I’ve come across a lot of electrical issues during home inspections. Federal Pacific panels were widely used in residential and commercial buildings throughout the United States from the mid-1950s to the late 1980s.
Manufactured by Federal Pacific Electric (FPE), these panels were known for their low cost and reliability. However, a number of serious problems have since been uncovered with these panels, including their potential to cause electric shock and fire hazards.
Therefore, it is important to be aware of the risks posed by these panels and consider replacing them with a modern alternative.
Federal Pacific panel breakers have a high risk for unexpected circuit breaker failure. These breakers have high failure rates linked to about 2800 house fires annually; thus, they are considered defective and unsafe by most inspectors, electricians, and property insurance companies.
The common stance among home inspectors and home inspection certification organizations, like NACHI and ASHI, is that Federal Pacific panels need replacement.
Federal Pacific Electric Stab-Lok breaker panels are dangerous and a latent fire risk. Consider these facts:
- The Consumer Products Safety Commission identified Federal Pacific circuit breaker panels as a latent safety hazard over 40 years ago. However, there are still over 25 million FPE panels in residential homes and commercial businesses in the United States.
- Federal Pacific breakers fail to trip over 25% of the time when a 135% electrical surge is detected. The CPSC found that subsequent electrical surges increase failure rates to 65% or more.
- Based on the information collected from fire reports, Federal Pacific Stab-Lok panel failures cause about 2,800 fires, 13 deaths, and $40 million in property damage annually in the United States.
1. Who is Federal Pacific Electric Company
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 the mid-1950s to late 1980s.
Federal Pacific Electric stopped manufacturing FPE Stab-Lok electrical products under its name and eventually sold the name rights. By this time, contractors had installed FPE Stab-Lok breaker boxes in millions of homes.
Other companies purchased the name rights to continue manufacturing Stab-Lok products under different names. These companies continued to manufacture Stab-Lok breaker panels and breakers until the late 1980s.
Two companies still hold name rights to manufacture Stab-Lok. You can still buy an FPE replacement circuit breaker from:
- 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 FPE Stab-Lok breaker panels installed worldwide. (1)
While installing a replacement circuit breaker is better, a complete electrical panel replacement is best. Experts found that these federal pacific breaker panels did not provide proper protection and meet safety standards, as claimed.
2. The CPSC Federal Pacific Stab-Lok Breaker Recall
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, which had been running for nearly two years.
Unfortunately at that time, they could not reach a clear conclusion and found it impossible to initiate a product recall.
Due to insufficient data and budget issues, the CPSC staff could not confirm or discard the claims regarding the safety of the FPE breakers. (2)
Although the federal pacific circuit breakers failed to meet the UL (Underwriters Laboratories, Inc.) requirements, as we found out later, at the time, the CPSC couldn’t connect these failings with increased safety hazards in the home environment.
In 2012, an IEEE-published study and later various studies confirmed the fire hazards from FPE Stab-Lok equipment & called for CPSC to take appropriate action to caution the industry & consumers.
3. The Federal Pacific Electric Class Action Lawsuit
Due to the high circuit breaker failure rate to provide appropriate protection to homeowners in 2005, lawyers filed a class-action lawsuit against FPE.
The claimants hired an expert to conduct an extensive investigation of how FPE circuit breakers performed. The results were very concerning as their circuit breakers failed to trip at higher rates consistently across all tests compared to other UL-rated 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 testing fraud and a cover-up by claiming that their defective circuit breakers met UL standards, which was anything but genuine.
4. Federal Pacific Panel Stab-Lok Breaker Failure Rates
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%.
Subsequent 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%! (3)
In addition to this, there are high rates of 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, they will not trip – it is as if your home doesn’t have a circuit breaker anymore.
CPSC did one of the more recent tests of the FPE Stab-Lok with 830 single-pole and double-pole breakers.
The results show up to 70% of the double-pole breakers failed to trip in the presence of an overcurrent. And up to 80% of the single-pole GFI breakers failed to trip. In the case of a second overcurrent, 100% of the jammed double-pole breaker testing did not trip.
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.
We recommend Will a Federal Pacific Panel Pass Inspection?
5. Should You Replace a Federal Pacific Panel?
When homeowners first stumble upon the potential 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 you switch the FPE breakers with replacement breakers?
Federal Pacific panels are frequently found during a home inspection while renovating or selling a home. Any homeowner who stumbles upon one of these should know that replacing the entire panel and circuit breakers is the best action.
Homebuyers should be mindful of these panels when house hunting. When hiring a licensed electrician, the cost to replace Federal Pacific panels is between $1,600 and $4,000.
6. Should You Replace a Federal Pacific Stab-Lok Breaker?
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: Inspectapedia.com
Replacing the Federal Pacific breaker will not improve the federal pacific panel fire hazard risk they pose to your property. We have many studies confirming the dangers of using FPE breakers. No data suggests that a newer FPE replacement breaker would offer improved safety.
FPE panels have been known for having panel bus bar damages and breakers not connecting securely on the bus bar.
The Federal Pacific replacement breakers from Schneider Electric are for Federal Pioneer panels in Canada. Connecticut Electric replacement breakers are available in the United States for Federal Pacific Electrical boxes.
Dr. Jesse Aronstein has reviewed the Schneider Electric and Connecticut Electric replacement breakers and found problems with failure rates, too, indicating that replacement breakers are no better than original Stab-Lok breakers.
7. Are Federal Pacific Panels Insurable?
Home insurance companies have recently begun ordering 4-point inspections on older homes to control risk exposure.
One of the inspection sections asks for information about the electrical system, including the type of electrical panel and breakers present, and can fail a home inspection that could cause problems during underwriting.
Insurance companies have received more claims for electrical fires started by FPE panels and considered them high risk.
If you’re 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 30 to 90 days in which you need to replace the panel and provide evidence of replacement.
Due to the latent fire hazard, most property insurance companies have “blacklisted” Federal Pacific electric panels. They often deny coverage or rate the policy to reduce their risk exposure. They usually give you 30 to 90 days to replace the FPE panel or lose coverage.
Check out our article on How Long Does Electrical Wiring Last in a Home?
Federal Pacific Panel FAQs
Is Federal Pacific Still in Business?
No, Federal Pacific Electric Company is no longer in business. Federal Pacific Electric Company eventually sold its US circuit breaker business, including the US STAB-LOK trademark, to Challenger Electric. The Canadian registration of STAB-LOK was assigned to Pioneer in 1986.
Are Federal Pacific Panels Illegal?
It’s not illegal to have a Federal Pacific panel in your home. The CPSC never issued a formal recall but warned about the breakers’ problems and their risk to property and personal safety.
What Breakers are Compatible with Federal Pacific?
The only breaker currently made to be compatible with a Federal Pacific electrical panel is the FPE replacement breaker from Connecticut Electric. It’s not wise to try and force a Square D, Seimens, or Cutler Hammer breaker into a Federal Pacific panel.
Will a Federal Pacific Breaker fit in a Federal Pioneer Panel?
A Federal Pacific breaker may fit a Federal Pioneer panel, depending on when it was made. However, replacing a Federal Pioneer breaker with a used Federal Pacific breaker is not good. Using a replacement breaker from Schnieder Electric for your Federal Pioneer panel is best.
Where can You Buy Federal Pacific Replacement Breakers?
You can purchase Connecticut Electric and Schneider Electric brand new replacement breakers for Federal Pacific from home stores like Lowe’s or Home Depot.