When it comes to home safety, electrical panels are one of the first things that need to be inspected. With regular maintenance, the electrical panels we have today can be expected to work properly for at least a few decades.
However, just because an electrical panel seems to work properly today doesn’t mean it will protect us in case of an electrical fault or overcurrent tomorrow.
Some brands of electrical panels have been known to fail on consistently higher rates than what can be considered safe.
One of these electrical panels is known as Zinsco.
Are Zinsco electrical panels safe? Zinsco breaker panels are not considered safe. Zinsco breaker panels have been known to not trip in the presence of overcurrent or short circuits. Also, due to the type of aluminum used, Zinsco breakers can melt and fuse to the electrical panel. If this happens, the breakers will not be able to trip and can cause electrical fires.
Do you need a Licensed Electrician? We can help! Get a free estimate from top-rated, screened, and licensed electricians in your area!
People don’t really talk about Zinsco’s electrical panels as much as they do for some other types of panels. I feel like every homeowner needs to be aware of what a Zinsco panel is, it’s problems, and what that would mean for them as a future homeowner.
Let’s begin with a brief story of how Zinsco came to be in the first place and what happened that led them to manufacture their panels and breakers the way they did.
What Is a Zinsco Electrical Panel?
In 1943 Zinsco was established.
The electrical panels sold by Zinsco were very popular between the 1960s and 1970s. They were installed in many buildings and home properties in North America.
Today they can still be found in some of the older homes.
A few years later, in 1963, Zinsco started manufacturing a new kind of breaker. Their new breaker was the only product at the time that was a 240 volts twin circuit breaker that could make contact on both bus bars. As a result, this made their breakers extremely popular.
Later in 1973, Zinsco was sold to GTE Sylvania the production of these panels continued until the late 1970s until 1981, when the production of Zinsco panels stopped. However, the electrical panels that were already produced were still being installed in buildings for a few more years.
Today Zinsco panels are deemed outdated and a significant electrical hazard.
How Electrical Panels Provide Safety?
Electrical panels are one of the most important, if not the most important, safety devices in any building. Electrical panels receive and then distribute the electricity throughout the circuits in our home through the use of electrical breakers.
Electrical breakers serve as a gatekeeper protecting our electrical circuits from power surges and short circuits. If they detect a potentially hazardous situation, they will immediately shut down the electrical supply, thus preventing any electrical shocks or fires from happening.
If the electrical panel or its breakers don’t work properly or they don’t trip, this can lead to serious electrical hazards, electrical shocks, fires, and more.
In the case of an overcurrent happening if the breakers don’t trip there will be extremely high amounts of electricity allowed to go through the wiring in the building. The danger comes from the high temperature that is generated by electricity. Eventually, this will melt the wiring, breakers, and the electrical panel and start an electrical fire.
2. Short Circuit
There are different kinds of short circuits. If a short circuit happens, this means that the electricity travels through a different path not intended for it.
This is extremely dangerous as it can lead to electrical shocks and even electrocution.
Why Are Zinsco Electrical Panels Not Safe?
It will not necessarily be easy to spot if there is a problem with your Zinsco panel. They may appear to work correctly for many years without failing. Even if you try and remove the cover, this is not going to help.
Some experts claim that as much as 25% of the Zinsco circuit breakers can fail if a short circuit or overcurrent happens.
1. What Makes Zinsco Electrical Panels Dangerous?
In the beginning, Zinsco panels were manufactured with copper bus bars. The clips on their breakers were copper too. During this period of time, only three types of material were allowed to be used as an electrical conductor: gold, silver, and copper. Copper was the preferred material.
During WWII and the Korean war and up to the 1960s, the U.S. was going through some major copper shortages.
The severe copper shortage led to some NEC (National Electric Code) changes, which allowed aluminum to be used in the manufacturing process of electrical panels and breakers.
Some manufacturers continued to use copper, but others had to resort to using aluminum, and Zinsco was one of them.
Although aluminum is being used today in some electrical panels, the one used back then was of a different alloy that had slightly different properties.
The aluminum used for the Zinsco panels was not of the best quality. It was prone to oxidation, and oxidized aluminum has an insulating property, not conducting one. The results were numerous burn-outs and electrical fires.
Because of that, there are several significant reasons why Zinsco panels are not safe:
- The circuit breakers can melt and as a result, fuse to the electrical panel’s main bus bar. In doing so, this prevents the breaker from ever being able to trip. The circuit will stay closed, and electricity will pass regardless of how bad the power surge or the short circuit is. Eventually, the panel, breakers, and wiring will overheat and catch fire.
- The poor quality of the aluminum used.
- The breakers might not connect to the bus bar in a proper way. If the breakers are connected loosely to the bus bars, this may cause arcing. Arcing produces tremendous heat that may set the whole panel on fire.
- The bus bars have a tendency to corrode easily.
- Even though the breakers may appear to be off, they may not have cut out the power and still allow for electrical current to pass.
- It is believed that Zinsco panels might not pass today’s UL requirements. If they cannot pass the safety requirements, they will not be allowed to be sold on the market.
- In some cases, they could be set up as a two-wire system without a ground.
2. What Are the Signs of a Bad Electrical Breaker or Panel?
There are several small signs that can point towards a problematic breaker or panel. Keeping an eye for these might prove of great value.
If you spot anything that may raise your concerns, always make sure to consult a certified electrician in order to have the panels and breakers thoroughly inspected.
- If you notice any burning smell coming from the breaker or the panel.
- If there are any burned areas of the panel or breaker, damaged wiring or other types of wear and tear.
- Any buzzing noises coming from the panel.
- Any flickering lights in the building.
An important thing I want to add is that not always a problem will be visible to the naked eye. And just because we might not see any signs of burned areas doesn’t necessarily mean the breakers are working fine.
This is especially true with Zinsco and FPE electrical breakers where even a more in-depth inspection might not be able to uncover a soon to fail breaker.
3. How to Test If the Electrical Panel and Breakers Work?
One of the frequent questions I receive regarding any of the potentially dangerous breakers is whether or not we can just test them to see if they work.
That sounds good on paper; however, in reality, it proves to be more difficult than expected.
Both the FPE breakers and Zinsco breakers share a vary bad characteristic. Even if tested, we may never know if they will work properly or not in the future.
Visually inspecting the breakers, manually switching them off and on, or trying to see if they are connected securely on to the bus bars might not give us any clues if they are working correctly or if they will work properly.
In fact, manually tripping them and resetting them could even be a reason for them to fail in the future.
What Is the Official Stance from the Government Agencies?
If Zinsco electrical panels are so widely considered a fire hazard there should be some official data on this, right?
Well, not necessarily. Zinsco panels fall in a very tricky category.
Just like the infamous Federal Pacific panels, they too are officially considered okay. There is no official support or evidence from any government or regulatory agency that confirms their lack of adequate protection.
- So, on the one hand, we can consider them legal to be used.
- On the other hand, however, the numerous times they are failing has been reported by many home inspectors and electricians.
And just like the FPE panels, Zinsco is considered unsafe and a serious fire hazard despite not being officially recognized as such by any government agencies.
There have never been any official recalls of the Zinsco panels either.
Every home inspector or certified electrician knows that when they stumble upon a Zinsco panel, they are finding themselves in a tricky situation. Since there is no official data, any homeowner would feel like an electrician that advises them on a panel change is doing so, because they are after the money.
However, both home inspectors and electricians, we are responsible for what we do and for our client’s safety. Being aware of the inherent fire risk Zinsco provides, there is no way that we would not recognize the risk for our clients.
Zinsco panel is always recognized as a serious hazard. Thus we are obliged to inform our clients of the possible future dangers.
How to Recognize a Zinsco Breaker Panel?
Since Zinsco panels are no longer manufactured, you will not find them in newer buildings. However, they can still be found in older homes and properties built before 1990.
- There usually is going to be a label with the Zinsco logo on the panel.
- Zinsco panels were frequently labeled with the name Magnatrip.
- Other labels that may indicate you have a Zinsco panel or Zinsco rebranded panel include Sylvania, Sylvana-Zinsco, and GTE-Sylvania-Zinsco.
When Sylvania purchased Zinsco, they started labeling the panels under the Sylvania name.
However, these don’t seem to be any different than the original Zinsco panels. In fact, they may be the exact same design with a different sticker on top.
So they should be treated as basically the same electrical panel with the same weaknesses.
What Happens During a Home Inspection of a Zinsco Panel?
Although a lot of areas are going to be covered, some things are not included in a home inspection. So it is essential to know what is and what isn’t included in a home inspection.
1. What Does a Home Inspection Cover?
Home inspector’s responsibility is to evaluate any accessible and visible parts of a home and identify any points of concern.
Future health and safety of the property and the owners are our primary focus as home inspectors.
After the home inspection is finished, the homeowner is presented with a home inspection report. In the report, they will find detailed information about the status and condition of the different elements of the property; including any potential hazards and recommendations.
During any home inspection, the electrical panels are one of the first things to be inspected and assessed.
However, not everything can be thoroughly evaluated, and in some cases, they need to be check by an electrician.
Since home inspectors are required to inspect only visible and readily accessible parts of the building, inspectors cannot take off the breakers from the panel.
As a Certified Master Inspector, in the field, I make decisions daily based on the information in front of me. Some inspectors will open these panels, I for one do not and there are reasons for that:
- For safety, the main disconnect needs to be turned off to safely remove and inspect the cover panel. Many older homes do not have a main disconnect installed which prevents cutting power off to the breaker box for internal inspection.
- Most obsolete electrical panels can’t be repaired. You can’t run down to the local hardware store and purchase new parts to fix them. Often times you’ll see replacement parts sold on eBay or in salvage yards but I never recommend anyone do that.
- The only safe repair for an obsolete electrical panel is a full replacement of the entire electrical panel. If I see an electrical panel that is known to be unsafe, I document the replacement note and move on.
2. Will a Zinsco Electrical Panel Pass Home Inspection?
Zinsco panels and breakers have proven to be less reliable than other similar products.
When they are evaluated during a home inspection, they are considered dangerous and a latent fire risk. Even though they may be working today, there is no guarantee that they will not fail tomorrow or a few weeks from now.
Zinsco panels are grandfathered into the electrical code, but that doesn’t mean they are safe to use. They were legal during the period they were installed, and they are still regarded as legal now by building code standards. In addition to that, there is no specific information and stance from the Consumer Product Safety Commission (or CPSC). And there have never been any recalls initiated on the Zinsco panels.
So from a legal standpoint, they are considered okay.
However, no home inspector will be able to ignore the numerous cases of Zinsco’s breakers going bad. And if we combine that with the fact that they are old and outdated, this is making matters even worse. Even the “newer” ones are going to be at least 40 years old.
Of course, even the newer panels and breakers we have today can fail. But given that these panels are extremely old and the known problems they have puts any home inspector in a tough spot.
Despite the lack of any authoritative standpoint, a Zinsco panel should always be classified as a safety concern and a latent fire hazard upon a home inspection. As such, your home inspector will advise on hiring a certified specialist to check the condition of the panel, wiring, and breakers.
3. The Limitations of a Home Inspection
A home inspector can not easily inspect the problems Zinsco panels and breakers have as we cannot remove or tinker with the panel or the breakers. This needs to be done by a licensed electrician.
Based on the history of Zinsco home inspectors can only recommend that an electrician takes a look at the panels and breakers. Since there is no official recalls, we cannot enforce a Zinsco panel to be changed.
Any home buyer is also recommended to do some research on their own. That way, they can make a well-educated decision on what to do. Usually, it is up to the client to decide what would be best for them.
Purchasing a Home with a Zinsco Panel
There is a lot of conflicting information on the Zinsco topic.
For some future homeowners a property with an already installed Zinsco might raise some concerns, it can even be a deal-breaker in some cases.
1. Negotiating a Home Inspection Contingency
As a home inspector, I feel like it is essential to stress the importance of always having a home inspection contingency when buying a new home. In order to be in full effect, it needs to be signed by both the seller and the buyer, as this will make both parties legally bound.
A home contingency is a specific set of requirements that need to be met in order for the contract to move further. There can be many different types of contingencies. In the case of a home inspection contingency, the property needs to pass the home inspection.
If there are points of concern or serious hazards discovered by the home inspector, the buyer is going to be protected by the home inspection contingency. They will have a few options:
- The buyer can negotiate repairs or a reduction in the price.
- Back off the deal with his earnest money.
- Even if the property you are interested in buying doesn’t have a Zinsco panel, there might be other serious hazards or details that were never mentioned by the seller. A home inspection contingency will have you protected in such cases.
2. What Is the Cost of Replacing a Zinsco Electrical Panel?
If you are considering purchasing an old house with an obsolete electrical panel comes with risks and uncertainty.
Replacing a faulty electrical panel can cost big money, in some cases several thousand dollars.
The average cost of replacing a Zinsco electrical panel is between $1,500 to $2,000. Depending on the amperage of the panel (150A or 200A panels will cost more), any extra labor or any materials used for repairs and reforming. The costs may go up to $2,500 and more in some cases.
Some other factors that will affect the price for replacing a Zinsco panel are:
- Your area and municipality.
- The total amount of labor.
- Any demolition work.
- The condition of the wiring.
- The presence of any obsolete wiring.
- The size of the electrical panel.
Depending on the condition of all of these and other factors, even newer wiring might need to be installed.
3. How Zinsco Panels Affect Home Insurance?
Insurance companies and even lenders (if you are looking for a mortgage) are aware of the inherent risk of insuring properties with older and outdated electrical panels.
If you have a property with Zinsco panel installed this might lead to your insurance coverage being canceled. Or you might receive a grace period during which you need to change your whole panel.
Insurance companies have become increasingly more cautious when having to sign insurance for older properties that have FPE or Zinsco panels installed. They have been receiving more claims related to such homes, so they are listed as a possible liability.
Many, if not all, insurance companies can even refuse to insure a property with a Zinsco panel due to their documented and proven fire hazard.
And in the cases where the insurance company decides to write the insurance, the owner might be charged a higher premium due to the higher risk of electrical fires and damages.
What to Do If You Have a Zinsco Panel?
First and foremost, do not try to remove the Zinsco electrical breakers by yourself as there is a risk of electrical shock due to their unsafety. Have a licensed electrician inspect the electrical panel and its breakers.
One of the most concerning decisions every homeowner has to take when they are faced with a Zinsco panel is what will be the right thing to do.
Is it really necessary to completely replace the Zinsco panel and the breakers? Or we can just replace the breakers, after all, there are some replacement Zinsco breakers and retrofitted models that are being sold.
1. Do You Have to Replace a Zinsco Panel?
If you have a Zinsco panel, the first option is to replace the whole electrical panel, including the breakers.
This is the most costly option. However, the most frequently recommended and the best course of action safety-wise.
Replacing the Zinsco panel and breakers with a newer product from a reputable manufacturer is the best way to make sure your home and family are safe.
As we have just discussed, replacing an electrical panel can frequently come as an unexpected expense that might be a few thousand dollars in total. And that should always be considered during the purchase of a home.
2. Do You Have to Replace the Zinsco Breakers?
Another option some homeowners might entertain is just replacing the Zinsco breakers. However, replacing the breakers is not recommended as this will not remove the inherent danger.
Even “newer” units can malfunction, and there is no known proof that they will be more reliable and safe than the older models.
Not just that, but there are inherent problems in the bus bars of the panel and the materials used for their manufacturing. Even if you replace the breakers, the risk that stems from the panel itself is still going to be present.
3. Can You Choose Not to Change the Panel and the Breakers?
As home inspectors, we are responsible for pointing out to any potential future hazards that may occur. We cannot ignore the possible dangers of having a Zinsco panel.
Even though it is recommended for any Zinsco panel to be changed, nobody can enforce that change.
So if it appears to work normally, we will note that in the inspection report. But will still give the recommendation to have the electrical panel inspected by a certified electrician for further advice.
Electricians, too, usually recommend the service panel to be changed due to the inherent risks. However, the final decision is up to the homeowner.
Are There Other Electrical Panels Considered Unsafe?
There are other types of electrical panels that are considered unsafe and hazardous or just plain outdated and should always be upgraded to a better panel.
Just like Zinsco panels, they have some critical issues that can put our home and family at danger.
Federal Pacific panels are the most commonly found electrical panel in older homes that are also considered extremely unsafe. You can read our article Are Federal Pacific Electric Breaker Panels Safe? Dangers & Cost to Replace here.
FPE panels have shown poor reliability and extremely high rates of failing to trip in the presence of electrical overcurrent. As a result, the high risk of starting electrical fires and electrocution.
How Much Does it Cost to Replace a Zinsco Electrical Breaker Panel?
Replacing a Zinsco panel will vary depending on its size, amperage, and location.
So, how much does it cost to replace a Zinsco breaker panel? Usually, the replacement of a Zinsco breaker panel costs about $1500-$2000. However, the replacement of the panel often is accompanied by other repairs to meet current electrical codes.
- relocation to an area of the house that meets clearance requirements for local electrical codes.
- installation of arc fault and ground fault breakers.
- 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.
There are additional costs to consider when replacing a Zinsco electrical breaker panel. To meet current local electrical building codes in your area, most Zinsco breaker panel replacements will require:
- moving the electrical panel to an area of the house that meets clearance requirements for local electrical codes.
- installation of arc fault and ground fault breakers which are more expensive.
- electrical wiring upgrades for some or all of the house’s electrical circuits. Complete re-wiring of a house can cost $10,000 or more.
- installation of the main service disconnect. Many old houses do not have a main disconnect.
- upgrading the 3 phase main service entrance wire from the meter base to the panel to 4 phase wiring.
- extending the service mast and weather head above the roofline or moving the service feed underground.
Unfortunately, the high cost for changing a Zinsco panel often discourages homeowners from actually replacing the panel, but so can be the cost for not doing it.
Many fly-by-night electricians or DIY homeowners installed replacement installations with short cuts to save money that result in more electrical safety problems than they started with.
If you have a Zinsco panel and you want to replace it, you need to consult with a licensed electrician in order to get a quote.
You’ve found your dream home and have an accepted offer. Congratulations! Now its time to order your home inspection to be sure there aren't any major issues present. Safety issues are a...
If you’re buying a house, it’s important you hire a professional home inspector to examine the property on your behalf so they can come back and describe its condition to you in their...