July 2007 Edition 

Federal Pacific Electric-Stablok Electrical Panels

Federal Pacific Electric was a popular manufacturer of electrical panels and breakers from the mid-1950’s to the early 1980’s. Based in New Jersey, their products were very popular throughout the country, and some communities have FPE panels in almost every home. For years, stories have circulated about the hazards and defects unique to this equipment, and the darker rumors include tales of  product recalls, fraudulent manufacturing, and house fires resulting from failed breakers. Inspectors and electricians share tales of breakers falling out of panels when the covers are removed or breakers failing to shut off when the handle is operated.

FPE1

Problems with FPE panels can be broken down into three basic categories: First, there is the simple fact that the equipment is old and manufactured to less stringent codes and standards than modern equipment. Electrical equipment is not something that improves with age or use. Second, there are problems unique to the design of the FPE Stablok breakers, problems that are not found in other equipment this age. Third, there are issues of manufacturing defects and circuit breaker failures. This last issue causes the greatest concern; what good is a circuit breaker that won’t trip when overloaded or shorted? What good is a breaker that doesn’t de-energize the circuit when the handle is tripped?
DESIGN PROBLEMS           
Most plug-in circuit breakers have a set of jaws that fit over a bus bar, bringing the metal of the jaw into a parallel position to the bus bar. The FPE Stablok design is the opposite: the breakers have a set of prongs that are inserted into a slot in the bus bar. The result is a connection between two pieces of metal that are at right angles to each other, only touching at their edges.

FPE2

One of the common FPE problems is to find the breakers loose in the bus bars. Good electrical connections require contact pressure. If the FPE stab only touches one edge of the opening in the bus, the lack of contact pressure and the small contact area will combine to produce arcing and over-heating. If you remove Stablok breakers from the panel, it is not uncommon to find scorch marks on the bus bars.
MANUFACTURING DEFECTS           
The Federal Pacific Electric Company was acquired by Reliance Electric Company in 1979. A 1982 financial statement from Reliance indicated that they had learned that previous UL listings on FPE products had been obtained by “deceptive means” and that “as a result, most of the circuit protective products manufactured by Federal Pacific, at some point thereafter, lost their UL listing.” Reliance asked the Consumer Product Safety Commission to investigate. The CPSC documents show the results from testing 122 2-pole breakers in 1982. The breakers were obtained directly from FPE as well as some that were purchased retail or taken from existing installations. The failure rate was higher after mechanical operations of the breakers, which seems contradictory to the recommendation that many inspectors make that breakers should be routinely operated to prevent them from “freezing” in place. Under UL 489 test conditions, the rate of failure to trip greatly exceeded the tolerances allowed by the standard. Reliance’s own test claimed a lower failure rate than the CPSC test results.           
Considering that there was such a high failure rate in the CPSC test, why were they not recalled? The answer, as with most such considerations, is tied up with the economics of the situation. The CPSC stated that they had insufficient data to accept or refute the claims from Reliance, and that it would cost several million dollars to conduct the necessary studies to determine if a recall was warranted.
The Home Inspector’s DILEMMA         
Given this set of facts, what can inspectors say to their clients? In general, product defects and recalls are beyond the scope of the inspection. Even if the CPSC were to request a recall of the products, such information would exceed the minimum standards of practice for a home inspector. The inspector may not be able to say the panel is defective if there is no evidence. However, there is a history with this product that cannot be overlooked. Ultimately, it is up to the homeowner to make the determination of whether to replace a FPE electrical panel box.
Most of this article was written by Doug Hansen. Portions of this article are taken from Electrical Inspection of Existing Dwellings, by Douglas Hansen, Redwood Kardon and Michael Casey.

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