The story behind Federal Pacific electrical panels.
Federal Pacific panels, also known as FPE panels were a popular residential electrical panel choice in the mid to late 20th century. The panel was well known in the building community as a cheaper alternative to some of the more recognizable panel companies such as General Electric/I-T-E and Square D.
Because of the cost and ease of installation, the FPE panel was widely adopted in suburban developments. Millions of homes throughout the United States and Canada had this particular panel installed.
The main panel Federal Pacific sold was the “Stab-Lok” named after its breaker functionality. The breakers would “stab” into slots in the bus bar and “lock” into place.
However, although the panel had benefits, issues began to emerge as some officials suspected that the panel was causing house fires. This triggered an investigation by the CPSC (Consumer Product Safety Commission) which was ultimately closed without a full verdict of panel problems.
From these investigations, independent companies began testing the panels to determine their safety. From this testing, it was found that the breakers themselves had a dangerous and potentially life-threatening flaw.
The breakers themselves had a high rate of failure. When a breaker is overloaded, the unit should trip on its own to prevent electrical hazards. However, FPE breakers simply failed to trip when these electrical issues occurred. Some reports even found that over half of the breakers tested did not trip when overloaded, including brand new units.
An overloaded circuit that does not have its power cut off will lead to overheated wiring. If the wiring heats past a certain point, it can melt the sheathing off the wire or overheat the surrounding areas, all of which can lead to house fires.
Although FPE and its parent company still deny that their panels have a higher rate of failure if used under normal conditions, in 2005 a New Jersey court ruled that the company was guilty of fraud in a class action lawsuit settlement.
The court found that the FPE company “…knowingly and purposefully distributed circuit breakers which were not tested to meet UL standards”. This document summarizes the FPE class action lawsuit settlement procedure for affected homeowners. –Inspectapedia
While there is no federal mandate that these panels should be removed from homes, there has been quite a bit of evidence that the original breakers can be a hazard. Because of this, when we see the Stab Lok logo, we call for immediate panel replacement during our home inspections.
Federal Pacific Stab Lok Panel Replacement
Replacing a main electrical panel can be a difficult job depending on the home. It is labor-intensive and the panel itself can be costly, making this one of the more expensive defects found during a home inspection.
If the wiring is in good condition, and is compatible with newer panels, then an electrician can typically swap the panels without much hassle.
However, Federal Pacific panels overlapped the aluminum wiring years. Aluminum electrical wiring was used from the mid 60s and early 70s as a cheaper alternative to copper. Later, aluminum was found to cause fires due to the material expanding.
While that is an entirely different topic, having aluminum wiring installed in a home can make a panel replacement even more costly as extra repairs will be needed to connect aluminum wiring to a newer panel.
Finally, in the earlier days of Federal Pacific panels, the home may have been built without grounded outlets. In the past, a 3rd ground wire was not included with the electrical wiring like it is today. There are several ways to repair ungrounded outlets, but this can also complicate a panel replacement.
Although we can call these panels out, we cannot tell you how easy or difficult it may be to perform a full panel replacement. The above issues can complicate the repair, and home inspectors typically do not give repair estimates.
Consult with a qualified electrician when a FPE panel is installed in your home or future home. We also have a contractor referral list for the Colorado area. Keep yourself and your family safe by removing and upgrading potentially dangerous electrical equipment in your home.