Federal Pacific Electric Panels & Stab-lok Breakers
Federal Pacific Stab-Lok electric panels are a common and potentially hazardous find in homes built prior to the 1980s. While many FPE panels are still in service in many homes in the Houston area, buyers should be informed about their potential for inherent defects, and that FPE panels have been linked to numerous fires.
While opinions vary about FPE panels still in service, here is what you need to know when it comes to purchasing homes that contain this type of electric panel.
What is the biggest potential danger of FPE panel/breakers? A properly operating breaker will "trip" when overloaded, effectively turning the power off to an appliance or section of a home. Through testing it has been discovered that FPE breakers may fail to trip or will trip at loads much higher than what they are labelled for. When a breaker fails to trip, leaving a wire or circuit overloaded, electricity will continue flowing, creating excessive heat that can melt wires or breakers themselves resulting in a fire. Further, under independent testing, many FPE breakers still allowed electricity to flow, even when turned off.
Evidence of Overheating: This 20-amp FPE breaker is showing signs of overheating. Notice the burnt wire. Imagine the potential damage that could have occurred if this issue was not found.
More information on FPE electric panels: Multiple independent tests done on FPE breakers since the 1980s concluded that an average of one in four Stab-Lok breakers would not trip off. Courts actually ruled that FPE committed testing fraud and a cover up in the early 1980s, labeling breakers as meeting the standards set by UL (Underwriters Laboratory) when in reality the breakers were defective.
An estimated 2,800 fires each year directly result from Federal Pacific panel breaker malfunction. Federal Pacific Electric has been out of business for many years, but the danger and damage caused by their equipment continues.
Other FPE Issues: Another common issue found during inspections of FPE panels is the breakers themselves have a high occurrence of falling out of the panel when the dead front is removed.
"Well, it has been there for 40 years." This is probably the most common reply any time a FPE panel is mentioned during a home inspection. As a Home Inspector, visually observing a FPE panel that appears to be performing its intended function leaves us in a precarious position knowing that latent problems may exist.
I have always liked to compare an electrical panel to a human heart. Wires act like veins carrying electricity from the panel or heart of the electrical system. If there is an issue with the heart of the electrical system it can be detrimental to the rest of the home. At the age when FPE panels were installed, the demand placed on circuits and wires (veins) was nowhere near that of today's consumer electronics. Further, electrical panels much like hearts can develop problems due to age and other factors.
$$ How Much To Replace: Morrow Inspection Services encourages all clients to consult professional and licensed contractors when researching how much a repair to their potential home purchase will cost. It has been our experience that the cost of updating a FPE panel generally ranges from $1k-$3k depending on the size and complexity of the system. In the grand scheme of things, it's a a relatively small price to pay for enhanced life and property safety.
Can just the breakers be updated? In short, not really. Given the price of the replacement breakers, it is generally not cost effective. Most replacement equipment has not been independently tested, and contains the same original Stab-Lok design often associated with the main source of potential failure. Further, there are other hazards in the panel besides the breakers themselves.
What to do when a FPE panel comes up on an inspection report: Stay calm, if you have read this far you already understand some of the bigger issues associated with FPE panels. Morrow Inspection Services includes informative links for buyers having a home inspected that contains a FPE panel. The best advice is to have the system thoroughly evaluated by a licensed and qualified electrician. After evaluation an electrician can determine if the panel is serviceable or requires repair or replacement.
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