There are many areas of the home that can contain safety hazards but some more than others. I wanted to write this article for my clients to keep them informed about a dangerous issue, more so than can be covered in an inspection report.
Short of the house collapsing on your head, it can be said that nothing in the home is more dangerous than the electricity running through every wall. Any defect that involves electricity is a safety hazard, from a simple loose outlet cover to exposed wiring. If you can receive an electric shock it’s a safety hazard, and these issues need to be addressed by professionals. This is why electricians go to school for years to become licensed and certified.
Your circuit breaker panel is where all of the electricity in your home comes together. Different areas of the home are wired to individual circuit breakers. Their function is to cut off the power to sections of the home incase of overload. If there is too much electricity in the system, the breaker trips and cuts power before the overload causes the wiring to heat up and possibly catch fire.
Circuit breakers are safety devices plain and simple. They’re like having a life raft on a boat; they sit there unused until they’re needed.
I feel it is my responsibility to my clients to call out one brand of circuit breaker panel in particular because I am seeing several still installed in the Denver area.
Federal Pacific Electrical Company, (FPE) Stab-Lok circuit breaker panels were one of the most commonly manufactured circuit breaker panels in North America from the 1950’s until the early 1980’s meaning millions were produced and installed in homes for decades.
As the years passed more and more house fires were traced back to a circuit breaker in the electrical panel that failed to trip when an overload occurred. Federal Pacific panels and their circuit breakers were overwhelmingly the panels to blame.
All producers of circuit breakers must have their designs tested and approved by Underwriters Laboratories to be sure their product functions. This is the testing lab for consumer product safety. Most all electronics have a label on them showing they were UL tested.
In the early 1980’s the New Jersey state court ruled in a class action lawsuit “Federal Pacific Electrical Company violated the Consumer Fraud Act because they purposely and knowingly distributed circuit breakers, which were not tested to meet UL standards”. Various studies have been done and all showed a very high failure rate, some showed 14% of FPE breakers would not trip in the event of overload, other studies found that number to be as high as 80%.
The danger becomes clear when you see how many circuit breakers are inside the circuit breaker panel. It is estimated that FPE breakers are responsible for over 2,800 house fires every year. These breakers actually cause the very thing they were created to prevent, an electrical fire.
What if I have a FPE breaker panel?
If you suspect you have a Federal Pacific electrical panel in your home, I recommend you do some of your own research into these panels to decide your next course of action.
Usually if I see an issue inside an electrical panel I recommend to the client, the panel be evaluated by a licensed electrician, however when I find a FPE Stab-Lok, I recommend the client have the panel replaced as soon as possible. Many mortgage brokers (as well as the VA) will not approve a mortgage loan on the home if a FPE Stab-Lok breaker panel is present. Even if you can get the loan, you will then find it difficult to insure the home once purchased as many of the larger insurance companies are well aware of the dangers posed by these panels and will deny coverage until replacement can occur.
The panel can be tested for operation by a qualified electrical engineer who can verify that each breaker will trip in the event of an overload, this is called live-current functional testing, however these are specialized tests which will more than likely cost much more than simply replacing the panel to begin with.
FPE Stab-Lok panels don’t need to be evaluated by an electrician for safety, they are unsafe plain and simple, any electrician worth their salt will tell you the same. The only way to make them safe is to replace them.
The simple truth is a circuit breaker itself is designed as a safety feature, just because it hasn’t failed, only means it hasn’t had the chance to fail. It is illogical to think “Why have a life boat if you’re on a perfectly functioning boat?” “Because in an emergency, you might need to get off the boat.” Just because an emergency hasn’t happened, doesn’t mean you don’t have to make sure the lifeboats are always functional. The same logic applies to circuit breakers and breaker panels.
For more information on FPE Stab-Lok panels and the problems associated with them please see the links below.