What are Federal Pacific Electric (Stab-Lok) Panels?
Federal Pacific Electric Stab-Lok (FPE Stab-Lok®) panels were commonly installed electrical cabinets from 1950’s until the mid-80s. Before Federal Pacific began manufacturing the Stab-Lok, they made old-fashioned fused electrical cabinets. FPE began making their name in the exploding housing boom by being a cheaper alternative to the panels produced by General Electric, Square-D, and I-T-E. These cheaper, lighter and easier to install panels rapidly took over market share and were installed in mass-produced “tract” homes by the droves. It is estimated that several million Stab-Lok electrical panels were installed all over the country, and they are a reletively common find in older homes. Part of the reason for the cheaper pricetag was the Stab-Loks namesake design: Circuit Breaker connetions were made by “stabbing” the breaker into notches in the busbar, “locking” them into place. This design was different than what other manufacturers were using at the time and while it seemed like a brilliant innovation, it would soon be discovered to be a major problem.
Why are Federal Pacific Stab-Lok Panels a Problem?
These electrical panels have a well-documented failure rate. After houses built with FPE Stab-Lok panels began to burn down, investigation revealed the panels mechanism of contacting the circuit breakers to be a problem. It was found that the Stab-Lok attachment mechanism allowed the breakers to loosen over time. Poor attachment at the bus bars can lead to heat and induced resistance that leads to more heat and carbon deposits on the bus bars. This can cause arcing, or electricity jumping between the metal contact points, which causes intense heat and can start fires. One way to determine if a circuit breaker attachment at the bus bars is failing is by use of a thermal imaging cameras. The circuit breakers themselves were also of poor design, sometimes observed to fail to trip when overcurrent conditions were experienced even on brand-new panels.
In addition to the failure of these circuit breakers to protect a building and its occupants from dangerous overcurrents, switching an FPE Stab-Lok® circuit breaker to the “off” position may leave the breaker “on” internally, risking serious or fatal electrical shock. Based on failure studies and field reports, experts estimate that FPE Stab-Lok® panels cause significant annual property damage losses, injuries, and deaths each year.
In 2002 in a class-action lawsuit in New Jersey, the court ruled that over many years federal Pacific had violated the New York consumer fraud act. Specifically, the court found that federal Pacific knowingly and purposefully distributed circuit breakers which were not tested to meet UL standards as indicated in their label. This constitutes an unlawful practice prescribed by the act. The Court’s decision which was based on extensive evidence that includes federal Pacific’s own documents, confirming long-standing allegations of federal Pacific’s fraudulent testing practices.
How to Identify a Federal Pacific Electrical Panel
Generally, these panels are easily identified by their orange operator handles. The standard color schemes are black circuit breakers, with a red / orange block at the top of the lever with black numbering. However some breakers have been replaced with overseas replacements that are gray or black in color. If the panel’s manufacturer label is still intact, the name of the panel is typically prominent.
What is the Solution to a Federal Pacific Electrical Panel?
Replacement, plain and simple. This isn’t a small expense, with an average cost of around $1500 to $2000 per panel depending on the size of the panel, location, municipality and other conditions. This is labor-intensive work that should only be performed by a licnesed electrician, and typically requires pulling permit for the change out with the local municipality so that a building official can inspect the installation.
In my experience as a home inspector in San Antonio, TX, I find that these panels are most often present on old flip-homes where the seller has mostly painted the place and replaced a few cosmetic items, leaving the heavy lifting of correcting the home’s problems to the oblivious buyer. This is where a home inspector comes in, and I strongly recommend you heed your inspector’s warning when they tell you to replace the panel.
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