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Why I Never Recommend Having FPE Stab-Lok Panels Evaluated By An Electrician

Click for a larger viewFederal Pacific Electric Stab-Lok panels have long been known to be problematic, and I've always called them out as a potential safety hazard, but I've recently become much more ‘agressive' with the way I report them.  While performing a home inspection, I used to recommend having these panels evaluated by an electrician and replaced if neccessary, but now I just skip the whole recommendation thing.  I tell my clients to have the panels replaced. 

To understand why, here are a few key points:

  • Federal Pacific Electric (FPE) sold millions of panels between the 1950's and 1980's. 
  • Testing by the Consumer Product Safety Commision has shown these breakers to have an unacceptably high rate of failure, which creates a safety hazard.  
  • Testing has proven that virtually every panel installed in the United States contains defective breakers.
  • FPE falsified their UL testing, making their UL listing void.
  • Approximately 1 out of 3 breakers are defective.
  • If a breaker fails to trip when it should, the wires in the home that are supposed to be protected can start on fire. 

So why don't I recommend having an electrician evaluate the panel?  There's no point.  Many electricians are under the impression that FPE panels are safe if they can turn every breaker on and off, if every breaker is tightly attached, and if there is no evidence of overheating or scorching in the panel.  These things would be dead givaways that there is a problem, but to truly know if the breaker would trip when it needs to, each breaker would need to actually be tested.  This testing would be more expensive than having the entire panel replaced. 

In the past, I told my clients to have FPE panels evaluated by an electrician. I followed up with many buyers that bought homes with FPE panels because I was curious how many panels actually got replaced, and I found two typical outcomes: One - the buyer's agent would tell the buyer that I'm just trying to cover my butt, the panel has been fine for the current owners for the last 30 years, and it shouldn't be a problem.  Two - the buyer would ask the seller to have an electrician evaluate the panel for safety, and the seller would find an electrician willing to say the panel is safe.

I started to wonder what electricians are actually saying about these panels, so I sent out emails to 50 local electricians, asking them how they test or evaluate FPE panels.  You'd be surprised how difficult it was to find 50 email addresses of local electricians!  Here are the responses I received:

  • Twelve electricians said they don't look at these panels or test them, they just consider them a safety hazard and say they should be replaced.  I had several electricians call me and share some great personal stories and anecdotes with me. 
  • Four electricians said that these are poorly made panels that are prone to failure, but replacement is only recommended, not required.  They look for loose breakers, scorch marks, or burn marks. 
  • One electrician said that he overloads a random number of breakers past it's rating to see if they'll trip.  I like this guy's hands-on approach, but from what other electricians have told me, this is an unsafe practice and it won't tell you anything about the safety of the panel unless every single breaker is tested.
  • Thirty-Three didn't respond.

The bottom line is that every single electrician I contacted was familiar with the hazards associated with FPE panels, and most of them recommend replacement outright.  About half of the electricians referenced a web site that has some excellent info on the hazards of these panels.  To read more about this issue, visit http://www.inspect-ny.com/fpe/FPE-Hazards-Revised-070525.pdf

Reuben Saltzman, Structure Tech Home Inspections - Email - Minnesota Home Inspector

Reuben Saltzman, Structure Tech Home Inspections

        

Comment balloon 7 commentsReuben Saltzman • May 19 2009 06:09AM

Comments

Good advice, electricity is no joke. . breakers are being used to replace the old fuses.. these old fuses were more reliable believe it or not. . the electricity had to pass trough them and any change will quickly meltthem  away.

Posted by Fernando Herboso - Broker for Maxus Realty Group, 301-246-0001 Serving Maryland, DC and Northern VA (Maxus Realty Group - Broker 301-246-0001) over 9 years ago

Hey Reuben, I have run into a FPE once in the last year on a seller inspection.I recommend the panel be replaced and explained why. The last I checked the panel has not been changed and the house is still on the market. I have heard rumors that insurance companies will not consider a home with an FPE, have you heard the same?

Posted by Tad Petersen / Home Inspector, Mpls (Safeguard Home Inspections, Inc.) over 9 years ago

I understand. I use to recommend review by an electrician, but then found that many electricians do not know about the hazards in these panels. Sometimes you would get an electrician that would say there is nothing wrong, but later when asked to put it into writing, would refuse.

Now I simply recommend replacement by an electrician, and have prepared an information link on my website. Additionally it links to Daniel Friedmans' Site giving them more than enough information to make the decision to replace their FPE panel. http://millerhomeinspect.com/federalpacificelectric.aspx

You are right on with this post!

Posted by Harold Miller, Everett Home Inspector (Miller Home Inspection) over 9 years ago

Fernando - you're right, fuses will never fail.  I wrote a blog about this earlier this year here.

Tad - I'm not surprised the panel didn't replaced!  I haven't heard of any problems with insurance related to FPE panels... but there should be.

Harold - the document you reference on your web site is the same document I used to get most of my information for this blog.  Glad we're on the same page.

Posted by Reuben Saltzman, Delivering the Unbiased Truth. (Structure Tech Home Inspections) over 9 years ago

Ruben, yet another great post.

I have seen many FPE Stab-loks, so I did a little independent research on my own.  I made a Freedom of Information Act request for the studies on these from the Consumer Product Safety Commission.  I was not prepared for the mountain of paperwork I got! (over 300 pages of studies). The bottom line is they are an extreme hazard.

CPSC studies show there is a failure to trip up to 60% of the time.  After an over current/over heating cycle, the breakers would frequently not turn off even if the breaker was manually flipped.

Quoting the CPSC summary

"A significant number of the breakers tested are defective and do not provide the required level of protection..." "..the breakers themselves may develop hazardous behavior in the form of severe overheating or self-incapacitation in the on condition. The high failure rate of these breakers indicates serious deficiencies in the FPE quality control procedures, their product testing, and the UL follow-up testing program. The system of checks and balances which is supposed to prevent products with these levels of defect from ever being installed in electrical systems has, in this instance failed."

I always include this article to back up my recommendation that all FPE Stablocks are replaced

 

Posted by JJ and Suzanne Greive - Seattle Area ASHI Inspections (Home Inspections of Puget Sound) over 9 years ago

JJ and Suzanne - thanks!  Wow, that's a ton of information you received.  Must have been fun reading!

Posted by Reuben Saltzman, Delivering the Unbiased Truth. (Structure Tech Home Inspections) over 9 years ago

I couldn't agree more. Home inspection this week, FPE Panel with Stab-Lok breakers. Seller is furious I called for replacement. Says she has spoken with local county government and they stated they're not an issue. Buyer's have decided to walk because seller is adamant about not replacing panel for $1500. This was third inspection on this property in last six months and all three inspectors called out FPE panel and Stab Lok breakers. It's interesting that the seller is so upset and doesn't seem to consider the buyers ultimate safety down the road.  Good job on your reasearch and standing firm.

Posted by William Zoller over 6 years ago

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