Does a Home Inspector Look for Federal Pacific/Zinsco Circuit Breakers?
There has been a lot of talk about the safety of Federal Pacific “Stab-Lok” circuit breaker panels and the fact that they may have inherent defects. The result of the defect has linked them to numerous electrical fires. There is no supporting evidence from any government agency or regulatory authority stating that these FPE panels are unsafe and should be replaced and there has not been a recall by the consumer product safety commission. If you have one of these FPE panels or intend to purchase a home that has one of these FPE panels, I suggest that you talk with your electrician and decide what is right for you and your family.
These panels are easy to identify. They usually display the FPE and/or the “Stab-Lok” logos / insignia. Some breaker handles are orange in color. Typically a knowledgeable electrician will recommend replacing these panels. Replacement cost is usually about $1,500.00.
As a Home Inspector, this information puts me in a very difficult situation when I perform a whole house Home Inspection. These FPE breaker panels do “perform their intended function” when performing a visual inspection. The panel does not “initiate” an unsafe condition, which leaves me in the precarious position of knowing that a latent problem may exist in a breaker panel that I check off as “performing its intended function”.
The following has been said about Federal Pacific Electric “Stab-Lok” panels:
These panels pose a latent threat and they could be a hazard. The circuit breakers may fail to trip in the case of an overload or short-circuit. A circuit breaker that fails to trip could cause a fire or personal injury. The problem with these panels is that some double pole 220volt circuit breakers and some single pole 120volt circuit breakers may not operate as intended if overloaded. A good breaker will trip (turning off the power to that circuit) Federal Pacific breakers appear not to trip every time which could result in a fire.
Published reports of tests conducted on FPE two pole 220volt circuit breakers indicate that under certain conditions one leg/pole may attempt to trip the breaker. The result is a circuit that stays live, and a circuit breaker that has been compromised and when reset will not trip again under any excessive load. In some instances the breakers have been known to fall out when the cover is removed. Loose contacts can also cause arcing which would result in a fire. These panels appear to work perfectly during normal operation allowing electricity to flow without any problems or symptoms. The real question is, what will your panel do if it has an overload?
The Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) did conduct product testing of these FPE breakers and found that their failure rates were significant. The CPSC’s advice concerning these panels is for consumers to avoid overloading circuits as well as to turn off and have examined any devices that are causing the circuit breakers to trip. (This is easier said than done and defeats the whole point for having the breaker.)
Federal Pacific’s statement in response to this problem is cautious in tone:
“FPE breakers will trip reliably at most overload levels.”
It should be noted that Federal Pacific is no longer in business. Aftermarket breakers are available for these panels. Most of these panels are large and had a lot of circuits and the cost of replacing all the breakers is often more than the cost of installing a new panel.
The best solution is to replace the panel. Recently some companies have started making replacement breakers for FPE panels. In many cases these are manufactured with the same problematic design of the original, and there is no data that they are more reliable. Also, replacing the breakers does not address problems with the buss bars in FPE panels that are not as well documented as the circuit breaker problem. There is also one manufacturer, Cutler Hammer, who makes a replacement kit. For the money and labor involved, it would seem the best alternative would be to replace the entire enclosure. In closing, remember that any repair work should be performed only by a licensed electrician.
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Home Inspector Kyle D. Scott
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