One of the most common circuit breaker panel manufacturers
in North America from the 1950s to early 1980s was Federal Pacific Electric Company. They where called “stab lok” panels because of the unique breaker installation process. Millions of these types of panels where installed in homes nationwide. However as years passed on, many home inspectors and electricians found that these Federal Pacific Electric panels (FPE panels) have failed to provide the proper protection for homeowners. Experts believe that after one short circuit or over-current, these panels can easily overheat and are potential fire hazards.
One New Jersey class action lawsuit ruled that the company ‘violated the Consumer Fraud Act because they knew and purposely distributed circuit breakers were not tested according to the standards set forth.” The expert used in this class action lawsuit investigated the potential hazards set forth under typical UL 489 test conditions. They found that FPE panels failed to trip at a much higher rate than other standard panels that were deemed safe.
Ultimately, when a breaker fails to trip properly, an extreme and unsafe amount of power from an outside supply will surge into the home’s panel and circuits. When that happens, it cannot be shut off manually or stopped in any way. With this, electricity will burn until there is no more fuel or until the wires actually melt. A panel can potentially overheat and catch fire which can cause serious home to not only the people inside the home, but the integrity of one’s belongings. Many of these FPE panels and breakers have operated well for years, however when they began to malfunction, experts realized that they aren’t as safe as first thought.
There have been multiple tests done on these breakers since the ‘80s and they all have proven that one in four of these breakers are defective and do not properly trip off. In 1983, the Consumer Product Safety Commission closed the two-year investigation even when it was known that these breakers and panels were continuing to be installed in millions of homes. Experts estimate that nearly 2,800 fires annually are directly caused by Federal Pacific panel breaker malfunction. Though they have been out of business for years, FPE products are still providing great danger and damage due to their negligence.
Even the Federal Government has issued a caution message to those with these panels in their homes. The company even notified the Consumer Product Safety Commission in the 1980s that their breakers did not comply with UL testing standards. However despite that notification, they did not issue a recall.
The panels where named Stab-Lok because of the unique design and installation of the breakers. Each breaker had a metal “hook” that had to be stabbed through a hole in the panel mounting bar and rotated to lock into place. The electrical contact created between the breaker and panel was via the edge of the metal breaker hook. Every other panel manufactured has a wider “plate to plate” connection. This meant that the FPE Stab-Lok electrical connectivity was almost literally “knife edge” and is inordinately easy to damage or install incorrectly, creating a dangerous situation.
Because they are popular many years ago, these breakers were made under less standards and codes compared to modern panels. There were certainly less stringent codes and standards in those times. They also were poorly engineered creating different problems not found in other types of panels. Lastly, they have been discovered to be defective and shouldn’t have been on the market in the first place. Take that into account and the years that many homeowners have been using them in their homes and it sounds like a recipe for disaster!
It’s important to note that some of the same problems were found in other brands of equipment just
as old, which makes evaluating one’s existing breaker important, regardless if it is a Federal Pacific panel or not. Older panels give less space in the panel that is found in more modern units. The result is wire crowding, which makes it impossible to run the circuit safely.
Learning if you have a Federal Pacific Breaker Panel
Most breaker boxes have a name or logo on their front cover. A FPE panel will have the name Stab-Lok printed either on the center or side of the panel. The breakers will have a red strip that runs straight across the front. If you suspect that you have a Federal Pacific Panel, contact a licensed electrician or home inspector for further information on replacement as soon as possible.
Annual breaking testing is recommended for any type of panels, but especially those who live in older homes. Breakers can be checked by turning on ceiling fixtures or something plugged into an outlet, next turn off the breaker. In many cases, technical evaluation is needed as overheating problems cannot be seen visually.
Replacing Electric Panels in Older Homes
This is what makes replacing these panels increasingly important once a homeowner discovered they are installed in their older home. A circuit breaker panel is one of the most important parts of an electrical system in a home. It is what constantly distributes and receives electricity throughout the home. It also protects it from power surges and other hazards.
If your home was built between 1950 and 1980, it should be checked to see if it is an FPE unit. These panels run a risk of malfunction and increased risk of fire. These breakers are not known for tripping and shutting down the power to a circuit when an overload occurs. Instead they eliminate the chance of shutting off the malfunctioning circuit until the wires are melted entirely themselves.
A home inspector can properly evaluate whether or not an existing electrical panels is functioning properly and safe or if it needs to be replaced. If you suspect that you may have a Federal Pacific Electric panel, it is time to replace the outdated and unsafe breaker panel.
Not only are these panels a fire risk, but having them in your home can even void your homeowner’s policy or increasing the premium significantly. Homeowners also can potentially have trouble selling their home.
Replacing the Electric Panel
Ultimately the cost of replacing one depends on the amperage of the panel (100, 150 or 200). It can range depending on the home and its location. Some homes will need to upgrade their capacity as more modern homes often use less amps with the advent of energy-efficient appliances. Never use a reconditioned breaker from a local supply store as it will never pass a home inspection check. Also, make sure to hire someone with working knowledge of all of the National Electrical Code standards and how they vary by city or state.
They typically start by disconnecting the meter from the home to ensure proper safety. During the panel change, the home will not have any electricity. However the work can typically be done in just one day. The electrician will then remove the panel and all of the breakers.
During this time, they will ensure that all the wiring and grounding is updated before they install the new panel. Once that new panel is installed, they will reattach the meter and test that all of the circuits are working correctly. Next, they will label each of the breakers to comply with code.
Each panel should come with a warranty, usually one year. Most companies also provide a 100% guarantee and will always fix any issues that may have occurred as a result of a malfunction or defect. It is advisable to choose someone that will charge you a flat fee not a hourly one for a better understanding of the overall cost and to ensure they aren’t taking advantage of you and taking their time to do the work.