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The Dangers of Federal Pacific Panels

The Dangers of Federal Pacific Panels

On this site we talk about old houses and the good, the bad, and the ugly. There are plenty of joys and certainly some dangers of homeownership. We talked about dangers like lead paint, knob and tube wiring, and asbestos, but today I wanted to teach you about an electrical concern that may be lurking in your house, but is relatively easy to resolve.

If you own a house that was built or had the electrical system upgraded between the 1950s and 1990s you run the chance of having a Federal Pacific breaker panel as a part of your electrical system.

Federal Pacific breaker panels were extremely popular and installed in millions of homes across the country and sadly these panels pose a danger that should be dealt with promptly.

What’s Wrong with Federal Pacific Panels?

The style of Federal Pacific panels that used their Stab-Lok breakers were found, through independent testing in the 1980s, to fail to trip in the case of overload. This failure could result in overheating and fires.

The whole purpose of a circuit breaker is to trip or “break” the flow of electricity when a circuit becomes overloaded thus preventing the risk of fire or serious electrocution.

In a 1980s court case it was revealed that not only were the breakers failing to pass the Underwriter’s Laboratories (UL) guidelines but that Federal Pacific committed fraud and a cover-up regarding their testing. They labeled the breakers as meeting the UL standards when they clearly did not.

It was discovered that many of these Stab-Lok breakers did not disconnect when overloaded. In the 1980s the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) investigated the performance of the circuit breakers. CPSC performed its own laboratory tests on samples of
FPE Stab-Lok single-pole and double-pole breakers. For these samples, they found that 85% of the double-pole breakers and 39% of the single-pole breakers failed one or more of the UL test criteria.

In some cases the breakers failed to trip at ANY amount of current which poses a critical danger to occupants!

How To Tell If My Breaker Panel is Dangerous

Not every Federal Pacific panel is dangerous. The breakers with the problems seem to be limited to the Stab-Lok brand so identifying that style is most important. Any breaker box installed before the 1990s may be one of these Federal Pacific panels so that means any house built before the 1990s is potentially at risk.

The easiest way to tell if you have a Federal Pacific panel is to check out the cover on your breaker box. You’ll see the name Federal Pacific or FPE printed or embossed onto the panel cover. If there are no markings on the cover open it up and check the inside of the breaker box.

Federal Pacific Stab-Lok Circuit Breaker

The box itself is not the danger, but rather FPE’s Stab-Lok circuit breakers. These breakers typically have a red stripe on the end of the switch where the circuit amp rating is printed in black.

You’ll also find the Stab-Lok logo inside the panel in many cases. If you’re still unsure it’s never a bad idea to have a local electrician come take a look.

Do I Have to Replace My Federal Pacific Panel?

The short answer is yes. These breakers have been responsible for too many fires and pose a real danger to you and your house. They should be prioritized for replacement if you find one of these anywhere in your house.

You’ll have trouble finding homeowner’s insurance without replacing your Federal Pacific breaker panel as well, so replacing it is not only good safety sense but good financial sense.

Don’t attempt to repair or modify the panel to save money. Replacement is the best option.

Are Federal Pacific and Federal Pioneer the Same?

Federal Pioneer is the Canadian brand name of the same Federal Pacific panels sold in the US. These panels are subject to the same overloading failures as their Federal Pacific cousins since they are the same design simply with a different moniker.

There is a currently a recall in Canada for several Federal Pioneer circuit breakers you may want to explore if you happen to own one of these.

Stay Safe

The bottom line is that Federal Pacific breaker panels should almost always be replaced. The risk from having circuit breakers in your home that don’t do their important job of preventing fire and overload is too great.

It’s possible that you may have a FPE panel that has performed admirably over the decades, but in my opinion having a product from a company that knowingly cheated on their UL testing doesn’t inspire enough confidence to help me sleep well at night.

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10 thoughts on “The Dangers of Federal Pacific Panels

  1. When Jordan said, “I thought stab lock was OK since so many internet electricians swear by it”, I have found that to be the case too; but I’d have said it differently.

    In my experience electricians seem to swear at the mere sight of stab-lok breakers, but yeah, they do tend to be “by them” when they are swearing.

  2. In 2014 I bought a house with a Federal Pacific main panel outside on a pole, one in the workshop and one in the barn. We immediately replaced the ones in the barn and workshop, but left the main panel outside on the pole until we could redo the electrical wiring on the whole property but we did eventually replace it too. Now the house, workshop and barn have all new Square D panels, there is a new main panel on a new pole with a new transformer and all wiring is underground. It was expensive, but the property is much safer, and much nicer now without all the overhead wiring on poles.

  3. Weird, I thought stab lock was OK since so many internet electricians swear by it *sarcasm*. In all seriousness though, good PSA by the poster of this article!

  4. Mine is 44 years old and have lived in it for 5 years. There has never been a problem with it SO, now I’m supposed to lose sleep?

  5. why cant you just keep the panel and install newer circuit breakers, available at the big box stores?

    1. I have a sub panel with one 20amp double pole federal pacific breaker. Goes to a hot water heater. Was hoping to just upgrade the breaker to the new Connecticut electric replacement and not the entire box.

  6. Ugh, as soon as I saw that first picture I thought, “Gee, that looks exactly like the little sub panel installed in my workshop.”
    Sure enough, it is the same exact one. Looks like I have some electrical work to do in the near future. Thanks so much for the informative posts! You’re a real lifesaver.

  7. Great article Scott!
    I had a similar situation recently with my home that we purchased this past August. The home was built in 1968 with a Zinsco panel, which are also known to be a significant safety hazard, primarily because of their aluminum bus bars. They were popular in the late 60s and the 70s. Overloaded breakers can become fused to the bus bars and are no longer able to break open and shut off current to the circuits, even though they may appear to be shut off on initial inspection by the homeowner. Zinsco also was reportedly not truthful with the UL as well. Anyone with a Zinsco panel in their home should immediately opt for replacement as well.

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