Are Zinsco Electrical Panels Safe? Dangers & Costs to Replace
Many different companies have manufactured electrical panels over the past 50 years. Some of them are notorious for the poor performance of their products and the problems these products have caused. One of the least known of these companies is Zinsco. Many homeowners wonder if their Zinsco electrical panels are safe?
Most electricians and many building codes consider Zinsco electrical panels unsafe to use. An aluminum alloy used to manufacture an internal part critical to the operation of the Zinsco breakers is known to fail. The aluminum alloy oxidizes, causing the breaker to melt and fuse to the bus bar. Electrical fires often occur when these circuit breakers fail.
During the 1960s and 1970s, Zinsco electrical panels were widely installed in both residential and commercial buildings. Understanding the risks and dangers of Zinsco circuit breakers is important. Making the decision to replace your Zinsco electrical panel may be more important than you think.
The Zinsco History
More than a few older homes still have Zinsco electrical panels installed. Many people, including many home inspectors, are unaware of the problem with Zinsco circuit breakers and electrical panels. At one time, Zinsco products were very popular with builders, electricians, and architects. This led to thousands of homes being built using Zinsco electrical panels and circuit breakers.
The Zinsco Company
Zinsco was established in 1943 amid the material shortages caused by World War II. Just before 1943, aluminum wire was added as a permissible product to the National Electrical Code. Like many other manufacturers, Zinsco resisted the move to aluminum components until the 1960s, when another copper shortage affected the markets.
In 1963 Zinsco introduced a revolutionary product to the electrical markets. Zinsco began manufacturing and selling the R-38 twin breaker. This ingenious device was the only twin circuit breaker on the market that made contact on both bus bars for 240 volts in a single breaker space. Contractors and electricians flocked to this concept. During the next two decades, millions of Zinsco electrical panels were installed.
The Problem with the Zinsco Circuit Breaker
The revolutionary circuit breaker design introduced by Zinsco in 1963 depended on an alloy of aluminum called Alloy 6061. This would come to plague the whole electrical industry in time. The problems with connecting dissimilar materials such as aluminum and copper or brass were not well understood.
Aluminum alloys tend to expand and contract faster and more than other conducting materials. This can cause problems at connections and terminals where dissimilar materials join. In addition, when exposed to air, aluminum begins to oxidize. As the oxidation increases, it begins to act as an insulator reducing the aluminum current-carrying abilities.
The aluminum alloy Zinsco was using for the internal parts of their electrical panels, and circuit breakers suffered from these problems. Over time, experts realized that Zinsco breakers were failing to operate at a high rate and were often causing electrical fires in homes and commercial buildings. Zinsco electrical panels and circuit breakers are now considered obsolete and unsafe to install.
How do I Know if I Have a Zinsco Electrical Panel in my Home?
If your home was built after the late 1980s, the chances that you have a Zinsco electrical panel are very slight. Most of the Zinsco electrical panels and circuit breakers were installed in the 1960s and 1970s. There were a few still being installed later, but they are rare.
However, if your home was built during these decades, you may well have a Zinsco electrical panel and circuit breakers in your system. The easiest way to identify a Zinsco electrical panel is the blue label with the Zinsco logo showing.
Some Zinsco electrical panels may carry the label Magnatrip. Some Zinsco electrical panels were also branded with the Sylvania or Sylvania-Zinsco label. A few of the last Zinsco products were labeled as GTE-Sylvania-Zinsco.
I think I have a Zinsco Panel in My Home. How Do I tell If it is Unsafe?
There is almost no way to visually tell if your Zinsco electrical panels and circuit breakers are operating properly or are near failure. Zinsco electrical panels are known to work for years with no problems. However, the historical data shows that Zinsco electrical panels and circuit breakers fail at an abnormally high rate as they age. For this reason, you should consider replacing your Zinsco electrical panel and circuit breakers if possible.
If you have a Zinsco panel in your home, consult a licensed electrician for professional help and advice. Most electricians will recommend replacing the Zinsco electrical panel and circuit breakers with modern approved equipment that is laboratory tested and certified to be safe.
What Problems Can Occur with a Zinsco Electrical Panel and Circuit Breakers?
Several significant problems can occur in your electrical system if you have a Zinsco electrical panel and circuit breakers in your home’s electrical system. All these problems are significant and can cause dangerous situations, including electrical fires in your home.
Melted Circuit Breakers
Zinsco circuit breakers are known to melt as the heat in the circuit breaker caused by the oxidation of the aluminum parts grows with time. Melting fuses the circuit breaker to the main bus bar, which stops the circuit breaker from operating.
If the circuit breaker cannot operate, your electrical system has no protection from power surges or short circuits in the system. The heat caused by the oxidation can reach temperatures high enough to ignite wire insulation and other combustible products near the electrical box.
Poor Connections in the Electrical Box
As the aluminum in the electrical panel ages, the connections between the bus bars in the electrical panel and the circuit breakers may become loose. A loose connection may cause an electrical arc that can cause fires easily and quickly.
The tendency of the aluminum alloy used in the Zinsco electrical panels and circuit breakers is the chief cause of this problem. Over time the constant expansion and contraction of the aluminum weaken the point of contact between the parts. This weak contact point also allows oxidation between the aluminum parts, further increasing the problem.
Unreliable Operation of the Circuit Breakers
In some cases, experts have observed Zinsco circuit breakers that appear to be off but still allow current to pass to the electrical circuits. In most instances where this phenomenon has been observed, there was no visual indication that the circuit breaker was faulty.
Situations where a circuit breaker is believed to be off, but current is still passing into the electrical system are dangerous on several levels. Users may believe that the circuits are dead and suffer shocks or burns while working on the electrical system.
With no protection for the electrical circuit, a short or arc in the circuit can continue, potentially causing fires that can be catastrophic. For these reasons, most electrical experts recommend that all Zinsco electrical panels still in use be replaced as soon as possible.
Are there Ways to Tell if A Circuit Breaker or Electrical Panel is Bad?
You may notice some signs or symptoms of a bad electrical panel or circuit breakers in your home’s electrical system. These signs and symptoms may hardly be noticeable until you start to look for them. In general, if you see these signs and symptoms in your home’s electrical system, you should get a licensed electrician to inspect your wiring.
Burning Smells or Odors Around your Electrical Panel
Your nose is often a good detector of problems with your electrical system. Melting or burning plastic such as breaker housings or the insulation on electrical wiring gives off a distinct odor that is easily detectable. If you detect any burning odors around your electrical panel, take every available precaution, including calling the fire department if necessary.
If you deem the situation safe, the least you should do is get a licensed electrician to examine the electrical panel and breakers for any signs of overheating or damage.
Smoke or Soot Stains in or Around Your Electrical Panel
Soot or smoke stains around or inside your electrical panel are a sure sign of problems that must be addressed promptly. These soot and smoke stains will often appear around the outside edge of the electrical panel as the internal parts and circuit breakers overheat.
Electrical arcing inside the panel may also produce soot or smoke stains on the inside of the electrical panel. However, we don’t recommend that you remove the electrical panel cover to inspect the inside of the panel box. This is a job best suited to a trained electrician.
Strange Noises Coming from Inside the Electric Panel
Any type of noise other than the distinct click of a circuit breaker as it trips is a bad sign from inside your electrical panel. Circuit breakers and electrical panels should be noiseless when they are operating properly.
Bussing, crackling, or the sound of frying bacon from your electrical panel is cause for immediate alarm. These sounds indicate that the electrical panel has a serious problem and may be arcing internally. This can lead to fires and other damage that can be catastrophic to your family and your home.
At the least, call an electrician for a quick emergency inspection. If other signs and symptoms are also noticed, we recommend that you call the fire department immediately and get your family to a safe place.
An Electrical Panel that is Hot to the Touch
Electrical panels should never be hot to your bare hand. If the surface of the electrical panel is hot to the touch, something is wrong internally. An electrical box that gets hot enough to be uncomfortable to touch is not operating safely.
Take care in touching a hot electrical panel. The internal parts of the electrical box may be on the verge of arching as it overheats. This could be a dangerous situation for you if you contact the metal electrical panel when an arc occurs.
A hot-to-the-touch electrical panel is a cause of concern for the safety of your home and your family. As with other signs and symptoms, you may need to call the fire department for immediate help and an electrician to diagnose the problem before more damage occurs.
Flickering or Dimming Lights
If the lights in your home flicker or dim when appliances are used, this is a cause for concern. When a large HVAC condensing unit starts, this dimming or flickering should not be confused with the normal slight dimming of lights. Most electrical systems will show a slight dimming as the condensing unit’s large electric motor starts.
However, if the lights in your home dim or flicker when you turn use a microwave or the refrigerator starts, this is a sign that the electrical system is struggling. This could be caused by faulty connections or parts in the electrical service box. Bad or inoperative circuit breakers can also cause this effect.
If you notice the lights in your home flickering or dimming under these circumstances, an inspection by a licensed electrician is recommended. You may need to replace your electrical panel or circuit breakers. In some cases, other upgrades may be needed to the electrical system in your home.
Is There Any Way to Test an Electrical Panel and Circuit Breakers?
The problem with testing circuit breakers and electrical panels is the nature of how both pieces of equipment work. The act of testing a circuit breaker or electrical panel can lead to the very sorts of failures that are the problem.
Visually inspections may find some problems but are useless to detect internal problems that are the source of most Zinsco circuit breaker and electrical panel failures. Switching circuit breakers on and off attempting to diagnose problems may exacerbate the problem and lead to unexpected failure later.
If your home has a Zinsco electrical panel and circuit breakers, most electricians and home inspectors will recommend that the electrical panel and circuit breakers be replaced with laboratory-certified new equipment.
Have Zinsco Electrical Panels and Circuit Breakers Been Recalled?
There has never been an official government recall of Zinsco electrical panels or circuit breakers. Most electrical codes don’t specifically speak to individual brands of circuit breakers and electrical panels. However, most electrical codes require the installation of electrical panels and circuit breakers that carry an Underwriters Laboratory label or the equivalent from another agency.
Most electrical codes currently grandfather Zinsco electrical panels and circuit breakers into the codes. This does not mean this equipment is safe. It only means that if you don’t disturb or change the installation of the Zinsco electrical panels and circuit breakers, they can remain in use.
If you must get a permit to do additions or repairs to your home, expect the unexpected. Most permits have an inspection requirement. If the inspector finds Zinsco electrical panels or circuit breakers, the Zinsco electrical panels and circuit breakers may be required.
If A Home Inspector Finds a Zinsco electrical Panel, what do They Do?
By and large, home inspections about safety. Most home inspectors look for issues with the home that can create an unsafe condition for you and your family. Home inspectors typically cover the areas of your home that are normally accessible. This should include:
- The roof
- Attics and crawl spaces
- Interior spaces, including inside cabinets and closets
- The exterior of the home
Since safety and health are the priority issues for any home inspections, a thorough home inspection will include such things as:
- The service entrance where the electric service line enters your home
- The service panel
- Any breaker boxes or sub-panels that may exist
- All accessible electric fixtures, outlets, and switches.
Don’t expect the typical home inspector to remove the cover of your electrical panel to inspect. Most home inspectors are not licensed electricians and won’t perform such detailed inspections.
You get a Home Inspection Report
After the inspection, the home inspector will prepare a detailed report of his findings. He makes make recommendations for changes or updates. The report will note all the deficiencies and unsafe conditions the inspection revealed.
It is entirely up to the home inspector whether a Zinsco electrical panel is noted during an inspection. Most electrical codes grandfather Zinsco electrical panels and circuit breakers. This doesn’t mean the Zinsco equipment is safe or that it will operate properly. Most home inspectors are aware of the history of Zinsco and recommend that a Zinsco electrical panel and circuit breakers be replaced.
Depending on the Circumstances, Others May Get the Report
If the home inspection was done as part of a home purchase or sale, the other party to the contract would probably get a copy of the report. In addition, it is not uncommon for a lending company making a home mortgage to require a copy of the home inspection as well.
We could not find any reports of a home mortgage company refusing to issue a mortgage for a home with Zinsco electrical panels and circuit breakers. However, this does not mean it may not happen in the future.
Your insurance company may also request a copy of the home inspection on the house you are purchasing. The presence of Zinsco electric panels and breakers will often result in a denial of coverage unless the Zinsco panels and circuit breakers are replaced.
I Had a Home Inspection Done and Now My Insurance Company Says I Must Replace my Zinsco Electric Panel
You find yourself in a situation that is not uncommon. Several large homeowners insurance companies now see Zinsco electric panels and several others as fire risks that they are unwilling to take. There are many documented cases of insurance companies refusing to issue or renew homeowners insurance policies when Zinsco electrical panels are discovered in a home.
If this is the case, you face some alternatives. You can shop around for another insurance carrier, or you can replace the Zinsco electrical panel with new equipment.
How Much Does It Cost to Replace a Zinsco Electrical Panel?
Several factors affect the cost of replacing a Zinsco electrical panel and circuit breakers in your home. Some of the factors that must be considered are your current electrical panel’s location, size, and amperage rating. Costs can vary depending on the complexity of the job and the requirements to meet and pass an electrical inspection.
In some cases, an electrical panel replacement can be done for between $1,500 and $2,000. , The national average cost to replace an electrical panel is $1,182. If the panel must be relocated, the costs can jump by $1,000 to $3,000. Upgrading the amperage of your electrical service panel to a 200 amp rated panel can cost an additional $750 to $2,000.
|Type of Electrical Panel Replacement
|Direct Replacement of the Electrical Panel
|Replacement and Relocation of a Zinsco Electric Panel
|Replacement and Upgrade to a Zinsco Electrical Panel
|Upgrading Service Wiring and Meter Base
|Cost to rewire a home
The Cost to Replace an Existing Zinsco Electrical Panel
If everything else in your electrical system is up to code and no other repairs or upgrades are necessary, the cost for a replacement usually runs between $1,500 and $4,000. Much of the cost depends on the complexity of the job and the size of the electrical panel. Typically, electricians charge between $60 and $100 per hour plus the cost of the parts and equipment. Most electrical panel replacements can be accomplished in one day if no other problems or repairs are needed.
Permits and Fees
In some areas, replacing a Zinsco electrical panel and breakers requires an electrical building permit. In many instances, this means the entire electrical system in your home must be brought up to the current code requirements. Permits and fees for electrical building permits and inspections vary from place to place. Overall, you can expect permits and fees to range from $50 to $300.
Relocation of an Electrical Panel
Many older homes had Zinsco electric panels installed in locations that no longer meet code. In some instances, your building inspection department may require the location of the new electrical service box to be relocated to be within code requirements.
In some places, the Zinsco electric panels were installed outside the home in garages or partially protected areas. These locations no longer meet code requirements under some circumstances and require the Zinsco electrical panel to be relocated in more protected areas.
The complexity of the wiring, the number, and the length of the relocated circuits determine the overall cost of such an electrical panel relocation. Under most circumstances, an electrical panel can be relocated for $1,000 to $3,000.
Upgrading an Electrical Panel for More Circuits or More Amperage
The replacement of a Zinsco electrical panel often accompanies an upgrade of the size or amperage rating for the panel. An addition to a home or simply accommodating the increased power needs of modern appliances can be why such an upgrade is needed.
Many older homes built when Zinsco electrical panels were typical installations were fitted with 75 or 100 amp electrical service. In many instances, with the upgrades and updates to appliances, accessories, and other electronic additions, a 75 or 100 amp service is simply not adequate.
Replacing a dangerous Zinsco electrical panel is a good time to address these power issues by upgrading your electrical panel to a larger size or higher amperage rating. Typically, upgrading to a 200 amp rated electrical panel costs between $750 and $2,000 extra.
Unfortunately, you may experience even more additional costs when doing a panel size or amperage upgrade. Often your meter base and the electric service cable that brings electricity to your home must also be upgraded to handle the additional power. These additional costs can often run between $900 and $2,500.
You May Find Aluminum Wiring in Your Home
When Zinsco electrical panels were being used, aluminum electrical wiring was also in common use. Aluminum is an excellent conductor of electricity but has certain characteristics that, over time, make it less than ideal. Aluminum wiring was found to be incompatible with connections to dissimilar materials such as copper and brass.
Except for very large electrical transmission cables, aluminum has fallen from favor for wiring homes and businesses. Some building codes require removing and replacing aluminum electrical wiring when structures are upgraded or remodeled, and an electrical permit is taken. In general, an averaged size home rewiring with copper wire to meet more stringent building codes will cost as much as $10,000.
What Are the Advantages of Replacing a Zinsco Electrical Panel and Breakers?
The biggest advantage is the comfort in knowing your home and family are safe. While a Zinsco electrical panel and breakers may operate normally for many years, you may not be safe. It is well known that the older this Zinsco equipment gets, the more prone to failure it becomes.
This is typically true of any electrical safety equipment like service panels and circuit breakers. If your home is more than twenty-five years old, the electrical equipment may need replacement to continue to have a safe home. In addition, there are other advantages to replacing a Zinsco or any other older electrical panel and circuit breakers.
Newer Technology Offers Better Protections
New electrical service panels and circuit breakers can offer more and better protection to your home and family. Such options as Ground Fault Interrupt Circuit breakers and Arc Fault Interrupt Circuit breakers add additional types of protection not afforded by standard circuit breakers.
GFCI breakers continually monitor the current load on the supply and neutral side of the circuit. If the GFCI breaker senses an imbalance, the circuit is immediately shut off. This typically occurs far faster than a normal breaker would operate when sensing only a short circuit. GFCI breakers can protect your family against inadvertent electrical shocks that a normal circuit breaker may fail to detect.
ARCI breakers work much the same way but protect your home against electrical arcs that can cause fires. The AFIC breaker can sense the wire’s conditions that indicate an arc is occurring and shuts down the power before more damage is done.
Electrical Systems Monitoring
New technology available with upgraded electrical service panels and circuit breakers gives you better control over your electrical service and the systems they connect to. The ability to monitor the power usage on individual circuits gives you the data that can indicate an HVAC system overworking or not performing as it should.
A refrigerator or freezer on a monitored circuit can be checked regularly for proper operation. A Refrigerator or freezer accidentally left open will use much more power. The change in the readings may even set off an alarm to notify you of the problem.
The possibilities are almost endless with new technologies that are becoming mainstream additions to electrical panels and breakers. Upgrading an old Zinsco panel can bring these services and conveniences to your home.
Savings in Other Ways
You should check with your homeowner’s insurance company. If you have a Zinsco electrical panel and breakers, you may qualify for savings if you upgrade the electrical service panel. Some insurance companies will insure a home with a Zinsco electrical panel and circuit breakers but charge a premium for the coverage.
Replacing the unreliable Zinsco electrical panel and circuit breakers with new certified equipment may qualify you for a reduction in the cost of your homeowner’s insurance. Under any circumstances, your home will be safer for you and your family.
A Safe Home is Your Ultimate Goal
Cost and trouble are secondary when it comes to keeping your family safe and comfortable. A home that continues to rely on Zinsco electrical panels and circuit breakers is far from safe. Most experts and electricians recommend that Zinsco electrical panels and circuit breakers be replaced at the earliest opportunity. If you suspect or know that your home relies on this unsafe equipment, make the arrangements today to bring your home back to a safer condition.
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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