One of the most curious things I have noticed since I started working here at Swartz Electric is the disquieting sensation of human resistance as to why property owners should go to the time and expense of replacing a Federal Pacific Electrical panel. While browsing the internet locating information about something which has such a polarized group of reactions (from property owners angry they can’t sell without changing panels to young parents terrified for their children’s safety) I came across a brilliant statement about the situation in a forum on Electrical safety and DIY-ing it:
“It’s strange that replacement is optional… It’s either a hazard or it’s not .. it shouldn’t be a hot potato that some homeowner will catch eventually…” (You can find this fascinating post here.)
The truth of the matter is that there shouldn’t be any room for negotiation or wiggling or ‘leeway’ – the Underwriters Laboratories (UL) rescinded their approval rating on the systems, multiple lawsuits have been awarded, many lab tests have been run – the Consumer Product Safety Commission released a report in 1983 stating the breakers did not “fully comply” with “certain calibration” tests (including the ULs standards) but had to end their efforts at testing due to a lack of study funding without finding any formal conclusions. Today, there are now literally thousands of articles, papers, videos, blogs, sites, and forum topics about the inherent fire damage and danger of these panels. The biggest hazard? A failure to correctly trip breakers – or side blow outs of the breakers – which leads to the breaker panel starting a fire.
In an article by Dr. Jesse Aronstein regarding the performance of these pieces, he writes:
“…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® 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 and maintain 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. Secondly, the recent testing of FPE Stab-Lok® circuit breakers now includes breakers from 28 homes across the Country. The number of breakers tested is about double the number included in the tabulation of the original report. The results firmly support – to an even higher level of statistical certainty – the conclusion that virtually every FPE Stab-Lok® panel installed in homes today contains circuit breakers that are seriously defective, and that they should be replaced in the interest of electrical and fire safety…”
Dr. Aronstein’s report includes statistics from three different testing laboratories about the FPE (Federal Pacific Electric) units failure to meet UL test requirements – or even to be the barest minimum of safe. Any electrician can tell you that the reason one cannot depend upon an inspection to assure if your panel or circuit breakers will work correctly in case of an overload, or ‘trip’; this can only be done by having the circuit breakers removed and formally tested in a lab. The risk is so real that home insurance companies – and sometimes even mortgage underwriters – will require that the electrical panels be replaced completely.
The various studies conducted through the years came to some startling conclusions – namely, that of the 345 FPE single pole circuit breakers tested, an average 15% of them failed to trip at 135% of the current they were rated for and that of the 120 double pole circuit breakers tested, 34% of them failed to trip at 135% of the current they were rated for. Even worse – the double poles had a 14% chance to jam completely – leaving the circuit closed and electricity flowing but the trip lever released. The single pole combination GFI breakers had a 60% chance of no-trip failures at 135% of the current they were rated for – and a 40% chance of jamming. GFI breakers go in the places where water and electricity mix (bathrooms, kitchens) or we use power tools (garage). Chilling statistics when weighed against the safety of one’s family, pets, and a lifetime of memories and cherished possessions.
Most telling of all? Before releasing their ‘privately conducted’ test results on the safety of the units they claimed as being ‘UL-listed’, Federal Pacific Electric went out of business… in 1988.
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This is an original article written by Mai Bjorklund for Swartz Electric. This article may not be copied whole or in part without the express permission of Swartz Electric, LLC.
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