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. Other names for a Federal Pacific Electrical panel include Federal Pacific Electrical breaker box or FPE Stab-Lok breaker. Between the 1950s and 1980s, home installed millions of these panels.
How Federal Pacific Electrical Panels or Breaker Boxes Work
A Federal Pacific Electrical breaker box works like other home electrical panels. The break box takes the main electrical supply line and distributes the power to individual circuit breakers. Ultimately, this supplies electricity throughout your home. Breakers prevent electrical overload. Plus, breakers prevent overheating of wiring, which could potentially cause a fire in your home or lead to electrocution.
Generally, homes contain two types of Federal Pacific Electrical panels/breaker boxes. FPE two-pole Stab-Lok breakers and FPE Stab-Lok single-pole breakers. Plus, there are some combination breaker/GFIs.
Nearly all electricians understand the risks associated with FPE breaker boxes. However, many homeowners might 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, these panels did not meet the rigid National Electrical Code safety requirements. 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 Commission tested many FPE breaker boxes and found unacceptably high failure rates. Nearly every breaker tested exhibited some sort of defect. In fact, nearly one third had some sort of potentially dangerous breaker defect. The defects mean that when a surge or other power issue, (such as a short circuit) occurs, the breaker does not properly trip. 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.
- burn marks.
What Damage Do FPE Panels and Breaker Cause
Although, the chances of a circuit shorting or overloading and causing a breaker to trip remain small, it happens more frequently than one might think. However, when it does happen, it’s vital that the breaker trips in order to prevent fire hazards. Research estimates approximately 2,800 fires per year can be directly attributed to faulty FPE panels and breakers. FPE panels and breaks remain responsible for approximately 116 injuries, 13 deaths and $40-million in property damages annually. Additionally, these panels are breakers cause 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 filed against the company in New Jersey. The suit ruled the company 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
Previously, home inspectors would recommend an evaluation by a professional before determining a remedy if they found a Federal Pacific Electrical panel. 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 should evaluate the panel and individually test each breaker. The inspectors determine if the breaker trips in the event of a power overload. However, replacing the entire electrical panel offers a cheaper and more effective solution.
There are some panels manufactured between the period when FPE stopped making their original units (after the company disclosed the unsafe units) and when they restarted in 1981. Therefore, certain models meet UL safety standards, which contain 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.