Breakers in your home’s main electrical panel are supposed to prevent fires, not cause them.
However, there is one brand of electric panel that is a substantial fire risk. Remember the name Federal Pacific if you are shopping for a home.
Breakers are switches designed to “trip” or disconnect the flow of electricity when excess current or a fault is detected. A large percentage of Federal Pacific Electric Company (FPE) breakers don’t shut off when overloaded.
Dangers of FPE Breakers
FPE breakers exhibit widespread failure rates and are linked to residential fires.
According to the U.S. Consumer Products Safety Commission (CPSC), up to 28% of Federal Pacific single-pole breakers and 74% of double-pole breakers failed to trip during stress tests when a load of 135% of rated current was applied.
Overloaded circuits smolder and can catch fire within minutes.
One engineer and investigator, Dr. Jesse Aronstein, believes that the FPE panels are responsible for 2,000 fires a year across the U.S., according to an NBC Bay Area television interview in 2012. The number might actually be higher if fire departments recorded specific panel brands in reporting data.
Millions of the Federal Pacific (FPE) electrical breaker panels were installed across the United States from the 1950s through the mid-1980s. In the 1970s alone, FPE components were incorporated into 10% of the homes built or remodeled during that decade.
These breakers potentially exist in thousands of Phoenix homes.
The dark part of this story is that Federal Pacific knew that the breakers were not safe before releasing them to the market. In the early 1980s, investigators charged that FPE employees used a hidden remote control device to trip the breakers during government certification testing at the factory.
Federal Pacific breakers subsequently received Underwriter’s Laboratories (UL) certification. The company would later apply UL certification labels to products known to be defective.
I found the FPE panel in the photo above this morning. It was in a detached pool house pump room of a 1974 structure.
Identifying Federal Pacific Electric Panels
Look for the name Federal Pacific Electric Company or the FPE label on the panel door or inside the electrical panel. Breaker switches tipped in orange paint (similar to photo above) and the name “Stab-Lok” on the panel’s dead front distinguish Federal Pacific breakers from other brands.
Since partial replacement would not lessen the risk of fire, your electrician will likely recommend total replacement of the electrical panel. The cost? About $2,000 depending on the amperage needs of your home. That’s a small price for peace of mind relative to loss of life or property.
Where Can I Get More Information?
Dr. Jesse Aronstein is an expert on Federal Pacific breakers and has more than 20 years experience on the topic. His white paper, available at this link, is an excellent source of information.
I was training to be an electrician. I suppose I got wired the wrong way round somewhere along the line. – Elvis Presley, American music icon with over 600 million records sold worldwide