Definition of Federal Pacific Electrical Panels or Breaker Boxes
Federal Pacific Electrical panels are a type of electrical panel made by the Federal Pacific Electrical Company, that were widely installed in many American homes. A Federal Pacific Electrical panel may also be known as a Federal Pacific Electrical breaker box or FPE Stab-Lok breaker. Millions of these panels were installed between the 1950s and the 1980s.
How Federal Pacific Electrical Panels or Breaker Boxes Work
A Federal Pacific Electrical breaker box works like other home electrical panels, in that it takes the main electrical supply line and distributes the power to individual circuit breakers, which ultimately supply electricity throughout the various areas of your home. The breakers are designed to prevent electrical overload, and thus overheating of wiring, that could potentially cause a fire in your home or lead to electrocution.
There are two main types of Federal Pacific Electrical panels/breaker boxes that were installed in homes: FPE two-pole Stab-Lok breakers and FPE Stab-Lok single-pole breakers, as well as combination breaker/GFIs.
Nearly all electricians are familiar with the risks associated with FPE breaker boxes, but many homeowners might still not be aware of the safety hazard that these electrical panels pose.
Why Federal Pacific Electrical Panels or Breaker Boxes Are a Problem
The problem with FPE panels is that after decades of being installed in people’s homes, it was eventually discovered that FPE falsified their testing data for Underwriters Laboratories, Inc. (UL) certifications. So, even though they were UL listed, they did not in fact meet the rigid safety requirements set forth by the National Electrical Code. This means that unsafe breakers were (and still are) in many American homes. The UL eventually delisted nearly every FPE breaker for a period of time as a result.
In addition, the Consumer Product Safety Commision has tested many of these FPE breaker boxes and found unacceptably high failure rates. Nearly every breaker tested has shown some sort of defect, with up to one third having some sort of potentially dangerous breaker defect. These defects mean that when a surge or other power issue, such as a short circuit, occurs, the breaker does not trip as it should. The breaker may become jammed, or may appear to have tripped, but the contacts remain closed, completing the circuit. This results in wires overheating, creating a dangerous fire hazard. Obvious signs that you have a defective Federal Pacific Electrical panel are scorch marks on the box, loose breaker switches, and burn marks.
The chances of a circuit shorting or overloading and causing a breaker to trip may be small, but it happens more frequently than one might think. And when it does, it is of vital importance to everyone’s safety that the breaker trips in order to prevent fire hazards. Research has estimated that approximately 2,800 fires per year can be directly attributed to faulty FPE panels and breakers. This further translates to approximately 116 injuries, 13 deaths, and $40-million in property damages, and is approximately 2-3% of all residential fires. Homes with Federal Pacific Electrical panels and breakers installed are 20% more likely to have a fire than homes with correctly functioning breakers.
As a result of the fraudulent safety standards and subsequent fires and personal injuries caused by Federal Pacific Electrical panels, a class action lawsuit was brought against the company in New Jersey, which ruled that the company had committed fraud under the NJ Consumer Protection Act by claiming their electrical panels and breakers met UL safety standards when they knowingly did not.
What to Do With Your Federal Pacific Electrical Panels or Breaker Boxes
It used to be that when a home inspector or potential home buyer found a Federal Pacific Electrical panel in a home, they would recommend evaluation by a professional before deciding on a remedy. However, in recent years the recommended route has been to immediately replace the panel, given its high rate of failure and ultimate safety risk. Just because you haven’t noticed a problem doesn’t mean you should leave it to chance.
An electrician or electrical inspector could evaluate the panel and individually test each breaker to see if it would trip in the event of a power overload. However, it is actually cheaper and more effective to simply replace the entire electrical panel.
There are some panels that were manufactured between the period when FPE stopped making their original units (after the unsafe units were disclosed) and when they restarted in 1981. This means that certain models may in fact meet UL safety standards. These units can be identified by a pink UL label and a white dot on the breaker handles.
If you know for certain or believe that you have a Federal Pacific Electrical panel installed in your home, do not hesitate to contact a trusted, qualified electrician in your area for an evaluation and remediation.