Commercial Installations of FPE Federal Pacific Electric Stab-Lok® Electrical Panel & Circuit Breaker - potential fire & other safety hazards:
Here we explain the possible fire and shock hazards associated with business or commercial installations of Federal Pacific Electric Stab-Lok® circuit breakers and service panels. We include commercial-grade or commercially-installed Federal Pacific Electic & Federal Electric panels & circuit breaker photos.
The current status of FPE Stab-Lok®equipment hazards, recalls, product safety research, and consumer warnings can be found in companion articles at this website. Page top photo courtesy of Raleigh NC home inspector Steve Smallman.
Replacement FPE Stab-Lok® circuit breakers are unlikely to reduce the failure risk of this equipment. We recommend that 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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For information on FPE Stab-Lok® equipment that can be copied to any website, see FPE Stab-Lok® Hazard Summary Page for Public Use
Federal Pacific Electric "Stab-Lok® " service panels and breakers are a latent hazard and FPE circuit breakers can fail to trip in response
Do you have any opinion on FPE panels in commercial buildings, these are 3-phase, both sub-panels and MDP, circa 1985, and I do not see any labels on the panels indicating Stab-Loc?
- Steve Smallman, Raleigh, N.C., Email: email@example.com, Tel: 919.669.3639 [Mr. Smallman is a professional home inspector working in Raleigh, NC. - Ed.] 11/17/2012
We'd love to imagine that the commercial Federal Pacific Electric Stab-Lok® equipment is safer than the residential line, as that would make life easier for quite a few folks. And if we could confirm that these products use a different bus and breaker design from the Stab-Lok series, indeed that would leave the safety question at least more open.
Indeed, Steve, other inspectors in the Raleigh area have also reported FPE panel installations to us - they were common in your state in both residential and commercial installations, as would be obvious from the label on this FPE Panel sent to us by Chris Chamberlin.
You'll note that this commecial electrical panel is labelled "Federal Pacific Electric Co., Raleigh N.C." and omits the term Stab-Lok.
A short and acccurate answer is that we do not have adequate field failure report data nor independent study data to confirm the performance of commecial FPE circuit breaker panel installations, but in my OPINION, if the internal bus and breaker design can be confirmed to be of the Stab-Lok series it is very likely that the same safety concerns pertain as well.
Considering the Federal Pacific Electric company history, recent FPE tudies that confirm the extent of the hazard, FPE field failure reports, label switching, test falsification, loss of UL labeling, and reports of actual swapping of breakers into and out of their proper amperage rating range, and adding that there was a very long history of problems extending across the product line and across many years of production, one cannot not provide reassurance about safety the equipment in your photos.
My suggestion would be to pull the covers on these electrical panels (as required by most home inspection standards even though those standards were not written for commercial building surveys), to permit a closer examination of the bus and breaker design.
One can confirm the Stab-Lok design by looking at the bus or breaker details, labeling or not.
Our photo at left of an FPE Stab Lok E-bus design is the sort of connection you are looking for, and it's quite unmistakable. In an electrical panel that is not fully populated, it is not necessary to remove any circuit breakers to find this detail. Just look.
Photos & details are at FPE & FP IDENTIFICATION, HOW TO.
In our Federal Electric panel photo below, this commecial (3-phase) Federal Electric® panel uses an open-slot circuit breaker bus, as you can see in our photo.
The label omits not only the term "Stab Lok" but also Federal Pacific Electric® is not used, just Federal Electric. Taking a look at the circuit breakers that were installed in Federal Electric panels, their labels as well as their physical design confirmed that this too was a Stab-Lok® design.
The only FPE products that we are sure don't merit a warning of of the FPE Stab-Lok hazard are, in my OPINION, the fused equipment.
Watch out: among Federal Pacific Electric Fuse panels you will find some "hybrid" models such as this FPE panel photo submitted by Ralph Specht.
This service panel uses an FPE Stab-Lok design main breaker and mains in the panel body that in turn feed individually-fused circuits. The presence of the Stab-Lok breakers in this panel is an argument for its replacement even though it also containse (safer) Edison-base type fuses.
And of course as most FPE and other brand fused electrical panels now found in buildings are more than 50 years old, there are likely to be other reasons (such as obsolesence, deterioration, modifications) to be recommending replacement.
Please see FEFD for the full version of this article.
In May 1999 we learned from Schneider Canada that Federal pioneer circuit breakers sold by that company are re-named from Federal Pacific circuit breakers and that two 15-amp single-pole models NC015 and NC015CP made between August 1, 1996 and June 11, 1997 have been recalled.
The Schneider and Federal Pioneer as well as some Square-D recall notices are available here.
We asked the company engineer with whom we spoke if he could determine if Federal Pioneer and Federal Pacific components sold in Canada were made in the U.S. or if tooling used to produce them was identical with that used in the U.S. If this is the case (as one might expect based on economies of production) one should consider the possibility that other defects reported in the U.S. may also appear in Canadian installations.
The Federal Pioneer Warranty Alert was issued by the Ontario New Home Warranty program in October 1997 and provides for circuit breaker replacement. Schneider Canada is an electrical supplier whose product lines combine those previously marketed under the names Federal Pacific Electric, Federal Pioneer, Square-D, Tele Mechanique, Modicon, and Merlin Gerin.
Carl Grasso, an attorney who researched FPE failures for the New Jersey class action suit explains that since a portion of the safety defect with FPE breakers may be due to variations during manufacture, and since Canadian breakers may be manufactured in a different plant from those made in the U.S., it is possible that the field performance of Canadian breakers may be different than the U.S. design. Schneider Canada, the Federal Pioneer parent company, has not provided information regarding design or manufacture changes over the U.S. design, nor provided test data regarding the product.
As of May 2008 we have had a few reports of failures in the Canadian Federal Pioneer (Stab-Lok® ) equipment and also reports of failures of "replacement" FPE circuit breakers installed in U.S. panels. Having inspected some Canadian FPE (Federal Pioneer-brand) electric panels, we observed two ongoing concerns:
1.) the same bus design was used as in the U.S. equipment. I've seen very poor retention of breakers in the bus - in one house the breaker was held in place by duct tape, as the spring design in the contact of the breaker where it plugs into the special opening in the bus appears not to have held the breaker in place. We have also seen breakers modified with their inserting pins bent and modified to fit a breaker into a slot where it did not belong - a step that is impossible with other breaker designs.
2.) A similar or identical panel design may expose consumers to panel arcing and fires regardless of changes in the breakers themselves.
For people who are unable to promptly replace an FPE Stab-Lok® electrical panel we recommend that you should be sure you have working smoke detectors properly installed and at least you will be able to sleep at night. Also see CAN'T AFFORD A NEW ELECTRIC PANEL? or select a topic from closely-related articles below, or see our complete INDEX to RELATED ARTICLES below.
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2016/01/21 Steve Baker said:
I inspected one unit of a condo complex this week. The unit had a GE panel but the central bank of meters and main breakers were clearly labeled FPE and the 100 amp breakers were the typical FPE style. The commercial article above does not exactly address meter banks. do you have any info about them? I do not feel qualified to recommend to the HOA that all the mains should be changed.
I agree that it's not fun to bring bad news of hazards and expenses to the client. I've seen a range of responses from condos and apartments, from wholesale replacement of all of the FPE equipment to phased replacement, to a very unsafe approach of hiring an electrican to visually inspect or "test" the equipment and to declare it "safe" - a procedure that can actually increase the risk of a failure, fire or loss.
Because the "no trip" problem is the principal issue with FPE equipment (bus designs, breaker mounting and other issues are also present), and because the no-trip problem is innate in the internal design of the circuit breaker, it is absolutely present in the 100A mains you describe. Worse, double pole breakers are more likely to jam internally after an overload on one side of the breaker, an event that can occur in a panel in which one of the sub-breakers on one side of the panel fails to trip.
The hazard is a latent one: the breakers don't initiate a problem, rather they fail to protect you when a problem occurs. So a panel may appear to be humming along "just fine" for decades, even if the breaker is not going to trip when it should - as it may not have seen an overcurrent.
The opinion of some electricians I worked with was that the main breaker was even more important than the individual circuit breakers. Their reasoning was that if the Main is called-on to trip we are facing a very high current load and probably we already have a failure in the panel circuit breakers downstream. You could argue that if the downstream GE breakers always do their job the risks at the FPE Main are reduced.
But there are some hidden risks: switching the breaker "OFF" may leave it "ON" internally, killing someone working on the electrical system who thinks they switched power off. Worse, switching breakers on and off to "exercise" them actually increases the risk of a no-trip or a Jam later.
Unfortunately we don't have a good analysis that quantifies the risk. My GUESS is that the risks are reduced by the GE sub panels but the risks are not eliminated. At the very least I'd warn people that they may not have a safe, working, reliable main breaker - double pole FPE breakers may fail more than half the time - in an industry where the no-trip rate overall is probably less than 1% of the time. So replacement is a safe and advisable recommendation.
I suggest printing out Aronstein's FPE TEchnical report available in the ARTICLE INDEX to FPE STAB-LOK BREAKERS & PANELS live link given above. Give that to the Condo association management along with a warning; You are also welcome to print and give out copies of any of these web pages.
Here is a direct link to the latest Aronstein report:
FPE HAZARDS - 2012 [PDF]
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Abstract - A method is presented for connecting small branch circuit breaker functional test data to statistical fire loss data. Test results are presented for field samples of a particular line of circuit breakers that have an abnormally high defect level. The test results are then utilized in combination with available electrical fire statistics to estimate the annual number of fires and consequent injuries, deaths, and monetary loss associated with the defective breakers. An estimate is then made of the reduction of injury and loss that can be achieved by encouraging replacement of the defective breakers. The role of the electrical safety community in promoting replacement of the defective breakers is discussed.