We get a lot of questions about how to shield things like breakers panels and utility meters. There is a lot of misunderstanding about the EMFs these items emit, so this article is intended to clear up the confusion.
Before we dig in, let’s first take a moment to refresh ourselves on the four different types of fields and how each one is different.
The Four Types of EMF
First, there is Radio Frequency (RF). RF comes from wireless communication devices. If it communicates and sends information through the air, without a wire, it is using RF. This includes things like cell phones, cell towers, radios, smart appliances, smartwatches, Bluetooth, baby monitors, etc.
RF can be shielded easily with different materials (metal screen, metal plates, carbon or metal-based paint, metallic fabrics, etc.).
The second field is electric fields. The fact that we run electricity through the walls creates electric fields. These wires carry electrons back and forth. The electrons do not stay inside the wires, but emanate out about 6-8 feet from the wall. Electric fields can be shielded with the same items as RF fields, but must be grounded to earth to dissipate those fields.
The third field we want to discuss is dirty electricity (DE) otherwise known as ‘microsurge electrical pollution’, ‘noise’, ‘interference’ ‘hash’, ‘electromagnetic interference’, or other terms. This happens when there are distortions on your 50 or 60 Hz sine wave.
The items that cause the most DE are LED lightbulbs, solar inverters, pool pumps, computer chargers, energy-saving appliances, Plasma TVs, and other items we plug into our home. DE can be shielded to some degree with metal clad wiring, or can be filtered to smooth out the sine wave.
Finally, we need to discuss the fourth field, which is magnetic fields. Magnetic fields cannot happen in the absence of electric fields. Electricity must be present, and current must be flowing for magnetic fields to be present. They most commonly happen from power lines (overhead or buried), point sources like appliances and motors, and from wiring errors found in many homes.
Magnetic fields, unlike the first three fields, are not easily shielded. Magnetic fields are challenging because they can bend and wrap around surfaces making them very difficult to mitigate.
Understanding the differences in all of these fields is not intuitive. It can take many years of study to grasp the general concepts. But here’s what you need to know: It’s the magnetic fields that most people are concerned about when they’re worrying about their breaker panel – though they might not realize it.
So, What About Breaker Panels?
Breaker panels don’t emit radio frequency. They will have an electric field and DE, but it is mostly localized to the area. Magnetic fields, however, do emit from these panels, often in very high amounts.
But here is what is important to know: These fields drop off with distance at a rapid pace – usually within 1-2 feet. When doing a full home EMF assessment, I don’t usually measure the breaker panel at all. This is because more often than not, the breaker panel is in the garage, outside the home, or in a utility room far from any living spaces. If the fields drop off within 1 or 2 feet, then it’s not a problem.
I often get objections to this. “But it’s in my bedroom!”, a worried client will tell me. And then I’ll ask how close the bed is to the panel. If it’s at least three feet away, I’m generally not concerned. (Though testing it is still always a good idea in this case.)
Testing and Mitigating Magnetic Fields
Now, if the panel (or any other point source of magnetic fields) is close to anywhere you sit, stand or sleep for any length of time, then you do want to test it and make sure you’re not getting exposed. The most accurate yet affordable meter for testing magnetic fields is this one.
Building Biology guidelines suggest this number be under .2 mG for healthy people. Sensitive people sometimes react to even this small amount. The places you want to measure aren’t necessarily right in front of the panel, but on the spaces where you spend time. What is the measurement on your bed, couch, kitchen counter, or anywhere you sit, stand or sleep? That’s what’s important.
Let’s say the panel is near your bed and you’re getting an elevated reading at your pillow. The first thing I would suggest is to move the bed to another wall. If that’s not possible, then see if you can at least move the bed away from the panel by at least two feet or more. Most of the time this can be accomplished. If not, I would suggest not using this room for sleeping.
What About Shielding?
At this point, most people want to know about shielding the panel. Can’t you just throw some foil over there and cut down the fields?
No. You cannot. Remember, magnetic fields don’t work that way. If it were RF or Electric fields, it might work, but not with magnetic fields.
Now, there are materials made to shield magnetic fields, like MuMetal and Giron, but they do not completely eliminate the fields. Rather, they may provide a small reduction. If you try and shield these fields, you have to be prepared to 1. Spend a lot of money, and 2. Accept only a small reduction. For most people, it’s not worth it.
The better thing to do is keep your distance from these point sources. Remember, this is not only applicable to breaker panels, but it also applies to appliances, utility meters, and other devices with motors that draw current.
Other Sources of Magentic Fields
It’s worth reiterating that magnetic fields can come from other sources like power lines and wiring errors. The only way to know if those are a problem for you is to test with a gaussmeter. It is important to know.
If the power lines are creating a problem in your neighborhood, there is very little you can do about that. Occasionally you can get the power company to fix a problem if there is a clear issue with the distribution lines, but more often than not, they’re not interested in being involved.
That means that magnetic fields from power lines are an issue that must be tested so you know what you’re dealing with. If you’re uncertain how to test, or aren’t clear on how to read the meter, I would definitely suggest consulting with a professional.
If you have wiring errors in your home, they can be fixed. The only way you’ll know you have a wiring error is by testing. Generally, an error like this happens when an electrician joins two neutrals from different circuits, there is a neutral-to-ground connection, a loose neutral, or similar problem. That can be traced with a gauss meter, and fixed by an electrician.
These problems do get quite technical and confusing. Remember that if you want professional help, you can always book a consultation with me here. If this is all just too confusing, or you need help on exactly how you should be testing, I am more than happy to assist.
The Bottom Line
The bottom line is this: distance is your friend. If you’re worried about something in your home that you can’t control, like a utility meter, appliance or breaker panel, keep your distance. No need to make it more complicated than that.
For the other fields we’ve discussed, getting a good meter and testing is a great idea. We have a great guide on how you can test at home here (it’s free to download).
Alternately, hiring a Building Biologist or other qualified EMF expert will help you figure out everything going on in your home. For the health of your entire family, I highly recommend it.