I’ve come across a lot of electrical issues during home inspections. The most common question I hear is, “Are Federal Pacific Electric breaker panels safe?” Federal Pacific Stab-Lok breaker panel, also known as the FPE Stab-Lok breaker panel, has always been a point of significant concern to me for several reasons.
Federal Pacific Electric breaker panels (FPE Stab-Lok breaker panels) have a high risk for unexpected failure. These breaker panels have high failure rates linked to thousands of house fires; thus, they are considered defective and unsafe among most inspectors and electricians. The common stance among home inspectors and home inspection certification organizations, like NACHI and ASHI, is that Federal Pacific Electric breaker panels need replacing. Homeowners who have a Federal Pacific Electric panel should update their electric panel box.
The safety of the Federal Pacific Electric breaker panels has been a major ongoing topic for many years now.
There seems to be much controversy about them, and there is a good reason for that. However, what does that mean for future homeowners that stumble upon a house with a Federal Pacific Electric breaker panel?
Federal Pacific Electric Stab-Lok breaker panels are dangerous and considered to be a latent fire risk. Federal Pacific breakers fail to trip over 50% of the time when an electrical surge is detected. Based on the information collected from fire reports, it’s estimated Federal Pacific Stab-Lok panel failures cause 2,800 fires, 13 deaths, and $40 million in property damage annually.
Since this is a big topic, everyone needs to understand how and how a Federal Pacific Electric panel affects them. For some, this might be a deal-breaker, while for others, not so much.
First, let’s start with how it all started and what exactly is a Federal Pacific panel.
What Is a Federal Pacific Electric Breaker Panel?
Reliance Electric, the parent company for Federal Pacific Electric Company (or FPE), produced some of the most widely used circuit breakers in North America between 1950 to 1980. You can find federal Pacific Stab-Lok breaker panels in homes built up until the year 2000. The most popular breaker panel installed was the
Federal Pacific Electric stopped manufacturing FPE Stab-Lok products under its name and eventually sold the name rights. By this time, contractors installed FPE Stab-Lok breaker panels in millions of homes.
Other companies purchased the name rights allowing them to continue to manufacture Stab-Lok products under different names. These companies continued to manufacture Stab-Lok breaker panels and breakers until around 1990.
Two companies still hold name rights to manufacture Stab-Lok products:
- Connecticut Electric – produces breakers under the name UBI
- Schneider Electric – produces breakers and panels under the name Federal Pioneer.
You can still find FPE panels in millions of homes. Some suggestions have pointed towards up to 28 million of the FPE Stab-Lok breaker panels installed worldwide. (1)
Experts found out that these panels did not provide proper protection and meet safety standards as claimed.
The Official Stance of the Consumer Product Safety Commission
The Consumer Product Safety Commission (or CPSC) had to take a stance on the issue; as a result, they started an investigation.
However, in 1983, they had to close their investigation that was running for nearly two years.
They were unable to come to a clear conclusion and found it impossible to initiate a product recall.
Due to insufficient data and budget issues, the CPSC could not confirm or discard the claims regarding the safety of the FPE breakers. (2)
Although the breakers failed to meet the UL (Underwriters Laboratories, Inc.) requirements, as we find out later, at the time, the CPSC couldn’t connect these failings with increased hazards in the home environment.
In 2012, an IEEE-published study and later studies confirmed the fire hazards from FPE Stab-Lok equipment & called for CPSC to take appropriate action to caution industry & consumers. (3)
The Federal Pacific Electric Class Action Lawsuit
Due to the high levels of failure to provide appropriate protection to homeowners in 2005, a class action lawsuit against FPE followed.
Claimants hired an expert to investigate how FPE circuit breakers performed. The results were very concerning as their circuit breakers fail to trip at higher rates consistently across all boards than the standard breakers.
As a result, the New Jersey State Court ruled that FPE “violated the Consumer Fraud Act because FPE knowingly and purposefully distributed circuit breakers which were not tested to meet UL standards….”
According to the New Jersey State Court, Federal Pacific Electric did commit a testing fraud and a cover-up by claiming that the breakers are up to the required safety standards established by the UL, which was anything but genuine.
Today the Federal Pacific Electric Company is no longer functioning and has gone out of business.
What Is the Purpose of an Electrical Circuit Breaker?
Today every home has electricity, and while it is vital for our wellbeing and comfort, it can also be deadly if mishandled.
Circuit breakers are one of the most important safety devices on any property. They protect our homes in cases of circuit overloads, short circuits, outside power surges, and more. The way they do it is by immediately cutting out the power to the circuit.
If too much current starts flowing through the wiring, and the electrical breaker fails to stop that on time, there is a high risk of starting an electrical fire.
What Happens If an Electrical Circuit Breaker Fails to Trip?
There are a few significant hazards that arise from electrical breakers that do not work correctly.
Suppose a high amount of power flows through the electrical circuit and the breakers don’t trip. In that case, nothing is stopping the electricity from melting the wiring and anything that is nearby.
The electrical panel can overheat, making the breaker unable to close the electrical circuit and protect it from overheating. At the same time, the circuit breaker itself will overheat and catch fire. The following electrical fire is exceptionally hazardous to the property and its occupants.
Are Federal Pacific Stab-Lok Breaker Panels Dangerous?
So many FPE breakers are not working as intended because of their original design, specifications, and the cheap materials used in their production.
There are two aspects of the FPE panels that make them a significant electrical fire hazard for any home.
1. The Federal Pacific Breaker’s Failure Rates
The main reason for them being hazardous is their high rates of not tripping when they should.
The US Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) concluded that when energizing the breakers on both poles at a 135% overload, they failed 25% of the time. When energized on individual poles at the same overload, the failure rates jumped to 51%.
These are already concerning numbers, but as we will find out, it doesn’t stop here.
After being switched on and off, the failure rates jumped even more across all breakers. In the first case, the failure rates jumped from 25% to 36%, and in the second case, from 51% to a massive 65%! (4)
In addition to this, there are high rates of a lock-up happening. A lock-up is when a switch, once tripped, will never trip in the future, regardless of the electrical overload. Even if you try to switch them off and on again, they will not trip – it is as if your home doesn’t have a circuit breaker of any kind anymore.
CPSC did one of the more recent tests of the FPE Stab-Lok with 830 breakers. The results were concerning as up to 70% of the 2-pole breakers failed to trip in the presence of an overcurrent. And up to 80% of the GFCI breakers failed to trip, too. And in the case of a second overcurrent, 100% of the jammed 2-pole breakers will not trip at all. (5)
Many home inspectors and electricians will tell you the best way to repair an FPE panel is to replace it entirely. Since they don’t work at such alarming rates, there is a severe risk of an electrical fire that you should not overlook.
There have been rough estimates that nearly 2,800 electrical fires each year are caused by a Federal Pacific panel breaker failed to trip.
2. The Federal Pacific Panels Itself
Not only were the breakers cheaply made, but the panels were too.
Having unreliable circuit breakers was already a big concern, and adding the problematic panels on top of that makes matters worse.
The bus bars’ quality was of inferior quality behind most of the other manufacturers at the time. Different problems have been reporting, such as:
- Arcing at the bus.
- Crowded wires within the panel box.
- Breakers may not stay tightly connected to the bus bar.
- The breakers can stay active even in the OFF position.
- Breakers can unexpectedly trip upon removal of the electrical front cover.
Will a Federal Pacific Stab-Lok Breaker Panel Pass a Home Inspection?
There has been much debate and varying opinions on this throughout the years. While Federal Pacific Stab-Lok breaker panels are legal under the grandfather law into the electrical code, home inspectors aren’t building code inspectors and look at much more than just the building code when inspecting a home.
Will a Federal Pacific Stab-Lok Breaker Panels pass a home inspection?
Certified home inspectors, should write Federal Pacific Panels up for an immediate replacement due to the known safety concerns. It has nothing to do with the building code. It’s all about the safety concerns they possess. Most home insurance companies will not underwrite a new insurance policy on the house with a Federal Pacific breaker panel. Therefore, you should replace the electrical panel before obtaining a new insurance policy.
To fully understand what is happening here, first, we need to take a look at what exactly is a home inspection.
What Does a Home Inspection Cover?
If you are going to buy a new home or property, an adequately carried out home inspection is vital for the required due diligence.
A home inspection is a thorough assessment of the home’s condition and will aid you in avoiding any potential issues and hazardous situations that otherwise might go unnoticed.
A qualified home inspector does a home inspection. They will inspect and assess all physically and visually accessible areas of the property and advise on any potential issues of concern to any homeowner.
When home inspectors find safety concerns, the inspection report can even give the buyer a chance to negotiate repairs with the seller.
Hence signing a home inspection contingency is vital for protecting the buyer’s interest.
Inspection of the Federal Pacific Panels and Breakers
As we have just found out, a home inspector will assess the whole condition house. However, there are certain limitations to the home inspection, as not everything can be seen or reached.
If specific points of concern need further investigation, your home inspector will advise you on hiring a qualified specialist.
When it comes to FPE breakers and panels, they cannot be tested or inspected by neither a home inspector nor an electrician. The way to accurately assess an FPE breaker’s condition and whether they are defective is by performing a live-current functional test on every breaker in the panel, which requires specialized equipment.
Another problem stems from performing such tests is usually very expensive and would probably cost more than changing the whole panel.
So we end up in a situation where neither home inspectors nor electricians can answer whether or not a breaker is functioning the way it should.
They can visually inspect them for any signs of potential issues and check if the switches work. However, there is no way of telling if the breaker will trip to that and what will happen afterward.
The Gray Area of the Federal Pacific Panels
Even though most licensed electricians and home inspectors stress the importance of replacing FPE Stab-Lok breaker panels, no mandatory recall confirming the panel’s safety concerns has is present.
However, every home inspector has to work within certain limitations.
- On the one hand, we have evidence by independent sources that the FPE panels and breakers will trip at as much as three times the rated capacity or, in some cases, will not trip at all.
- On the other hand, we have no official stance from the government agencies or any other regulatory authorities. This means that technically, they are legal to use.
And here we find ourselves in a bit of a conundrum – or a gray area if you will.
As home inspectors, we are obliged to report and inform every future homeowner of the possible safety hazards and problems they might be facing when buying their new home.
And any FPE panel and Stab-Lok breaker are considered a serious safety hazard.
What Will Happen When a Home Inspector Discovers a Federal Pacific Stab-Lok Breaker Panel?
FPE Stab-Lok breaker panels have high rates of inability to protect against overcurrent. Since they have such controversial working reliability upon inspection, they are generally considered a “Safety Defect” on the home inspection checklist.
As a home inspector, I am concerned about the safety of my clients. The FPE breakers might work just fine for years or even decades, but they might not provide any protection after one overcurrent or short-circuit.
And there is no way of telling which FPE breaker is bad. Home inspectors should point out that they are a significant fire hazard and advise replacing the panel with a certified electrician.
Some electricians even refuse to work on such panels to guarantee what will happen in the future.
They are not legally recognized as a fire hazard as even the CPSC could not come up with a conclusive answer. However, since these breakers have shown such high failure rates, you should replace them as soon as possible.
Although an FPE panel would pass the home inspection from a certain point of view, every home inspector would advise you to face certain risks and hazards.
How to Identify Federal Pacific Panels and Breakers?
The first thing to point out is that since the FPE Company is no longer operating, the only way to come across their circuit panels is through buying (or renting) property with an already existing FPE panel installed.
The Federal Pacific panels and breakers are no longer available in stores. Replacement breakers under various brand names (Federal Pioneer for example) are available. You should never buy Federal Pacific breakers from eBay, salvage yards, and other third parties.
Due to the potential danger, every homeowner and homebuyer will benefit from recognizing a Federal Pacific panel and breaker when they see one.
Despite the Federal Pacific being out of business for a long time now, the aftermath of their actions is still very real.
If you are buying or owning a home between 20 and 70, there is a good chance you might have a Federal Pacific panel installed.
You need to take several key steps when assessing the type of panel or the breakers installed.
- Look for any labels or logos on the front cover of the panel. If there is an orange and white label saying FPE, Federal Pacific, Federal Pacific Electric, Federal Pioneer (in Canada), or other variants of these words would mean that you indeed do have an FPE panel.
- Look for any labels on the breakers. If this is an FPE panel, there will probably be the name Stab-Lok printed inside of the panel.
- The breakers will also have the signature red label that is running across their front. The color might be blue in some FPE panels in Canada.
What to Do If You Have a Federal Pacific Panel?
If you happen to find a Federal Pacific panel and Stab-Lok breakers, the safest route to take is calling a certified electrician and getting as much information as possible to make an educated decision for yourself.
However, since this is considered a significant safety concern, the best thing to do is always have the panel replaced.
In the meantime, it is essential to take specific safety measures to avoid creating more hazardous situations as much as possible.
I recommend you do the following:
- Make sure you have installed and working smoke detectors.
- Find the heaviest loaded electrical circuits in your home and reduce the load on them by unplugging some of the devices connected to that circuit.
- Do not overload the electrical circuit. This means you have to be very careful not to connect too many appliances on the same circuit and avoid connecting high current demanding appliances to the same circuit or circuits with low amperage. You want to avoid having the breakers trip.
- Repair or replace any faulty devices or any electrical equipment that is in poor condition or behaving oddly.
- Get yourself familiar with how the electrical circuits in the property you are owning or managing are set up. Keep track and know which electrical appliances are connected to each circuit.
- In case of a problem, disconnect any electrical appliances immediately, cut out the electricity in the circuit, and have the appliances and wiring inspected by a licensed professional.
- Suppose FPE breaker trips make sure to have the panel checked thoroughly by a certified electrician. I cannot stress enough how important this is for the safety of both your property and your family.
- Make sure you comply with the local codes if you will be changing the wiring or panels. In our article, Signs Your Electric Panel Needs an Upgrade – Safety & Costs to Replace, we discuss how to determine if it’s time to upgrade your electrical panel.
So the two options people generally face are either replacing the whole electrical panel or just the individual breakers themselves.
Let’s go through the two options and explore their pros and cons:
1. Should You Replace a Federal Pacific Panel?
When homeowners first stumble upon the dangers of having an FPE panel in their homes, their main concerns are what they should do. Should FPE panels be replaced entirely, or can we switch the FPE breakers with newer units?
However, any homeowner who stumbles upon one of these should know that the best course of action is to replace the entire panel and circuit breakers with newer units.
Homebuyers should be mindful of these panels when house hunting since replacing them can cost between $1500 and $3000.
2. Should You Just Replace Individual Federal Pacific Breakers?
Replacement FPE Stab-Lok® circuit breakers are unlikely to reduce the failure risk of this equipment. We recommend that residential FPE Stab-Lok® electrical panels be replaced entirely or the entire panel bus assembly be replaced, regardless of FPE model number or FPE year of manufacture.Source: https://inspectapedia.com/fpe/FPE_History.php
Replacing the individual FPE breakers is not recommended as this will not improve in any way the fire hazard they pose to your property.
We have a significant amount of studies all confirming the dangers of using FPE breakers. No data would suggest that even a newer FPE breaker would offer different safety levels than the original ones.
In addition to that, more concerns go beyond individual breakers. FPE panels have been known for having panel bus bar damages, meltdowns, and in some cases, breakers not being able to stay secured safely on the panel’s bus bar.
How Much Does it Cost to Replace a Federal Pacific Stab-Lok Breaker Panel?
Replacing a Federal Pacific panel will vary depending on its size, the number of breakers, amperage, and location.
So, how much does it cost to replace a Federal Pacific Stab-Lok breaker panel? Usually, the replacement of a Federal Pacific Stab-Lok breaker panel costs about $1500-$2000. However, the replacement of the panel often is accompanied by other repairs to meet current electrical codes.
There are additional costs to consider when replacing an FPE Stab-Lok breaker panel. Most FPE Stab-Lok breaker panel replacements will require:
- Relocation to an area of the house that meets clearance requirements for local electrical codes.
- Installation of arc fault and ground fault breakers. See information on AFCI code requirements and GFCI code requirements.
- Wiring upgrades for some or all branch circuits.
- Installation of the main service disconnect.
- Upgrading the 3 phase main service entrance wire from the meter base to the panel to 4 phase wiring.
Unfortunately, the high cost of changing an FPE panel often discourages homeowners from replacing it, but so can the cost of not doing it.
Even worse is replacement installations where contractors took shortcuts to save money that causes more safety problems than leaving the FPE panel alone.
If you have an FPE panel and want to replace it, you need to consult with a licensed electrician to get a quote.
How to Find out If a Federal Pacific Breaker Works?
Maybe you have come across an FPE panel, and you are wondering how to test if the breakers work.
Not only are they posing a serious fire hazard, but they are tough to test – usually, there is no way of knowing if they work or for how long. You can inspect the panels for any signs of overheating or scorching. You can check to see if the breakers are also secured and attached to the bus, you can switch them on and off, but this will not give away a faulty FPE breaker.
Each breaker needs to be tested by overloading it past its rating and seeing if it will trip. However, this is a potentially unsafe practice and is not a common practice by home inspectors or licensed electricians.
Another concern is that even exercising the breakers by switching them on and off has not improved their reliability.
How Federal Pacific Electric Panels Affect Home Insurance?
In recent years, home insurance companies have begun ordering 4 Point Inspections on homes 30 years of age or older to control the insurance company’s risk exposure.
One of the inspection sections asks for information about the electrical system, including the type of electrical panel and breakers present, and is a home inspection red flag that could cause you a problem during underwriting.
Insurance companies have received more claims related to electrical fires started from FPE panels and consider them high risk.
Suppose you are considering buying a home that has FPE breaker panels installed. Your home insurance company may:
- refuse to write the insurance policy until you replace the electrical panel.
- charge you a higher rate due to the inherent risk they are assuming.
- terminate your coverage or give you a specific period (generally 30 days) which you need to replace the panel and provide evidence of replacement.
Other panels with safety issues include the Zinsco panel. See our article Are Zinsco Electrical Panels Safe? Dangers & Cost to Replace for details about the inherent problems with Zinsco panels.
You may also be wondering how long electrical wiring in a home lasts. In the article How Long Does Electrical Wiring Last in a Home? We discuss various wiring types and how long they’ll last.