What is a Federal Pacific panel? Are Federal Pacific breaker panels safe? Should I replace my Federal Pacific electric panel? Do Federal Pacific panels cause fires? Are Federal Pacific panels dangerous? What is a Stab-Lok panel? These are some of the questions that are asked both online and by my clients when one of these panels is encountered in a home. In this article, I will answer these questions and give you some guidance about what to do if you have one of these panels in your home or in a home that you are considering purchasing.
As a licensed home inspector since 2002, I have inspected over 5000 homes, and I have seen hundreds of homes with Federal Pacific (FPE) “Stab-Lok” breaker panels. These panels were commonly installed in homes beginning in the early 1950’s through the late 1980’s. I did a search of some of my inspection reports and found that 387 homes of the 3506 homes that I have inspected in the last few years have had at least one Federal Pacific panel. This sampling of my inspection reports indicates that about 11% of the homes in this area of Texas have Federal Pacific panels.
What is the Problem with Federal Pacific (FPE) “Stab Lok” Panels?
Several studies have shown that a large percentage of Stab-Lok breakers/Federal Pacific breakers fail to trip when in an overload situation. Electrical breakers are designed to shut off the flow of electricity to a circuit in the event of an overloaded circuit, meaning that too much current is flowing. When too much current flows through a wire, the wire will get hot, and this can result in a fire. Breakers are designed to stop the overcurrent situation by tripping and stopping the flow of electricity.
Some studies have suggested that as many as 25% of single-pole FPE Stab-Lok breakers fail to trip when they should. Studies have also shown that more than 40% of double-pole Federal Pacific breakers do not trip. Jesse Aronstein, an electrical engineer, who has been testing the FPE breakers for decades, has stated that FPE brand panels are involved in over 2000 house fires annually. See his report here. (http://fpe-info.org/Hazardous%20FPE%20171110.pdf ) However, there is no supporting evidence from any government agency or regulatory authority stating that these FPE panels are unsafe and should be replaced.
Another problem with Federal Pacific breakers is the design of their mounting mechanism. This allows some of these breakers to have a poor/loose connection with the busbar. This can result in arcing which also can lead to a fire. Additionally, due to the sometimes-poor busbar connection, breakers have been known to come loose from the busbar when the cover is removed from the panel.
To make matters worse, the busbar (as seen in the photo on the right) is made of aluminum, while the part on the breaker that attaches to the busbar is copper. Copper and aluminum expand differently as they heat up. This difference in expansion rates can make the connection between the bus bar and the breaker even worse, leading to arcing and a possible fire.
What Percentage of Federal Pacific Breakers Don’t Trip?
I took the results of eight studies outlined in Mr. Aronstein’s report and condensed them in the table below. As you can see from this table, almost 18% of the 4328 single-pole breakers that were tested in the various studies failed to trip properly. Over 42% of the 1704 double-pole breakers that were tested in the eight studies also failed to trip. The main reason that the double-pole breakers fail to trip at a higher rate than the single-pole breakers is because the tie bars that connect the two single-pole breakers together in order to turn them into a double-pole breakers tend to jam and prevent the breakers from properly tripping.
18% of the single-pole breakers, and 42% of the double-pole breakers failed to trip properly
Have Federal Pacific Panels Been Recalled?
There has NOT been a recall by the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC). In 1983, the CPSC indicated that they did not have the funds to conduct a formal investigation of Federal Pacific panels and breakers. If they had had the funds to conduct an investigation, there may well have been a recall of the Stab-Lok breakers many years ago.
The Home Inspector and the Federal Pacific “Stab-Lok” Breaker Panels
As home inspectors, we are in a difficult situation when it comes to Federal Pacific “Stab-Lok” breaker panels. In most cases, the FPE panel is “functioning as intended.” Functioning as intended is the normal measuring stick that we use when deciding whether or not to write up a specific item in the home as deficient or not. The Federal Pacific panel is functioning as intended because it is allowing electricity to flow to each of the circuits in the home, and because no circuit is currently in an overload situation with the breaker failing to trip.
In the absence of any other issues with the panel (other than the name “Federal Pacific” written on the cover, should I write up a FPE panel as a “deficiency?” I believe that there is enough evidence of the potential danger in these panels that I do write them up as a deficiency on the inspection report.
There is normally nothing visual that would indicate that a Federal Pacific panel is faulty, so neither a home inspector nor an electrician can look at a Federal Pacific panel and determine if it is faulty. The table above showed that 20% – 40% of the 6000 breakers tested failed to trip. This is a large enough sampling to be significant. This data indicates that there is a very good chance that there is one or more faulty breakers “protecting” your home. I don’t see the point in recommending that an electrician evaluate the panel, because he/she has no way to know if the breakers will trip properly or not. It is cheaper and quicker to just replace the Federal Pacific panel with a new panel, so that is what I recommend to my clients.
How to Know if You Have a Federal Pacific Breaker Panel in Your Home
Federal Pacific “Stab-Lok” Breaker Panels are normally easy to recognize. They are typically clearly labeled with the words “Federal Pacific Electric” or “FPE.” Also, when you open the door, you will often see the words “Stab-Lok” in the center or on the side of the breaker panel. You should also see the common red color on the ends of each of the breakers.
Below are some photos to aid in determining if you have a Federal Pacific panel in your home.
What Should You Do if You Have a Federal Pacific (FPE) “Stab-Lok” Breaker Panel?
Federal Pacific panels normally are only a problem if there is an over current situation. Most homes rarely have an over current situation that would require a breaker to trip and protect the circuit, and some homes never have an over current situation. Having said this, over current situations do occur, and when they do, you want your breakers to work properly in order to protect you, your family, and your home.
If you have a Federal Pacific panel in your home or are purchasing a home that has one of these panels, it is my belief that the chances are low that the panel will cause a fire in your home, because overcurrent situations are not very frequent. Having said that, there is always that possibility of an overcurrent situation, the breaker not tripping, and a fire resulting. The only purpose of a breaker panel is to protect your home from a fire in the event that too much current is flowing on one of the circuits. The data presented in the table above shows that there is a big likelihood of having one or more faulty breakers protecting your home if you have a Federal Pacific panel in your home. This means that there is a good chance that the breaker panel is not able to perform the one and only job that it was designed to do.
There is a large chance of having one or more faulty breakers protecting your home if you have a Federal Pacific panel.
Having said the above, there is one other factor that you should consider in determining whether or not to replace the panel is the level of risk that you are comfortable accepting. While we cannot remove every risk from our lives, we should be smart and prudent. In my opinion, having a Federal Pacific panel in your home is not much different from some of the other risks that we take on every day. From driving too fast, texting while driving, smoking cigarettes, being overweight, not wearing a seat belt, and simply living our lives every day, we take on risks in everything we do.
A Federal Pacific panel in your home will increase your risk to a degree, and your home will certainly be safer without a Federal Pacific panel. These are all factors that you should consider as you make your decision. If you are purchasing a home with a FPE panel, I would definitely recommend that you ask the seller to replace the panel because this would cost you nothing, while making the home more safe. If the seller says no, or if you already own a home with one of these panels, then the question comes back to your level of risk aversion.
I have heard people say something along the lines of, “Well, it has lasted this long, so this Federal Pacific panel must be ok.” That is not good logic because a Federal Pacific panel can work perfectly for years and pass the electrical current through to the breakers and out to the circuits. As I discussed above, the problem will normally not present itself until there is an over current situation that should result in a breaker tripping.
The breaker which has functioned properly for all these years when it has not needed to trip just may not trip the one time that the over current situation occurs. Due to this, I will repeat the advice that I have already given…
I believe the most prudent thing to do if you have a Federal Pacific panel is to have it replaced.
Replacing a Federal Pacific Panel
There are replacement breakers for Federal Pacific panels that may make the existing panel safer. These breakers are expensive, and it is my understanding that it is normally cheaper to just go ahead and replace the panel altogether. Additionally, some of the replacement breakers have the same issue with not tripping. It will generally cost around $1000 – $2000 to upgrade your home’s electrical service and get rid of the Federal Pacific panel.
Summary of Federal Pacific Panels
I believe that these panels are not safe, and that the best course of action would be to get rid of a Federal Pacific panel if you have one in your home. I hope that this information is helpful to you and helps you in your decision making about the Federal Pacific panel in your home. If you have any questions about Federal Pacific panels or home inspections in general, please feel free to contact us.