The Dangers of Federal Pacific Electrical (FPE) Electrical Panels & Breakers
What does an electrical panel and breakers do?
Your electrical panel acts at the skull that protects the brains of your home’s electrical system. It houses the circuit breakers which protects your home from electrical faults like short circuits and circuit overloads.
Your breakers work by acting as a bridge between the utility company’s power and the power that leaves your panel to your house. When there are electrical faults, the breakers “trip”. That’s when the bridge is broken and electricity no longer flows through the wires and to the various devices in your home (ie. outlets, lights, fans, etc.).
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If the circuit breakers fails to “trip”, electricity still flows through the breaker. With no regulation, high current will flow through the wire causing heat buildup and can lead to the wires melting and catching on fire. This is a major fire hazard and a major problem of FPE Stab-Lok electrical panels and breakers.
What are FPE panels and breakers?
Federal Pacific Electric was producing circuit breakers and panels regularly used in North America from 1950- 1980 and can be found in homes built until the early 2000’s. The most popular electrical panel was the “Stab-Lok” type panel.
The circuit breakers and the electrical panels were installed in millions of homes across America with an estimated 28 million FPE Stab-Lok panels installed worldwide.
Experts and engineers found out that these panels and breakers did not properly provide protection from electrical faults or meet safety standards.
1. Failing to trip
This is the biggest problem of these breaker. In numerous reports from the US Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), it was concluded that when energizing the breakers on both poles at a 135% overload, they failed to trip 25% of the time. When energized on individual poles at the same 135% overload, the failure to trip rates jumped to 51%.
But wait… there’s more.
After switching the breakers on and off, the failure rates jumped higher in both cases. The first 2 pole test failure rates jumped from 25% to 36%, and in the second single pole test, from 51% to 65%. This is huge not only because of the numbers but because electricians will commonly turn off the breakers to ensure they can perform their work safely. If something like as routine as this jeopardizes a breakers ability to properly work, that’s an instant red danger flag.
In addition to the high rate of tripping failures, there are also high lock-up rates.
What is a lock-up?
A lock-up is when once a breaker has tripped in the past, it will never trip in the future – no matter what overload runs through them. Even if you manually try to switch the breakers on and off, they will not trip… how scary is that? It’s the same as having to electrical protection at all.
A test of 830 FPE Stab-Lok breakers was done and proved the true dangers of this brand. Up to 70% of the 2-pole breakers and 80% of the GFCI breakers failed to trip when energized with an overcurrent. When a second overcurrent was applied to the same breakers after being reset, 100% of the jammed 2-pole breakers didn’t trip at all.
This is why many home inspectors and electricians will tell homeowners with these panels the best way to repair an FPE panel is to replace it with a different brand. Because these panels and breakers don’t provide the protection standard required, the risk of an electrical fire happening is very high.
2. Poor panel design
The problem with the FPE brand isn’t only with their breakers, but also with their panels. The cheap materials that afflicted their breakers also affected their panels, particularly the hot bus bars. FPE bus bars were behind most of the other manufacturers at the time in terms of quality.
What are electrical panel bus bars?
Bus bars in an electrical panel are where electrical wires are connected together before branching out of the panel to the various places in the house. Think of a bus station where everyone converges before heading out to their individual destinations.
The problem with FPE bus bars were their hot bus bars. Hot bus bars are connected directly to the utility company’s power through their electric meter. The hot bus bar is what the breakers make contact with and act as the bridge between the electrical wires in your home and the power from the utility company.
The quality of FPE bus bars caused numerous issues including:
- Arcing at the bus.
- Breakers may not stay tightly connected to the bus bar.
- The breakers can stay active even in the OFF position.
- Breakers can unexpectedly trip upon removal of the dead front cover.
- FPE have an extremely high chance of failing to trip
- Simply turning FPE breakers on and off affect its ability to trip
- Poor quality materials in FPE breakers and panels
- Faulty bus bars in the FPE panels cause electrical arcing
Between 1950 and 1990 and even until the early 2000’s, millions of homes were constructed with with Federal Pacific Electric Stab-Lok panels. If your home was built during this time, then there’s a high chance your home uses one of these panels.
Identifying these panels are easy.
- Most commonly the logo “Federal Pacific”, “FPE”, or “Federal Pacific Electric” will be written on the outside of the panel’s front cover in red and white.
If the there is no outside label, check the inside of the panel.
- Open the panel front cover and look for a “Stab-Lok” label.
- You can also identify this panel by looking at the breakers which will have their signature red label running across the front.
- ID FPE panels by looking for their Red and white logo
- Check inside the panel for “Stab-Lok” label
- Look at the breakers for red stripe
- Inspect the inside for panel’s model info
In Kahului, many of the older homes had these panels. Luckily, because the minimal load of these homes, there wasn’t a lot of reported problems with these panels.
But nowadays, due to home owners constantly looking to upgrade their property with appliances, solar, and A/C, the higher electrical load put on these panels greatly increases the chances for one of the many issues with this brand to occur.
Almost every electrician on Maui and home inspector will agree that if one of these FPE panels are in your home, you should have the panel replaced. Not only will this protect you, your family, and your home, but you will also be guaranteeing you’ll be able to safely add upgrades to your home.
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