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 Electric breaker panels have always been a point of major concern to me for several reasons.
Are Federal Pacific Electric breaker panels safe? No, Federal Pacific Electric breakers panels are not safe and we urge any homeowner who has one to update their electric panel box. Federal Pacific Electric breaker panels (commonly known as FPE breaker panels) have been found to have a high potential risk for unexpected failure. These breaker panels are considered to be defective and unsafe among industry professionals. Federal Pacific Electric breaker panels have been found to have high failure rates and linked to thousands of house fires. Because of this, the common stance among home inspectors and home inspection certification organizations, like NACHI and ASHI, is that Federal Pacific Electric breaker panels need to be replaced.
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The safety of the Federal Pacific Electric breaker panels has been a major ongoing topic for many years now.
There seems to be a lot of controversy about them, and there is a good reason for that. However, what exactly does that mean for future homeowners that stumble upon a house that has a Federal Pacific Electric breaker panel?
Since this is such a big topic, everyone needs to understand how and in what way 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) was producing some of the most widely used circuit breakers in North America in the period between 1950 to 1980, and they can be found in properties built up until the year 2000. The most popular breaker panel installed was the Federal Pacific Stab-Lok breaker panel also known as the FPE Stab-Lok breaker panel.
Federal Pacific Electric stopped manufacturing FPE STAB-Lok products under its own name and eventually sold the name rights. By this time, FPE Stab-Lok breaker panels were installed 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.
As a result of that their circuit breaker panels were installed in millions of homes. There have been some suggestions pointing towards there being possibly up to 28 million of the FPE Stab-Lok breaker panels installed worldwide. (1)
What experts found out was that these panels did not provide proper protection and meet safety standards as claimed.
The Official Stance of the Consumer Product Safety Commission
With the rising concerns, at the time, about the safety of every property equipped with such panels, things were already looking very bad. The Consumer Product Safety Commission (or CPSC) had to take a stance on the issue as well; 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 the insufficient data and budget issues, the CPSC was not able to 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 confirm the fire hazards from FPE Stab-Lok equipment & call 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 the year 2005, a class action lawsuit against FPE followed.
An expert was hired to investigate how FPE circuit breakers performed, and the results were very concerning as their circuit breakers fail to trip at higher rates on a consistent basis across all boards, compared to 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, the Federal Pacific Electric did commit a testing fraud and a cover-up by claiming that the breakers are up to the required safety standards that were established by the UL which was anything but true.
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 extremely dangerous if mishandled.
Circuit breakers are one of the most important safety devices in 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 properly.
If there is a high amount of power flowing through the electrical circuit and the breakers don’t trip, nothing is stopping the electricity from melting the wiring and anything that is in close proximity.
The electrical panel can overheat, too. This will lead to the breaker being unable to close the electrical circuit and protect it from overheating while 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?
The reason why so many FPE breakers are not working as intended is mostly due to their original design, specifications, and the cheap materials used in their production.
There are two aspects of the FPE panels that are making them a major 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.
In the following reports from the US Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), it was 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.
One of the more recent tests of the FPE Stab-Lok was done with 830 breakers. The results were really 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 happening 100% of the jammed 2-pole breakers will not trip at all. (5)
This is why a lot of 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 serious risk of an electrical fire happening that cannot be overlooked.
There have been some rough estimates that nearly 2,800 electrical fires each year are caused by a Federal Pacific panel breaker that has 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 is making matters only worse.
The quality of the bus bars was of very poor quality that was behind most of the other manufacturers at the time. There different problems that 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 dead 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 grandfathered 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.
Health and safety concerns and age of materials are also part of what a home inspector looks for.
Will a Federal Pacific Stab-Lok Breaker Panels pass a home inspection? In most cases, No. Most certified home inspectors, including myself, will not test these panels and write them up for an immediate replacement due to the safety concerns they have. It really has nothing to do with the building code. It’s all about the safety concerns they possess. Also, most home insurance companies will not underwrite a new insurance policy on a house that has a Federal Pacific Stab-Lok breaker panel. Therefore, it would need to be replaced before a new insurance policy can be provided prior to closing.
In order 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 a vital part of the required due diligence.
A home inspection is a thorough assessment of the condition of the home 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 will advise on any potential issues that might be of concern to any homeowner.
When the home inspection is finished, the homeowner will receive an inspection report with all the findings.
Then with that inspection report, the buyer can make an educated decision based upon the findings in the report.
In case when serious hazards have been discovered the inspection report can even give the buyer a chance to back out of the deal or negotiate repairs with the seller if there has been a home inspection contingency signed previously by both the seller and the buyer.
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 there are specific points of concern that might need further investigation, your home inspector will advise you on hiring a qualified specialist.
When it comes to FPE breakers and panels, they simply cannot be tested or inspected by neither a home inspector nor an electrician. The way to accurately assess the condition of an FPE breaker and whether they are defective is through performing a live-current functional test on each and every breaker in the panel which requires specialized equipment in order to be performed.
Another problem stems from the fact that 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 give a clear answer to 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 when it comes to that and what will happen afterward.
The Gray Area of the Federal Pacific Panels
Earlier in this article, I touched upon that even though deemed unsafe and nearly every certified electrician and home inspector will stress on the importance of replacing the FPE Stab-Lok breaker panels, however, no supporting evidence from the government agencies confirming the panels safety concerns has been released.
However, every home inspector has to work within certain limitations.
- On 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 been proven to have high rates of inability to provide any protection against overcurrent. Since they have such controversial working reliability upon inspection, they are generally considered as a “Safety Defect”.
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 after one overcurrent or short-circuit they might not provide any protection.
And there is no way of telling which FPE breaker is bad. I feel all home inspectors should point out that they are a significant fire hazard and advise having the panel replaced by a certified electrician.
Some electricians even refuse to work on such panels as they cannot guarantee what will happen in the future.
They are not legally recognized as a fire hazard as even the CPSC were unable to come up with a conclusive answer, however, since these breakers have shown such high rates of failing to do their main purpose – which is to provide safety – they should be replaced 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 that you will be facing 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 FPE panels and breakers cannot be bought. Only replacement breakers are being sold which are made by third parties.
Due to the potential danger, every homeowner and homebuyer will benefit from being able to recognize 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 that is between 20 and 70 years old, there is a good chance you might have a Federal Pacific panel installed.
There are several key steps that you need to take when assessing the type of panel or the breakers that have been 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 in order to make an educated decision for yourself.
However, since this is considered a big safety concern, the best thing to do is always have the panel replaced.
In the meantime, it is essential to take specific safety measures in order to avoid creating more hazardous situations as much as possible.
It is recommended to 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 that are connected on 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.
- If 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 are going to 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.
Despite FPE panels being produced between 1950 and 1980s they can actually be found installed in dwelling places built after the 1980s.
So the two options people generally are faced with are to either replace 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 posed by having an FPE panel in their homes, their main concerns are about what should they do. Should FPE panels be replaced entirely or we can just switch the FPE breakers with newer units?
Frequently FPE panels are being discovered during a home inspection while renovating or selling a home. Home inspectors have grown to know what to expect and what to look for during the inspection of older properties.
However, any homeowner that stumble upon one of these should be aware that the best course of action is to replace the entire panel and all circuit breakers with newer units.
This is very important for all people looking to buy a home since the costs of replacing the entire panel can be very high, reaching up to a few thousand dollars in some cases.
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 stock FPE breaker would offer different levels of safety 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. To meet local electrical building codes, 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 for changing an FPE panel often discourages homeowners from actually replacing the panel, but so can be the cost for not doing it.
Even worse, is replacement installations where short cuts were taken to save money that causes more safety problems than leaving the FPE panel alone.
If you have an FPE panel and you want to replace it, you need to consult with a licensed electrician in order 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 actually work.
Not only are they posing a serious fire hazard, but they are really hard to test.
This is another aspect of these panels that are making them a real hazard – usually, there is no way of knowing if they work or not.
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.
In order to find out if the breaker works, it needs to be tested by overloading it past its rating and see if it will trip. This is a potentially unsafe practice, and it needs to be done on each and every breaker.
Another point of concern is that even exercising the breakers by switching them on and off has not shown to improve their reliability.
How Federal Pacific Electric Panels Affect Home Insurance?
In recent years, home insurance companies have begun ordering 4 Point Inspections on homes that are 30 years of age or older. This is done as a measure to control the insurance company’s risk exposure for a loss.
One of the sections in the inspection asks for information about the electrical system including the type of electrical panel and breakers present.
The reason for this is because insurance companies have said that they receive more claims related to electrical fires that have been started from FPE panels.
If you are considering buying a home that has FPE breaker panels installed your home insurance company might refuse writing the insurance policy until the panel is replaced or if they do issue the policy, they might charge you a higher rate due to the inherent risk they are assuming.
If an FPE panel is not regarded as eligible by your insurance company, they could terminate your coverage or give you a specific period (generally 30 days) within which you need to replace the panel and provide evidence that the panel has been replaced.
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.
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