Federal Pacific Electric Panels are a Fire Hazard

From the 1950s to the 1980s, one of the most popular brands of circuit breaker was Stab-Lok, manufactured by Federal Pacific Electric (FPE). Over 100 million of them were installed in the USA and Canada. They were discovered to be unsafe almost 40 years ago, but Inspectapedia estimates that there are still over 25 million FPE panels in homes and businesses in the USA.

you have one of these FPE Stab-Lok circuit breaker panels, our advice is simple.

Get rid of them immediately.

How Dangerous are Federal Pacific Panels?

The short answer is that they have a “high risk of failure”. Expert Jesse Aronstein has carried out an extensive investigation into FPE panels since 1982. He estimates that these panels may be responsible for 2,800 fires, 13 deaths, and $40 million in property damage every year. In 2017, he wrote, “Virtually every FPE Stab-Lok® panel installed in homes today contains circuit breakers that are seriously defective, and the panels should be replaced. Replacing only the circuit breakers, for instance with new UBI breakers, is likely to increase the risk of an electrical fire”.
In the tests Aronstein carried out in 1982, the electrical load was increased to 135% above normal. This should have tripped the breakers 100% of the time in order to prevent a fire, but that didn’t always happen. The results varied depending on whether the breaker had been previously switched manually, i.e. by flipping them off and on, and whether one or both poles were energized.
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  • Breakers that had never been switched manually failed 25% of the time in the double-pole test and 51% of the time in the single-pole test. They then locked up in a way that would prevent them from tripping at any time in the future.
  • Breakers that had been switched manually failed 36% of the time in the double-pole test and 65% of the time in the single-pole test.

When the electrical load was only increased to 100% above rating, there was still a significant failure rate.

  • Breakers that had never been switched manually failed 1% of the time in the single-pole test.
  • Breakers that had been switched manually failed 1% of the time in the double-pole test and 10% of the time in the single-pole test.

What Do These Test Results Mean?

When a breaker fails to trip, this has two effects.

  • The excessive electrical current is probably caused by a short circuit, malfunctioning electrical equipment, or plugging too many devices into the same circuit. The breaker’s job is to shut down dangerous levels current to prevent further damage. If current continues flowing through the system, there is a high risk that equipment could catch fire or you could be electrocuted.
  • The breaker itself heats up to hazardous levels due to the high current. This can distort it and prevent it from working properly. In extreme cases, the breaker can cause a fire.

FPE Falsified Safety Tests, But Breakers Never Recalled

The Stab-Lok was first manufactured by FPE in 1954. As with all electrical products, it went through a certification process to ensure it was safe, and it was approved by Underwriters Laboratories (UL). FPE went bankrupt (for unrelated reasons) and eventually ended up as part of Reliance Electric in 1979.

Reliance then discovered that FPE had been engaging in some highly questionable practices. One of the things they found was that FPE had developed a sophisticated way to fool UL’s testing processes and get certificates even though the Stab-Lok was not up to standard. They fired many senior FPE executives, sued the previous owners, UV Industries, and stopped production of the Stab-Lok. UL also withdrew certification from the Stab-Lok.

Publically, Reliance admitted in 1980 to a “possible defect” and that the certification process had involved “improper practices”, but continued to insist no recall was necessary.

The Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) closed their two-year investigation in 1983 without making a definitive recommendation. At the time, they said that “the data currently available to the Commission does not establish that the circuit breakers pose a serious risk of injury to consumers.” Twenty-eight years later, in 2011, the CPSC clarified that the investigation was closed due to Reagan-era budget cuts “without making a determination as to the safety of FPE circuit breakers or the accuracy of the manufacturer’s position on the matter”.

Other companies continued to make their own versions of both the panels and breakers based on FPE’s defective design well into the 1990s.

What to Do If You Have an FPE Panel in Your Home

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First, don’t panic! That panel’s been there for at least twenty-five years, perhaps much longer, so you’re not dealing with an immediate emergency situation.

On the other hand, don’t be complacent. Just because you haven’t had a problem yet, you can’t afford to ignore it.

As Aronstein puts it: “The presence of a Federal Pacific panel in a home should be classified as a Safety Defect. There is no question but that the Federal Pacific Stab-Lok panels should be replaced. There is no practical and safe alternative.”

Remember that the breakers are part of your home’s emergency system. Most breakers will never, ever need to trip. As long as you’re not overloading your system, you’re using good quality equipment and your wiring is in good condition, there’s usually no reason for a dangerous overload to occur. But should a problem arise, you need to be 100% confident that the breakers will do their job and shut off the current before you even know there’s an issue. If you have an FPE panel, you can’t count on that happening.

Electrical expert Douglas Hansen noted: “Federal Pacific panels have at least five design issues that are no longer allowed by code: the gutter space, the wire bending space, spring-mounted bus, breakers that are on when down, and the split bus service equipment.”

So take action today. It’ll take you less than five minutes to check your panel to find out if it is one of the affected models. Most FPE panels can be identified by one or more of the following methods:

  • The words Federal Pacific or Federal Pacific on the outside
  • The FPE logo on the outside
  • The words Federal Pacific Electric Company on a sticker on the inside of the door
  • The word Stab-Lok on the breakers

If you see any of these, call us right away, and we’ll help you take care of it.

However, even if you don’t see any of these indicators, it’s still possible that you still have an FPE-style box. Some of the early models didn’t have the FPE name or logo. The sticker may have been replaced. And some aftermarket breakers don’t carry the Stab-Lok name, or may not have the name in a visible place.

Whatever you do, don’t try pulling out your breakers or opening up your circuit breaker panel to hunt for clues. You could easily electrocute yourself and, if you disturb any wiring, you’re likely to increase the fire risk. If you’re in any doubt at all about whether your circuit breaker panel is safe, call us, and we’ll take a look. Our team of experts are trained to recognize all models of FPE panels.

Advice for New Home Buyers

Ensure that your home inspector checks the circuit breaker panel. If you discover an FPE panel, insist that the seller has it replaced before you take possession of the property. Alternatively, budget for a replacement and have the work done before you move in.

Do FPE Panel Owners Have any Legal Recourse?

Sadly, no. Federal Pacific Electric is no longer in business. A class action lawsuit in New Jersey was closed in 2005. There is a company called Federal Pacific which makes electrical equipment, but they’re not related.

How Does Rytec Handle FPE Equipment Replacements?

Before we do anything, we’ll do a full inspection on your panels to verify whether you’re at risk. We’ll give you an honest assessment of what needs to be done to make your property safe and fully code compliant.

If you have an FPE panel, we’ll recommend a full replacement. Some electricians will offer to save you a little money by installing aftermarket replacement breakers instead, but this really isn’t a good idea. The danger is caused by design flaws in both the main unit and the breakers, so replacing the breakers isn’t sufficient. In addition, even if you change the breakers, your panel will still have the FPE logo on it, which will raise all sorts of red flags in any future home inspection.

Replacing the entire panel is a much safer option for many reasons. When we replace the panel, we will also make sure that your new circuit breaker panel is optimized for your actual electrical usage, and we’ll ensure that it’s fully code compliant. This will reduce the risk of future outages as well as reducing the risk of fire.

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