Are Federal Pacific Breaker Panels Safe? Dangers and Cost to Replace
There are millions of homes in the United States that have a ticking time-bomb somewhere in the structure. Between 1950 and 1980, Federal Pacific Electric Company (FPE) sold most of the circuit breakers installed in homes in the US. There is still widespread confusion about the safety of FPE circuit breakers and panels.
In general, research shows that FPE circuit breakers and panels have an extremely high failure rate. Estimates of fires directly related to FPE circuit breaker failure are in the neighborhood of 2,800. At least 13 deaths are attributable to FPE failures. Industry estimates put the annual losses due to FPE circuit breaker failure in the range of forty million dollars.
You may have unknowingly purchased a home with an unsafe electrical system. Many home inspectors fail to check for unsafe electrical panel installations, and the problem goes unreported. Some don’t recognize the dangers that FPE circuit breakers and panels pose. As a homeowner, you should recognize the dangers posed by FPE circuit breakers and take the necessary steps to remove this hazard from your home.
The Truth About Federal Pacific Breaker Panels and Breakers
Federal Pacific Electric perpetrated an ongoing fraud on the public for many years. Through deceptive practices, FPE obtained a UL certification for the Stab-Lok® products. Independent testing of the products confirmed that a large percentage of the circuit breakers were faulty. Despite these findings, FPE continued to sell circuit breakers and panels.
Federal Pacific Electric Company manufactured a line of circuit breakers and panels under the Stab-Lok® trade name. In 2002 a federal class-action lawsuit was filed against Federal Pacific Electric, claiming that FPE violated certain parts of a New York Consumer Fraud Act. In brief, the class-action suit maintained that:
- FPE received a UL label using deceptive practices during testing, including hidden remote controls to trip breakers that failed to open properly.
- FPE knowingly sold defective electrical equipment over a long period that resulted in multiple deaths and millions of dollars in losses
- FPE ignored its own testing and the test results from at least four independent laboratories that the circuit breakers in question were defective.
The class-action lawsuit had several results. The court found that FPE knowingly distributed defective circuit breakers and did not meet UL standards as shown on the product label. The Stab-Lok® products were eventually pulled from the market, and the trade name was sold to another company.
What Makes a Federal Pacific Circuit Breaker Panel Dangerous?
Circuit breakers are intended to protect you and your home from problems in the electrical circuits. The basic premise is that the circuit breaker will interrupt the flow of electricity when a problem arises that causes an over-voltage situation. Unfortunately, FPE knowingly sold circuit breakers that repeatedly failed to provide this protection.
The Consumer Product Safety Commission and three other independent testing laboratories conducted separate tests on FEP Stab-Lok® circuit breakers in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Not all test results were made public, but the CPSC found that 85% of the double-pole Stab-Lok® breakers failed the UL testing protocols. The single-pole Stab-Lok® circuit breakers failed the UL testing protocols 39% of the time.
The CPSC also noted that in many instances, the Stab-Lok® double-pole breakers would mechanically jam. These jams, in some cases, caused a circuit that normally operated at 120 volts to suddenly carry 240 volts. Under any circumstances, this is a very dangerous situation.
What Might Happen if I Have Federal Pacific Stab-Lok® Circuit Breakers in My Home?
Several safety and hazard issues are associated with Federal Pacific Stab-Lok® circuit breakers. Among these are documented failures that can lead to these problems and conditions.
- Tests found that Stab-Lok® double-pole breakers that had never been switched manually failed approximately twenty-five percent of the time when overloaded.
- Single-pole breakers that had never been manually switched and subjected to overloads failed fifty-one percent of the time.
- A failed Stab-Lok® circuit breaker jammed in many instances, preventing the circuit breaker from opening normally, creating a hazard.
- Breakers that had been switched manually at least once failed at higher rates. Double-pole breakers failed thirty-six percent of the time, and single-pole breakers failed sixty-five percent of the time.
The cause of most circuit-breakers tripping open is related to several causes.
- A short circuit
- Malfunction electrical equipment
- Overloading of the circuit
In any case, the circuit-breakers job is to stop the flow of current when a dangerous condition exists. This protects you and your home from fires or the possibility of an electrical shock. Nationwide, it is estimated that failed FPE Stab-Lok® circuit breakers cause at least 2,000 fires each year and as much as forty million dollars in damages.
How Widespread is the Problem of Federal Pacific Circuit Breakers and Panels?
From the 1950s to as late as 2000, Federal Pacific panels and circuit breakers were installed in homes and businesses. Some estimates put the number of installed FPE Stab-Lock® breakers at twenty-eight million. Some industry experts believe that as many as one million circuit breakers may fail leading to possible fires or other dangers.
Homes built between 1955 and 1980 have a good chance your electrical system is protected by a Federal Pacific Electric Stab-Lok® circuit breaker panel. Many homeowners rely on a home inspection during the purchase of their home to spot such deficiencies. Unfortunately, many home inspectors fail to check for this problem.
If there is a chance that you have a Federal Pacific circuit breaker panel and circuit breakers, find a good, licensed electrician to check your home. A licensed electrician can advise you of your options if you have FPE equipment installed in your electrical system.
Why Weren’t These Faulty Circuit Breakers Recalled?
Budget cuts and bureaucratic maneuvering are the main reasons the Consumer Product Safety Commission never completed its investigation or recalled these faulty products. Poor timing and unrelated events prevented the CPSC from completing its investigation and issuing reports or recall orders. Safety was trumped by politics.
The election of President Reagan brought about a shift in politics that affected many areas. The new administration was much more pro-business than the previous administration. The CPSC was facing drastic budget cuts and increased pressure from the business-friendly Reagan administration. The result was the early end of the investigation into FPE circuit breakers faults.
Without further testing, the CPSC issued a statement that there was no conclusive evidence that the FPE Stab-Lok® circuit breakers posed a safety and health concern. The entire matter dropped out of sight.
Do I Have any Legal Recourse if my Home has an FPE Circuit Breaker Panel?
Unfortunately, if you find that your home has Federal Pacific Electric Stab-Lok® circuit breakers and panels, you are on your own. There is no legal recourse that you can take to recover any losses you may incur. FPE is long out of business, and its assets are dispersed. A class-action lawsuit in New Jersey was closed and settled in 2005.
This situation has left many homeowners in difficult positions. There are reports that some insurance companies will refuse to cover a home that has FPE circuit breakers and panels installed. Many homes have been inspected and passed by home inspectors who are unfamiliar with the Federal Pacific problems.
How Do I Check My Circuit Breaker Panel?
Checking your circuit breaker panel is relatively easy but take care to avoid a dangerous electrical shock. Identifying a Federal Pacific breaker panel can be done by most homeowners. Federal Pacific circuit breaker panels are identified by labels on the outside that say Federal Pacific, The FPE logo, Federal Pacific printed on interior labels, and the word Stab-Lok® on the breakers.
Our recommendation is that you hire a licensed electrician to check your circuit breaker panel and circuit breakers. Messing around with the panel can be dangerous if you don’t know what you are doing. With that being said, you probably shouldn’t panic. You probably don’t have an emergency situation.
If I have Federal Pacific Equipment, What Should I Do?
If you find that your home has a Federal Pacific Breaker Panel or Stab-Lok® circuit breakers, don’t try and make any changes yourself. Only a licensed electrician should make changes to the breaker box or breakers in your home. In some instances, changing out a breaker box requires a building permit.
Several options are available depending on the type and model of FPE equipment installed in your home. A licensed electrician is the best source of information and guidance. An electrician will know the local building code requirements and permitting requirements for your area.
In most instances, if you have a Federal Pacific breaker panel and Stab-Lok® circuit breakers, the electrician will recommend replacement. In this instance, replacing the entire box and all the breakers is the only way to bring your home’s electrical system back into compliance with the building codes.
How Much Does It Cost to Replace a Federal Pacific Breaker Panel and Circuit Breakers?
Several factors affect the cost of replacing a Federal Pacific panel and circuit breakers. A licensed electrician will generally charge between $1,500 and $2,000 to install a new panel and circuit breakers that meet current electrical codes. This cost may not include permits but does usually include the cost of the new equipment.
|Service Panel Size
|Low-End Replacement Cost
|High-End Replacement Cost
|100 Amp Service Panel
|200 Amp Service Panel
|400 Amp Service Panel
Replacing a circuit breaker panel is a major project. A Service Panel replacement is not a project that is within the capabilities of most homeowners. In many communities, replacing a circuit breaker panel requires a building permit and the services of a licensed electrician. Considering the factors that can affect a circuit breaker panel upgrade, this is understandable.
Unfortunately, sometimes the job is not as simple as replacing the circuit breaker panel and the circuit breakers with new certified equipment. Many cities require a building permit when making such changes to the electrical system in your home. The inspector may find other problems with your electrical system that must be addressed to pass the building inspection.
What Other Factors Can Affect the Cost of Installing a Replacement Circuit Breaker Panel?
Unfortunately, replacing a Federal Pacific breaker panel may involve more than just removing the old equipment and installing a new service panel. Your electrician can advise you before the project starts about some of these additional costs. However, until the electrician begins work, he may not find some problems that will require additional repairs or upgrades.
- Relocation of the circuit breaker panel – In older homes, the location of the existing circuit breaker panel is a problem. Upgrading or replacing a circuit breaker panel often requires a permit which is accompanied by a building inspection. New building codes often specify different clearance requirements for service panels. This may require your electrician to move the circuit breaker panel to meet the code requirements to pass an inspection.
- Upgraded circuit breaker requirements – In most cases, new building and electrical codes require ground fault breakers and arc fault breakers on certain portions of your electrical system. These specialized breakers can cost from $40 to $60 each instead of $15 for a standard breaker.
- Wiring upgrades – In really old homes, the wiring in the branch circuits may not be sufficient for modern needs and demands. Replacing or upgrading a service panel is considered a major upgrade requiring the entire electrical system in your home to be brought up to building codes. Replacing the wiring in a home can add thousands of dollars to the cost of your project.
- Aluminum Wiring – During the 1960s and 1970s, many homes were built with aluminum electrical wiring instead of copper wire. The cost of aluminum wiring was much cheaper than copper, and saving that bit of money was important to builders. However, experience showed that aluminum wiring suffered from mechanical damage connected to copper or brass components. If your home has aluminum wiring, in many cases upgrading the circuit breaker panel will also require new wiring in your home to pass the electrical inspection.
- Adding a main service disconnect – Some older homes do not have a main disconnect in the system. Modern building codes require a main disconnect between the electrical service entrance and the main circuit breaker panel.
- Upgraded service entrance wire – Depending on the age of your home, the electrician may install a new service cable from the meter base to your circuit breaker panel. In some cases, the older cable does not meet the size requirements for the service load, or the wire is deteriorated and is unsafe to use.
Unfortunately, replacing a Federal Pacific Stab-Lok® breaker panel can be an expensive process. However, leaving the FPE panel in place presents a significant danger to you, your family, and home. In most cases, a replacement and upgrade to your electrical system is the only safe recourse.
I Had a Home Inspection Done. Why Didn’t the Inspector Report the Federal Pacific Circuit Breakers?
Technically, Federal Pacific circuit breaker panels and Stab-Lok® circuit breakers are not banned by most building codes. There are many reasons for this situation. Many home inspectors report only electrical problems that don’t meet building codes. Since many insurance companies won’t insure a home with Federal Pacific circuit breakers, many homeowners prefer that the inspector not report the situation.
A reputable home inspector will report the presence of Federal Pacific circuit breakers and panels even if these panels are grandfathered into the building code. These panels may still be legal, but there are known safety issues with leaving these circuit breakers and panels in place.
Home inspectors who fail to report the presence of Federal Pacific breakers are certainly not doing their clients any favors. In some states and under some circumstances, the home inspector can face legal issues if a loss occurs because of a failure to properly report an unsafe condition in a home.
Can an Electrician Test My Federal Pacific Breaker Panel and Circuit Breakers?
There is no process or means for an electrician or home inspector to test a Federal Pacific breaker panel or circuit breakers for problems. Testing circuit breakers involves live-current testing that requires specialized equipment and training. The cost of this testing is usually more than the cost of a service panel and circuit breaker replacement.
In general, there is no way to know if the Federal Pacific circuit breaker panel or circuit breakers installed in your home will function properly or not. The incidence of failures rises when Federal Pacific circuit breakers are manually turned on and off. Simply checking your circuit breakers for proper operation can increase the chances of failure.
The only recommendation that makes sense is to replace your Federal Pacific circuit breaker panel and circuit breakers. Preventing possible problems and hazardous conditions is the priority. Installing new equipment that meets UL standards and local building codes is the best answer.
Are There Other Signs That I Have Problems with my Circuit Breaker Panel?
If you notice the lights in your house flickering or going dim then shining brightly, you may have a problem with the circuit breakers. This is especially true you have Federal Pacific Stab-Lok® breakers. Any appliance that doesn’t run properly can also indicate a problem with an electrical circuit.
Unfortunately, these can also be the symptoms of other problems in your home’s electrical system not related to Federal Pacific breaker problems. Diagnosing these types of issues takes training and knowledge. We suggest that you find a good, licensed electrician to find the cause of your electrical problems and then perform the remedies.
Why are Circuit Breakers Important and How do They Work?
Circuit breakers are the watchdogs of your electrical system. These often unseen devices constantly monitor the electrical system in your home for short circuits, overloads, and other dangerous conditions. A circuit breaker’s job is to disconnect the electrical service from a faulty circuit to prevent shocks, fires, and other damage.
Circuit breakers are basically reusable fuses. In an older style electrical system, a fuse protected the circuits. If an unsafe condition occurred, the metal fuse strip would melt or break and stop the flow of electricity into the circuit. A circuit breaker does the same job but can be reset many times if the circuit breaker opens.
I See Different Types of Circuit Breakers at the Home Improvement Store. What’s the Difference?
Circuit breakers continue to evolve. New technologies and the recognition of different hazards have produced new circuit breakers for many different applications. The type of circuit breaker and the circuit breaker’s rating must match the electrical system.
You should educate yourself about the different types of circuit breakers before you talk to your electrician about replacing the Federal Pacific breaker panel in your home. Your electrician can advise you as you select the most appropriate circuit breakers to protect your home’s electrical system.
Electromagnetic Circuit Breakers
Most modern circuit breakers use an electromagnet. As electricity flow through the circuit breaker, an electromagnet inside the circuit breaker is energized. If the voltage flowing through the circuit breaker suddenly jumps or spikes, the electromagnet becomes stronger and pulls the internal switch open. This stops the flow of electricity until the circuit breaker is reset.
Bimetallic Circuit Breakers
Some circuit breakers use a bimetallic strip to perform the same function. The bimetallic strip is bent by the current passing through. If an overcurrent situation happens, the strip is bent enough to open the circuit breaker contacts. This shuts down the electrical flow to the circuit.
Advanced Electronic Circuit Breakers
Newer circuit breakers don’t rely on mechanical devices such as electromagnets or bimetal strips. These new circuit breakers have electron components that monitor the flow of electricity through the circuit.
These electronic circuit breakers are more precise and react quicker to over-current situations. This fast reaction makes them perfect for protecting electrical circuits that serve delicate or sensitive electronic equipment.
The downside of electronic circuit breakers is the cost. These versions of circuit breakers can run from $30 to $200 each. Mechanical circuit breakers typically have an average cost of about $10 each. Very few residential electrical systems have electronic breakers installed because of this price difference.
Ground Fault Circuit Interrupters (GFCI)
A GFCI is a specialized circuit breaker usually installed to protect people against electrical shock rather than to protect a structure’s wiring. Instead of monitoring a rise in voltage across the system, a GFCI monitors the voltage on the neutral and hotwire. If the load on the wires becomes unbalanced, the GFCI interrupts the circuit and stops the flow of electricity.
GFCI protected outlets are generally mandated by new building codes anywhere an electrical outlet in bathrooms, kitchens, and laundry rooms. Accidently getting an appliance wet or standing on a wet floor while handling an electrical cord can result in a nasty shock. A GFCI circuit in wet areas protects you from injury in case of an accidental short circuit.
Arc Fault Circuit Interrupter (AFCI)
An AFCI works much like a GFCI. Instead of monitoring the load balance on a circuit, the AFCI monitors the circuit for an arc fault. Arc faults can often lead to overheating of the electrical parts of the circuit or an open arc. Either of these conditions can lead to a fire in your home.
Do Insurance Companies Require You to Replace Federal Pacific Breaker Panels?
Some insurance companies will deny or cancel your homeowner’s insurance if your home is equipped with Federal Pacific Circuit Breakers and panels. These insurance companies base their decisions on several factors concerning Federal Pacific circuit breakers and panels, including losses and potential losses.
There are several reasons insurance companies have taken these drastic steps toward their policyholders. In most cases, the insurers justify their decisions based on these considerations.
Federal Pacific Electrical Panels Have a High Incidence of Fires, Injuries, and Deaths
Insurance companies are meticulous in their research about any losses that seem to occur regularly. The insurance industry knows that homes with Federal Pacific circuit breakers and panels suffer more fires, more damage, more injuries, and more deaths.
After the class action lawsuit in the 1980s, many insurance companies recognized the potential losses. They began programs to refuse insurance on a home with Federal Pacific panels and circuit breakers.
FPE Committed Fraud to Get A UL Certification
It became well established that Federal Pacific committed fraud to gain their UL certification. It was also proven that this fraud occurred over many years continuingly. UL pulled their certification of the Stab-Lok® circuit breakers and the Federal Pacific breaker panels.
While the Federal Pacific circuit breakers were grandfathered under most building codes, the insurance industry recognized the threat. Some homeowners soon found that their insurance company refused to re-issue policies if Federal Pacific equipment was in the home.
The lack of a UL certification on the Federal Pacific circuit breakers and panels has led many insurers to protect themselves by requiring the replacement of the Federal Pacific components.
Accepting the Risk – When an Insurer finds the Risk to High
Many insurance companies find the risk of insuring a home with Federal Pacific circuit breakers and breaker panels too high to justify. Federal Pacific breakers and panels have such a high incidence of failure that eventually costs insurance companies in claims that the risk becomes unacceptable.
This leaves many homeowners in the unenviable position to replace the Federal Pacific circuit breakers and panels at their own cost or search for another insurance underwriter. Often, a new homeowner’s insurance policy costs much more. Overall, replacing the Federal Pacific equipment with new UL certified panels and breakers is usually more cost-effective.
I See Federal Pacific Circuit Breakers and Panels for Sale. Is This Legal?
Unfortunately, you can still buy Federal Pacific circuit breakers and panels. While Federal Pacific did lose a large class-action lawsuit in New Jersey, the Consumer Product Safety Commission never issued a recall on this equipment. UL did eventually pull the certification for these breakers and panels.
Over time, the rights to the name Stab-Lok®, Federal Pacific, and many patents and designs were sold to various companies that continue to manufacture this equipment. Some companies make and sell “Federal Pacific Stab-Lok® Substitutes.” These parts are often manufactured on the same designs and suffer from the same flaws as the originals.
Great care should be taken if you repair or replace a circuit breaker panel and use these substitute parts. You may be putting your home and your family at risk to save a few dollars.
We Are Adding on to Our Home. Will our Existing Federal Pacific Circuit Breaker Panel Pass Inspection?
Under most new building codes adopted across the country, Federal Pacific circuit breakers and breaker panels will not meet the building code. If you are adding space to your home, you will need to add new circuits and circuit breakers. The building inspector will check the circuit breakers and panels. There are cases where the circuit breakers and panels must meet the new building codes to pass inspection.
Your electrician or architect will have the latest information about building codes and inspections. Usually, they will tell you upfront if your electrical system must be updated to meet the current building code.
Our advice is to make the upgrades whether the codes require it or not. The safety of your home and family is more important than saving a few dollars.
Safety Should Always Be Your Priority
In the end, your priority should be the safety of yourself and your family in your home. Many families and homeowners are unaware that they live in an unsafe condition due to their homes’ Federal Pacific electrical components.
These faulty parts can go for years without causing problems. However, based on historical data, these Federal Pacific circuit breaker panels and circuit breakers continue to be a threat to the safety of your home. For your own safety, the safety of your family, you should check your circuit breaker panel today. If you have any questions or concerns, contact a licensed electrician for additional information and help.
Dennis is a retired firefighter with an extensive background in construction, home improvement, and remodeling. He worked in the trades part-time while serving as an active firefighter. On his retirement, he started a remodeling and home repair business, which he ran for several years.
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