebrate.