Consumer alert: Check your circuit breaker

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Defective circuit breakers from the mid-1950s to the early 1980s are still in many buildings and pose a fire hazard.

Millions of Americans may be in danger from defective electrical equipment in their homes, yet may not be aware of the risk. If you reside in a home with electrical circuit breakers and panels installed in the mid-1950s through the early 1980s, have your equipment inspected and replaced, if necessary.

During that period, Federal Electric, later known as Federal Pacific Electric Co. (FPE), manufactured electrical distribution equipment, including STAB-LOK circuit breakers and panels. A circuit breaker is designed to cut off the flow of electricity when there is excessive electrical demand or a short circuit, also known as arcing. A defect in the FPE equipment could prevent this from happening, causing a fire.

While STAB-LOK breakers and panels are no longer manufactured, millions are estimated to remain in residences throughout the country. The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission concluded an investigation of the equipment in 1983, but due to budgetary constraints the Commission chose not to undertake a full assessment of the STAB-LOK breakers. More information is available on the Consumer Product Safety Commission website.

Because of failure rates and questionable Underwriters Laboratories (UL) acceptance testing, The Cincinnati Insurance Company’s Loss Control department recommends that a qualified and licensed electrician replace these circuit breakers and panels with new equipment.

More information about STAB-LOK equipment is available in this investigative report by NBC Bay Area Channel 11. For help in identifying STAB-LOK circuit breakers and panels, view the station’s video.

This loss control information is advisory only. The author assumes no responsibility for management or control of loss control activities. Not all exposures are identified in this article.

 


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27 Responses to “Consumer alert: Check your circuit breaker”

  1. Carl Dreifuss

    I was with Square D Company, a Federal Pacific competitor, in the 70’s and 80’s. Everyone in the industry knew that Stablok circuit breakers didn’t make good light switches, let alone good over current protective devices. The design of the panel tended to blow off the breakers in a short circuit situation. That came to light when Reliance Electric purchased the company, and discovered their exposure to serious product liability issues not discovered during due diligence. It was a joke to us in the industry when it hit the newspapers then, and I’m amazed this story has resurfaced so many years later.

    Reply
  2. Pat

    Retired electrician last year. This has been known in the industry for 30/40 years. Advised all clients and friends to replace immediately and refused to work on them as they are inherently unsafe. I have seen receptacles on fire and the breaker untripped. Just shows how ineffectual the Federal government is. No common sense is presence here as the Insurance companies kept it from happening, while people continue to die daily.

    Reply
    • bruce gebhard

      I started my electrical career in March 1965 and we knew they were no good back then.I have been replacing them since.No matter what you did you could not make them trip.What took so long?

      Reply
  3. John Doe

    Your article is true…to a point…the main culprit with these breakers were predominantly the very large (in amps) breakers used in industrial and commercial breakers. I have one of those panels in my home (acquired as new old stock) and prior to installation researched the breakers as well as spoke to a number of electrical inspectors and senior electricians, The consensus was that the residential breaker panel with normal low amperage breakers was not a part of the problem.

    Reply
    • Kozmo

      I’m an interNACHI certified home inspector and you are wrong. Replace it before you are dead wrong.

      Reply
    • Mushrm

      I have come across 3 of these panels in homes over the past 30 years and in each case have warned the owners to replace the Federal Pacific with any other panel due to the problems with breakers not tripping… The first one was in a remodel where a worker cut through 2 home run wires not 20′ from the panel and the breakers did not trip. Sparks flying and a pop when the wires were cut and the breakers held. Whenever this can happen, you have the potential for a fire, breakers are meant to protect the wire they are connected to and if they do not trip when there is a short, the casing on the wire will eventually catch fire within the walls of your home. Federal and Zinsco panels should be replaced whenever found, it is yours and your families lives that could be at stake.

      Reply
    • Carlos

      I’ve seen outlets catch on fire without the breaker tripping on a15 amp circuit. Luckly I was looking right at it when it happened. It would have burned down 1 whole wall atleast.

      Reply
  4. Erin

    I just looked at my panel but cannot see who the manufacturer is. I even looked inside the guts. Any ideas how to find out?

    Reply
    • mike b

      FPE..Federal Pacific breakers all turn on by flipping the breaker handle to the right instead of every other breaker in the industry. All others turn “on” by flipping the breaker handle toward the center of the panel. 42 years in the field

      Reply
    • David

      The sticker on the panel may have come off but there has to be some marking on the breakers themselves that will tell you the brand. If you get some markings or numbers but can’t tell for certain who the manufacturer is, you can research on the internet or show pictures to any electrician or electrical supply house and they can identify them for you.

      Reply
      • Bob Chmielewski

        David you are right to a point,, a lot of the older breakers were interchangeable and thus you could have Homeline ( Sq D ) breakers in a GE or Westinghouse panel. You need to check more than just the breakers..

        Reply
    • Carlos

      As long as there is not the anagram FPE or the name Federal Pacific Electric Co. You should be fine. Many of those FPE panels are stamped into the metal face.

      Reply
  5. Jeff Brown

    I agree with the previous poster who asked “Why now?… After 30 or 40 years, is this important?” In my case, I own a house in FL which has a circuit panel with FPE circuit breakers, and I was told that, although the agent could not cite even a single example of one of these panels causing a fire, my Homeowners Insurance rate would be higher because I had this panel. I think the insurance industry in FL is making a killing off this… remember, we have had no hurricane damage in 10 years in the part of the state where I live… and so there is no excuse for the higher rates they continue to charge!

    Reply
  6. Dave DeBar

    I had a fire in my circuit breaker panel. A circuit breaker failed in a shorted mode. The aluminum buss melted and there was a lot of smoke damage. My home insurance took care of most of the damage except for the $1000 deductible. The electrician completely replaced both panels with that had copper busses. (It’s a big house with two panels.) Every circuit beaker was replaced. The insurance man asked what caused the the fire. The electrician blamed it on a lighting strike. The Insurance company said that there were no reported lighting strikes at the time of the fire. Later I discovered that a freezer was no longer working. The insurance paid for a new freezer. I have a background in Electronic Engineering and gave it much thought as to how this could have happened. I think the freezer failed first with the motor burning up and sorting out. The resulting current surge destroyed the circuit beaker, but the faulty circuit beaker failed in a “shorted” mode! This drew so much current that the transformer on the pole blew. My whole house generator then turned it’s self on but when it sensed the current demand it turned it’s self off. No one was at home when this happened.

    Reply
  7. John

    Short circuit does not equal “excessive electrical demand” . Short circuit is where no load, (demand) is placed on circuit.

    Reply
  8. Fred

    Don’t like FPE but in 40 years as an Electrician Zinsco is the real culprit. They plain just don’t work.

    Reply
  9. Harry Edmunds

    I am not sure the panel needs to be replaced as there are a couple of companies that make FPE clones that actually work like they should. One of them is from Canada. However, these breakers cost more than twice as muck as a Square D, Cuttler Hammer, or GE breaker with the same amp rating. Just a thought.

    Reply
  10. Bill G

    As an EE working for last 60 yrs I have replaced both FPE and panels with Zinsco wherever I have been. FPE problems have been known for a very long time and yet no recall. I agree with the other comment ineffectual Fed Gov.

    Reply
  11. Larry

    Over 40 years of electrical service and construction-I have tried to trip Federal Pacific and Zinsco circuit breakers. A high percentage of them did not trip even when the hot was touched to the neutral in a direct short circuit. This equals no protection for a homeowner.

    Another problem these older breakers had was the poor design of the contact between the breaker and the buss that the breaker plugs into. A failure at the contact especially under heavy load can certainly cause a fire in the panel.

    We homeowners pay for home insurance for a reason. It is equally important to replace these old dangerous electrical panels and breakers. The life you save may be your own.

    Reply
  12. Mark

    While I am not an electrician, I have worked in all aspects of the construction industry for 35 years, in several parts of the country, mostly Florida. I own many rental houses & commercial buildings and was warned about these panels by my insurance agents. However lucky never to have or worked on any. But I have seen and had issues with brand name breakers as well. Worse is tandem breakers failing, some with severe overheating burning while not tripping. A common issue I see is loosing of the breaker screws (connecting breaker to the hot wire). While this is not the issue I see with the tandems, I am concerned this could cause problems like arcing or circuit interruption. As a habit I always tighten all breaker screws when I am in a panel. (Not recommended a homeowner do this, get a trained tradesman to go into your panel.)

    Reply
  13. Frank

    A UL listing requirement in their circuit breaker listing is that they should be manually tripped every 30 days. I don’t know of ANYONE that does this, nor is this common knowledge. You need to read the ENTIRE listing data.

    Reply
  14. speedy

    It’s square D for me. Never had a problem in 47 years of them not working. Not an electrician, but a lot of panels old panels have to large of breakers for the load they are made to carry. Home owner.

    Reply
  15. keith Berryman

    Had a FP BOX in a rental property , cost for breakers ( you can find replacement Breakers?) for a $1 per amp or more! Just as well replace! Although at the time a retired electrician gave me old FP breakers. House burned from other cause, but what a waste of time! Just update!

    Reply
  16. Michael

    I have worked in the electrical trade for over 40 years and any good electrician would not install in your house or business. Like the one post about receptacles being on fire I have had this happen myself and it was in a hospital. Why its taken so long no clue but the electrical world knows all about it.

    Reply
  17. Peaches

    In the Spring of 2013, I had a new circuit breaker installed in my home.

    Reply
  18. Machine Vision

    Thanks for sharing this nice article. I read it completely and get some interesting knowledge from this. I again thanks for sharing such a nice blog.

    Reply

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