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This article summarizes the safety issues concerning Federal Pacific Electric FPE Stab-Lok® electrical panels and circuit breakers. This website explains the fire and shock hazards associated with Federal Pacific Electric Stab-Lok® circuit breakers and service panels, provides a history of the issue, recounts research on FPE failures, and recommends replacement of the panels.
Replacement FPE Stab-Lok® circuit breakers are unlikely to reduce the failure risk of this equipment. We recommend that residential FPE Stab-Lok® electrical panels be replaced entirely or the entire panel bus assembly be replaced, regardless of FPE model number or FPE year of manufacture. We do not sell circuit breakers nor any other products.
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High failure rate: The central safety defect in FPE Stab-Lok® (R) electrical equipment is that FPE Stab-Lok® (R) circuit breakers fail to trip under overload or short-circuit conditions, at a failure rate much higher than comparable equipment made by other producers. This failure to trip occurs up to 80% of the time when the breakers are called-on to trip, depending on the individual breaker type and ampacity. We have found no data indicating that circuit breakers from other manufacturers fail at anywhere near this high rate.
Risk of fire or injury: When an overload or short circuit occurs in an electrical device, say an electric clothes dryer, the circuit supplying electricity to the device is supposed to be interrupted, electrical power cut off, by either a fuse or a circuit breaker. This interruption of electrical power is intended to minimize the resulting fire hazard of electrical overloads or short circuits.
A circuit breaker that fails to trip is unsafe fails to protect the electrical circuit and the building and building occupants where that circuit breaker is installed. This can lead to fire, property loss, and injury or worse.
FPE Stab-Lok® TECHNICAL REPORT describes independent research explaining the hazards involved with FPE Stab-Lok® electrical panels and includes a link to the most-current and easily-printable .pdf version of that document.
A "latent safety hazard" means that the product itself does not initiate the unsafe condition. Rather, when the unsafe condition occurs (as just described above), the product, in this case an FPE Stab-Lok® (R) circuit breaker, which is intended to interrupt electrical power, fails to do its job.
An impartial review of documentation regarding this issue, and discussions of the issue with forensic experts in the field, make clear that a latent hazard exists where FPE Stab-Lok® circuit breakers continue in use. The hazard is worst for double-pole breakers. Published reports of actual tests that were performed indicate that under certain conditions it is possible for one leg of these circuits to attempt to trip the breaker, resulting in a jammed breaker which will afterward not trip under any load condition.
An FPE Stab-Lok® Electrical Panel Should Be Replaced, not "Inspected by an Electrician" and not "Tested"
Having the FPE Stab-Lok® panel evaluated by an electrician is unfortunately of absolutely no value. A visual inspection can not predict whether a circuit breaker is going to jam on the next occurrence of an overcurrent or short circuit. While a visual might pick up evidence of a previously burned circuit breaker or panel bus connection, the absence of such evidence is not any assurance whatsoever that the panel is safe.
Having the FPE Stab-Lok® panel "tested" by an electrician is dangerous. For example, placing an overcurrent on an electrical circuit in the building could cause a fire to occur. Further, placing an overcurrent on a circuit "protected" by an FPE Stab-Lok® circuit breaker may actually increase the chances that the circuit breaker will fail to trip in the future, even if it appears to work when tested. Aronstein's research showed a dramatic increase in the jam-up and failure rate in these circuit breakers after they had been exposed to a first "event" such as an over-current.
But Up to Now the Electrical Panel has Never Shown a Problem!
A statement by a building owner or occupant that no problem has been observed in a particular FPE Stab-Lok® panel is absolutely no assurance that the panel is safe. It may simply be the case that the building has not experienced an over-current or short circuit on an electrical circuit. Or an overcurrent may have occurred, tripped a breaker, but in doing so, increased the chance that next time the same breaker will fail to trip.
It would be dangerous for a building seller, for example, to warrant the future safety of an electrical panel in the building s/he is selling.
It would be dangerous for a building buyer to rely on the claim by a seller, real estate agent, or electrician that an FPE Stab-Lok® electrical panel is "safe" since all independent research indicates that they are mistaken.
Bottom line on FPE: If it's an FPE Stab-Lok® electrical panel, it should be replaced, period.
Financial Assistance for Replacement of Electrical Panels
In general, financial aid is not available: Except for an almost-worthless class action settlement that affected some New Jersey homeowners, there is no financial relief offered by FPE nor by its successors to homeowners or home buyers for the replacement of these panels.
In some communities there may be generic financial aid for home repairs to elderly homeowners or to homeowners of limited financial means, such as the Christmas in April program or financial aid to seniors programs - check with your local city, town, county, or state financial aid offices. Some electricians may offer discounted services to seniors or to others of modest means. Ask your electrician.
Panel replacement choices can save some money: FPE REPLACEMENT PANELS contains some panel-replacement suggestions that can in some cases save a portion of the replacement cost.
"In a class-action lawsuit against FPE/Reliance in New Jersey, the Court found that Federal Pacific Electric Co. (FPE) committed fraud by representing that their FPE Stab-Lok® (R) circuit breakers met the applicable (UL) standard test requirements when in fact they did not. The Court's finding of fraud, published in 2005, indicates that FPE cheated on the tests that were required to obtain UL listings.
The company improperly applied UL labels to circuit breakers that could not and did not meet the UL requirements. FPE covered up the defective performance of the circuit breakers by a long-standing practice of fraudulent testing. The Court's finding helps resolve the question as to how the defective breakers got into the marketplace and into homes." -- 2007 FPE Stab-Lok® TECHNICAL REPORT, p.1, Dr. Jess Aronstein [available at this website].
Most Circuit Breakers Are Never Called-on to Trip
In a home or on a circuit that has never been used, or has never experienced an overcurrent or short circuit, an unsafe breaker that would not trip when it should, will look just fine. That's because the circuit breaker has never been required to trip off. As Aronstein points out [2007 FPE Stab-Lok® TECHNICAL REPORT, Dr. Jess Aronstein], the performance of such an electrical circuit would look equally fine if there were no circuit breaker installed at all, since it has never needed to be interrupted. Does that mean such an electrical circuit is safe and that it is protected as intended? No.
Companies, Attorneys, Realtors, Home Sellers, Home Buyers with Conflicting Interests
A home owner who intends to continue living in a home, or someone buying a new home, has a great interest in assuring that the home's electrical system is properly protected and safe, as does their insurance company. However in some circumstances such as wanting to push through the sale of a home without incident, or wishing to avoid admitting potential liability, or perhaps out of lack of accurate information, some people may still assert that this well-documented safety concern does not exist.
Some insurance companies now require that their policy holders replace FPE Stab-Lok® (R) equipment in the home before they will issue homeowners insurance for the property.
Has There Been a U.S. Government, CPSC, or Manufacture's Product Recall for FPE Stab-Lok® (R) Electrical Equipment?
No, not in the U.S. for FPE Stab-Lok® ® equipment. However some versions of the sister product sold Canada under the label Federal Pioneer, were recalled.
No. A careful reading of the CPSC press release of March 3, 1984 suggests that the authors were careful NOT to conclude that there is no hazard, but simply that the information at hand did not prove the hazard [at that time], and that the Commission did not have funds to pursue testing. In that 1983 document, the representation that no real hazard exists is made by the manufacturer of the device - not exactly a neutral party, and even that wording is cautious in tone: "FPE breakers will trip reliably at most overload levels." Readers should see the failure rates cited in Aronstein's updated 2007 Report and in the IAEI letter available at this website.
According to reports we've received from the field, a hasty reader or someone with conflicting interests, sometimes infers from the CPSC 1983 press release concerning FPE Stab-Lok® (R) equipment that the manufacturer and some Commission members were of the opinion that conditions producing FPE Stab-Lok® (R) incidents and failures would not occur in the field.
This is an erroneous conclusion. Some very common household appliances operate are powered by a two-pole 240V circuit (protected by the type of breaker under discussion) but use two or more independent 120V sub-circuits inside the appliance. Two obvious cases are electric clothes dryers and ranges. If, for example, the low-heat (110V) heater in a dryer were to short to the dryer case, a serious overcurrent would occur on one "leg" of the circuit.
Another wiring practice, using a single two-pole breaker to power a split circuit which uses a shared neutral, such as may be installed in kitchens in some areas, is nearly certain to have each leg of the circuit loaded independently and thus subject to single-leg overloading and subsequent breaker jamming. A breaker which jams and then fails to trip under this condition is, in my opinion, a serious fire hazard.
Yes. Current research now confirms the safety hazards of FPE Stab-Lok® (R) equipment and documents its failure rates.
Using a larger pool of FPE Stab-Lok® circuit breakers than the older CPSC and Wright Malta tests found significantly higher failure rates of FPE Stab-Lok® circuit breakers, including a look at critical safety failures (breaker failed to trip at 200% of rated current or jammed) which found:
[The significance of these numbers can be understood more clearly if you consider that the typical failure-to-trip rate for circuit breakers in residential electrical panels is a small fraction of one percent.
For the full report see 2007 FPE Stab-Lok® TECHNICAL REPORT - an updated test report of independent testing (a large 1.2MB PDF file)
It's the exceptions that cause fires. An FPE circuit breaker will appear to "work just fine" in passing along current to the circuit it feeds, until there is an overcurrent, short circuit, or similar condition. When those exceptional conditions occur, this equipment fails to protect the circuit and the building from overheating and fires, in some cases at a failure rate around 60% of the time. I estimate that the normal industry failure rate on circuit breakers is less than .01%.
Consumers should read and follow the Commission's advice regarding circuit breakers. But this advice is insufficient. The Commission's admonition to avoid overloading circuits and to turn off and have examined devices which seem to be creating a problem is a poor substitute for reliable, automatic, overcurrent protection. It is precisely because dangerous conditions can and do occur without adequate recognition and action by a consumer that circuit breakers and fuses are installed to provide overcurrent protection in the first place.
Therefore it is hardly an adequate "fix" for FPE breakers to just tell consumers to handle these cases manually.
It is possible that some breakers may perform with adequate reliability, possibly those manufactured after the companies discovered safety defects and improper practices in listing the product, and possibly some of those manufactured in Canada (certainly not all Canadian Federal Pioneer breakers, since there was a Canadian recall).
In absence of an explicit statement from a manufacturer and/or the US CPSC indicating that newer stock equipment is defect free, and considering that defects occur in both breakers and the panels themselves, and finally, that testing showed failures in both in-use equipment and new off-the-shelf devices, my advice to consumers and electricians is that these panels be replaced with newer equipment, particularly those which use 240-volt double-pole breakers described in the literature.
A home inspector, electrical inspector, building inspector, electrician, or contractor who makes any warranty of safety, by virtue of his/her position close to the consumer, is certain bear this very liability.
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