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.
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.
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.
Founder & Senior Editor
I love old houses, working with my hands, and teaching others the excitment of doing it yourself! Everything is teachable if you only give it the chance.