How bad can they be? They’re everywhere- I see an almost endless series of Federal Pacific Electric (FPE) panel boxes with their classic “stab-lok” circuit breakers when I do inspections in Lubbock and throughout West Texas. Jillions of them were sold, not just in our area, but throughout the country from the 1950’s to the early 1980’s. My introduction to FPE panel boxes came when I was studying to be a home insurance inspector (my job before my current general home inspector gig). The message from the insurance company training course was very clear- We don’t like FPE panel boxes. I was instructed to write this up whenever I saw it in a house. So that is one reason that a house with FPE equipment is a problem. If the insurance company finds out that it’s there, they may not insure the house- unless it’s replaced. So why don’t insurance companies like FPE boxes? . . . For the same reasons that most others who have spent any time studying them don’t like them. FPE panel boxes with stab-lok circuit breakers were “value engineered”. They were designed to be cheap to manufacture. Nothing wrong with that; everybody likes a bargain. BUT THEY HAVE TO WORK PROPERLY! If they don’t, that’s a problem. And FPE boxes and breakers often don’t. FPE is a company that put most of its money into marketing and not so much into building a good product.
The main problems with FPE- There are several problems with FPE panels- 1. All of the FPE panels that are still in use (and, as stated, there are a lot of them) are old and were designed poorly and to lesser codes than modern panel boxes. They are often very overcrowded by today’s safer standards. They also have many unique problems that newer panels don’t have. 2. The circuit breakers, in particular, are poorly designed. They have too many moving parts and often don’t do what they are supposed to do, which is to shut off the electricity if an overload or a short circuit occurs. If the breakers don’t shut off when too much electrical current is flowing, excessive heating occurs in the wires for that circuit. And these wires run through the attic, down walls, etc. So now we’re talking about the f word. No, not that one. The word is “fire”. FPE panel boxes and circuit breakers are fire prone. Many of them will never be a problem, but too many of them will. And a house fire will not make for a good day. 3. The connection of the circuit breakers to the bus is another problem. It is inferior and doesn’t always make a good connection.Modern circuit breakers have jaws that clamp directly onto the bus to make the connection, but stab-lok breakers have metal stabs that insert into a socket in the bus at a right angle. This often yields a poor connection, and these components can become damaged (as pointed out in the picture at right that I took of an FPE panel in 2015). Note the bent socket and the discolored bus due to overheating. If the connection becomes poor enough, arcing begins to occur here. This can create tremendous heat when it happens. Thus, the FPE panel box itself can catch on fire. This is a device that is supposed to prevent fires, but it can actually cause them. 4. Finally, FPE did something that companies and corporations shouldn’t do- They cheated. In Docket #L-2904-97, as part of a class action, the Superior Court of New Jersey determined that “FPE cheated during its testing of circuit breakers in order to obtain Underwriters Laboratories (UL) approval”.
Identifying FPE panel boxes- FPE panel boxes are pretty easy to identify. You may see FPE on the front cover. Also, once you open the cover you will see Federal Pacific Electric or Federal Pacific at the bottom of the paper data sheet. One final dead giveaway- Some of the circuit breaker handles are black but many have a distinctive dark orange color at the tip as circled in this picture.
Should all FPE panel boxes be replaced?- Ideally, all older circuit breakers should be considered for replacement after they’re 2, 3, or 4 decades old, but most people don’t do this. Also, there are other manufacturers of problematic breakers such as Zinsco and others. But I believe that FPE panel boxes and breakers are particularly troublesome due to the inherent problems previously discussed as well as the fact that such a large number of them were sold. The presence of FPE equipment undeniably creates a higher risk for electrical fires. There are places in the U.S. where most home inspectors, electricians, and real estate agents are very aware of the problems with FPE. In West Texas, the word hasn’t completely gotten out yet. If you’re a skeptic, please check out some of the other sources of information at the bottom of this page. Also, ask yourself if you would want this equipment in your home. I have seen several different sources that estimate over 2,000 fires occur in this country each year as a direct result of FPE panels. The fact that many of the current panels have not caused a problem (yet) is not surprising because overloads and short circuits don’t occur very often. But if and/ or when they do, that is precisely when you want your breakers to do their job. I’ve seen different figures that state that from 23% to 60% of FPE circuit breakers completely fail in their performance when tested by authorities. This is a terrible rate of performance. Modern circuit breakers have a failure rate of less than 1%. In the early 1980’s the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) tested FPE breakers and found abnormally high failure rates, especially on 2-pole FPE breakers. The CPSC ended a two year investigation into FPE in 1983 but didn’t issue a product recall because of what it said were budget issues (its own). As FPE was beginning to get into trouble, (you know- houses burning down, panels catching on fire, lawsuits starting), improvements were made to the breakers; but there were limits to what they were willing to do because truly fixing the breaker and bus problems would make them too expensive, and FPE would lose their competitive advantage. In short, I recommend replacement of these components if at all possible.
Other sources of info- Check out this link for more info: http://www.inspect-ny.com/fpe/fpe.html The best article I’ve ever seen about FPE is Doug Hansen’s expert opinion at http://www.codecheck.com/cc/ccimages/PDFs/FPE_2012.pdf This article is highly technical in the middle pages, but anyone can understand the first and last pages and these pages are very interesting. Also, on the last page of this article, be sure to read “A Report from the Front Lines” by Jim Katen, (a really smart home inspector in Oregon). A good video on the web from Bay area investigative reports is at http://www.nbcbayarea.com/investigations/Federal-Pacific-Circuit-Breakers-Investigation-Finds-Decades-of-Danger-171406921.html Or just google “FPE panel boxes” and spend a few minutes looking at what comes up. One final note, American Society of Home Inspectors (ASHI) member Terry Heller of Forest Hill, MD posted this picture on the ASHI inspectors’ discussion forum on July 17, 2011. I am quoting him as to what his response is when people ask him what he thinks about FPE panels- “Sometimes I just show them a picture from my phone. This home belongs to a well known real estate agent in my area. This was a fire of electrical origin in a Federal Pacific panel per the agent. Happened a few months ago”. . . There’s your problem right there. This picture shows the trouble with FPE panel boxes and stab-loc circuit breakers perfectly. --- Kim Christensen, ACI TREC 20358