What’s the Real Story on Fed Pac? Version 3 (8/01/2009)
The facts about FPE devices boil down to a few simple undisputed points.
This info is the closest thing to “current documentation,” as Advisory Bulletin 07-001 (“AB1″) puts it. (FPE stopped making devices in 1986.) There is no better data.
Federal Pacific Electric Co. (“FPE”) panels and their Stab–Lok® breakers were manufactured by FPE and installed in homes from the mid-1950s to the early 1980s. They were one of America’s most widely used, and less expensive, breakers and panels. Several hundred million circuit breakers and millions of loadcenters were installed. They are not a blip on radar.
An estimated 28 million FPE panels – all with FPE breakers – are in use today. (Not all are original. Remanufactured and clone Stab-Lok breakers are sold.) It’s estimated they were installed in as many as 10% of all American homes, including many in Kentucky.
That means every home inspector runs into FPE breakers/panels in about 1 in every 10 inspections on average – or around 30-40 times a year for a full-time inspector.
No one else is in direct contact with consumers about FPE equipment more regularly, or in a position to give them the information on FPE that professionals know.
FPE Stab-Lok breakers and panels were a unique design. Most plug-in circuit breakers use jaws that fit over a bus bar, so the metal of the jaw parallels the bus bar. FPE Stab-Loks,
standard in FPE panels, are just the opposite: FPE breakers have a set of prongs (the “FPE stab”) that are inserted into a slot in the bus bars. This puts the FPE stab at a right angle to the metal bus. The result is less contact.
A common FPE problem is finding Stab-Lok breakers loose in the bus bar. That creates a real headache for home inspectors. Loose FPE breakers can just pop out on inspectors trying to get a look at them because FPE breakers are “on” with the breaker toggles handles down (facing out, toward the outer sides of the panel), instead of the opposite direction, pointing in, toward the center, as has been required since the 1984 NEC. Inspectors have to gingerly rock off, or see-saw, the panel deadfront (or cover), without accidentally tripping or dislodging a breaker, to inspect the ground, bonding, etc.
If the FPE stab only touches one edge of the bus slot, the low contact pressure and small contact area will combine to produce arcing and overheating. This typically is not visible to home inspectors because breakers burn out from the back toward the front. The key signal of this arcing and overheating is scorch marks on FPE bus bars, which can only be seen by removing breakers, which is well beyond the scope of a general home inspection. While those are common and important FPE problems, illustrating the unique design, several others are reported in the literature. All of them get more acute as the equipment ages.
“The central safety defect in FPE Stab-Lok(R) electrical equipment is that FPE Stab-Lok circuit breakers fail to trip under overload or short-circuit conditions, at a failure rate much higher than comparable equipment made by other producers. This failure to trip occurs up to 80% of the time when the breakers are called-on to trip, depending on the individual breaker type and ampacity. The usual industry rate of failure of a circuit breaker to trip in response to an overcurrent or short circuit is much less than 1%. When an overload or short circuit occurs in an electrical device, say an electric clothes dryer, the circuit supplying electricity to the device is supposed to be interrupted, electrical power cut off, by either a fuse or a circuit breaker. This interruption of electrical power is intended to minimize the resulting fire hazard of electrical overloads or short circuits. A circuit breaker that fails to trip is unsafe fails to protect the electrical circuit and the building and building occupants where that circuit breaker is installed. This can lead to fire, property loss, and injury or worse,” reports Daniel Friedman, principal author/editor of the InspectAPedia website, www.inspect-ny.com/fpe/fpepanel.html. .
In March, 1979, FPE was acquired from UV Industries Inc. by Reliance Electric for $345 million. Then, later, in September, 1979, Reliance (and FPE) were acquired by Exxon for $1.2 billion. FPE ceased making residential electrical devices in the mid-1980s. Today, it’s corporate address is an Ohio law office.
The documentation of FPE problems is perilous, since many pieces of the puzzle are inconclusive by themselves. Pieced together, the documentation as a whole is a fairly clear picture.
If home inspectors simply quoted the public record on FPE, here are the basic points that currently are clear:
- FPE “knowingly and purposefully distributed circuit breakers which were not tested to meet UL standards as indicated on their label,” the New Jersey court hearing the class action against FPE ruled in 2002, after hearings years of expert evidence. This is the most “current documentation” on FPE.
That’s important. If FPE’s residential gear actually failed to met Underwriters Laboratory (UL) standards, they could not have been installed in compliance with building codes of that era. The old saw heard from some inspectors and electricians, that FPE was “installed to code, grandfathered today, and therefore OK,” won’t work. “Frauds” (the court’s word) are never installed to code. Frauds simply never complied with code in the first place.
The New Jersey court that had been hearing a class action lawsuit against FPE, UV Industries (FPE’s parent), Reliance Electric and others for years when it issued an Order for Partial Summary Judgement. The Memorandum accompanying the Order went on (after the quotation above) to say that “Defendant FPE’s mislabeling of the circuit breakers constitutes an affirmative representation and, therefore, Plaintiffs are entitled to treble damages.” The court concluded FPE’s practices “violated the Consumer Fraud Act.” Yacout v Federal Pacific, et al., Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division: Middlesex County, No. L-2904-97, Order and Memorandum for Partial Summary Judgment, Oct. 29, 2002.
- More documentation of FPE safety defects became public after Reliance Electric Co. bought FPE in March, 1979.
- A few months later, in June, 1980, in a very unusual move, Reliance sued its own subsidiary, FPE, saying FPE used “materially deceptive and improper manufacturing, testing, and certification practices” in making its panels and circuit breakers. Reliance complained FPE’s success “was due substantially, if not entirely, to a pattern of materially deceptive and improper practices in the manufacture, testing, and sale” of its circuit breakers. The suit also claimed FPE used such practices to get certified by Underwriters Laboratories (“UL”) since its label generally was required to meet local building codes. See, “Exxon buys a scandal along with a company,” Business Week, July 21, 1980 at 66. The case was complex, and eventually settled, with most of the court records sealed (not disclosed).
- “Underwriters Laboratories labels for most of FPE’s circuit breakers were obtained through improper practices,” FPE said in a Reliance Electric press release, July 7, 1980. It pointed to no-trip problems with the breakers and FPE testing that was fixed.
- FPE’s Stab-Lok breakers failed “at relatively low over-current conditions,” FPE (now a sub of Reliance) itself reported in a 1980 notice to the Consumer Product Safety Commission (“CPSC”), after its own retesting and review of FPE data. Reliance Electric Co. press release re FPE breakers, July 5, 1980. FPE’s test data never has been made public. We understand it is in discovered documents in the New Jersey class action, but sealed (not public) at this time, though not likely for long. The 1980 FPE notice ignited a round of testing at the CPSC.
- Federal Pacific Electric panels/Stab-lok breakers were apparently delisted by Underwriters Laboratories (“UL”) in 1980.
“The delisting occurred after UL changed testing procedures for circuit breakers following CPSC concern that the product [FPE Stab-lok breakers] might pose fire hazards,” Business Week (July 21,1980) reported.
Business Week reported Reliance first said it was told the delisting was routine “but sales had slid so much by early May that it was obvious that the real problem was not the failure of circuit breakers to gain UL approval but ‘deception’ in obtaining certification over a long period of years.” UL’s test data has not been made public, though it too appears to be of record in the New Jersey case.
Reliance’s 1982 financial statement, filed with federal stock regulators, indicated it 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 said the deceptive practices ceased after their acquisition (1979).
- There’s a legend that the CPSC later blessed FPE equipment. Not so. Here’s what really happened:
After the 1980 notice, the CPSC got as far as three preliminary tests of FPE devices. None of the results were encouraging, but none were conclusive either, in the CPSC’s view.
- The basic 2-pole no-trip problem was documented by CPSC-C-81-1429, “Final Report: Calibration and Condition Tests of Molded Case Circuit Breakers” (Dec. 30, 1982). Failures to trip on overload were a huge percentage – 1 in 4. (Table 1 Summary of Failures showed that with a small overload on both poles, FPE breakers failed 25% of the time, followed by lockup).
- A FPE Stab-Lok (R) panel that failed due to bus-bar interconnections in the panel and ignited was studied in “Failure Analysis of Residential Circuit Breaker Panel,” CPSC-C-81-1455 (May 20, 1982).
- “Status Report – Evaluation of Residential Molded Case Circuit Breakers,” CPSC-C-81-1455 (Aug. 10, 1982) further documented failure of FPE two-pole Stab-Lok (R) breakers. Ref., www.inspect_ny.com/fpe.
- Then, on March 3, 1983, the CPSC announced it closed its two-year investigation into FPE Stab-Lok circuit breakers. By the end of 1982, FPE was a has-been manufacturer in the residential circuit breaker market.
The CPSC said that the action was taken because “the data currently available to the Commission does not establish that the circuit breakers pose a serious risk of injury to consumers.” The CPSC said it had “insufficient data to accept or refute Reliance’s position” that the breakers, which Reliance had reported to the CPSC as not “fully complying” with UL requirements, nonetheless created a hazard in households typically when operated in a “repetitive, abusive manner.” CPSC staff estimated it “would cost several million dollars to gather the data necessary to assess fully whether those circuit breakers … present a risk to the public. Based on the Commission’s limited budget ($34 million for fiscal year 1983), the known hazards the Commission has identified and must address (involving products of other manufacturers) and the uncertainty of the results of such a costly investigation, the Commission has decided not to commit further resources to its investigation of FPE’s circuit breakers.” The CPSC reserved the right to “reopen its investigation of FPE circuit breakers if further information warrants.” There was never an investigation of loadcenters by CPSC.. www.cpsc.gov/cpscpub/prerel83/830008.html.
Since FPE functionally was out of business by then, there was no practical relief for consumers, such as a recall, no matter what a CPSC investigation found.
One other key reason also had to be considered. In early 1982, CPSC lost a major 8-year lawsuit brought by Kaiser Aluminum over another electrical product, aluminum wiring. The final outcome was fairly basic. The court said that, regardless of any hazards, aluminum wiring was not a “consumer product” subject to CPSC jurisdiction, unless CPSC showed a substantial number of consumers/new home buyers contracted directly with electricians to install the wiring. Typically, consumers/buyers contracted with builders, developers or general contractors, not directly with electricians, to install wiring in homes, the court said. It would be understandable if CPSC chose not to get into that fight all over again, with FPE able to use the Kaiser Aluminum case as a roadmap (“FPE breakers are not ‘consumer products.’ either, your Honor; consumers do not buy breakers directly any more than they buy wiring directly.”).
In short, the three initial CPSC tests were discouraging, but too little too late. The CPSC investigation ended up fizzling, about the same time FPE did.
- Just when you think you’ve heard it all, nearly a decade and a half later, out of the blue, an article defending FPE breakers showed up in the May-June, 1999 issue of IAEI, the magazine of the International Association of Electrical Inspectors. It was titled “Federal Pacific Electric Co. Stab-lok Update,” www.iaei.org./subscriber/magazine/99-c/stablok.htm. Now and then a well-meaning electrician will tell us that’s why he decided FPE breakers weren’t worth the worry. It would help if they read the piece more carefully.
That’s not what the IAEI said. Here’s what really happened: The name of the article’s author was not printed, way out of the ordinary for IAEI. The editors explained that omission, partly, with a note at the bottom of the article that said it “was prepared by the former quality manager of FPE, who is a consultant to the company.” The editors note said “the gist of the article is that FPE Stab-lok loadcenters and circuit breakers are listed and labeled, and suitable for the usage intended.”
However, the editors added “This information is neither approved nor disapproved by the International Association of Electrical Inspectors.”
Reasonable people can reasonably have different professional opinions about what to make of that.
- FPE breakers and panels no longer are manufactured by FPE. Consumers can’t go to Home Depot and pick a FPE breaker off the shelf, as they could with modern breakers.
Replacement Stab-lok breakers were UL listed and the U.S. listing holder was the American Circuit Breaker Corporation, which makes cloned Stab-Lok replacement breakers. “American” brand breakers are no longer UL listed, though they are listed by ETL, another nationally recognized lab.
Cloned (or “non-FPE”) FPE breakers have been manufactured by several companies since American, for replacement parts. There is no known test data as to the non-FPE compatible Stab-Lok breakers. To the extent they are essentially the same product with no substantive change in design or manufacturing, it is reasonable to expect the same problems. Canada’s Federal Power (Schneider Canada) manufactures Stab-Lok breakers and panels. It recalled two of their 15-amp models manufactured between mid-1996 and mid-1997, saying “In some circumstances these breakers may not trip….If the circuit breaker does not perform as intended, there is potential for property damage and/or personal injury.” Of course, Advisory Bulletin 07-001 does not address Federal Power breakers, if its authors even knew about them, or problems with cloned breakers generally. They would probably try to hide behind the SOP exclusion that inspectors do not address recalls, but the recall is not the point. The point is that the Stab-Lok type of breaker, whether from FPE or others, has a history and inspectors should not be muzzled into concealing or failing to disclose information they know and opinions they hold about it.
Cloned and remanufactured FPE breakers remain available, but they are extraordinarily costly. A conventional, modern breaker not only is much cheaper, it’s much better, modern, equipment.
At the price of FPE clone breakers today, replacing all the breakers in an FPE panel usually would cost a little more than replacing the FPE panel and breakers with modern equipment and upgrading service (most Kentucky FPE loadcenters are 100-amp, substandard by today’s 200-amp service). It also would both add value to the home, and remove a resale trip-wire issue only likely to grow more troubling to sellers in the years ahead. Having an FPE panel in a house is like having a Super-8 tape player in a car – maybe it works, but who wants it, and where do you get the tapes?
1970s electrical gear are not wine – they do not improve with age. There is no advantage to buying anything but the latest electrical equipment. FPE panels/breakers also lock uninformed consumers into purchasing a 50 year-old breaker design unless an inspector (or someone) alerts them.
It does not take an electrician to give home buyers this information – especially the “first-time home buyers” we see so often now, who really need it. Concealing it would be a sin. In fact, though the KBHI never has been clear about this, lately it has sounded like it agreed at least on this point.
- In fact, telling consumers/home buyers an inspector “recommends further evaluation by a master electrician,” as Advisory Bulletin 07-001 is an empty gesture. The truth is that Kentucky electricians are not equipped to properly test FPE panels with live overloads by themselves. Most do not even carry the equipment.
The price also is prohibitive, even if an electrician wanted to take it on. The cost of adequate testing for FPE breakers and panels exceeds the cost of replacement. See, J. Aronstein, “Hazardous FPE Circuit Breakers and Panels,” 17th Annual Spring Seminar, St. Louis Chapter, American Society of Home Inspectors (“Without doing live current functional testing on all of the [FPE] breakers, it is impossible to determine which of the breakers in the panel are defective….Electrical contractors and inspectors are generally not equipped to do that type of testing, and homeowners or potential purchasers are not likely to have the required budget for extensive specialized testing. In fact, thorough testing would most likely cost more than changing the panel.”)
Electricians hired by home buyers or owners who actually want their FPE panels or breakers thoroughly and properly tested should tell them to get an electrical engineer, Tim Leathers, Kentucky’s chief electrical inspector says. But that would cost more than replacing and upgrading the electric service too.
So why does AB1 tell us to “recommend further evaluation by an electrician” instead of an electrical engineer? Let’s guess: The KBHI did not know that either? Are we warm?
- FPE equipment could not have been installed for the last generation – over 20 years – under any modern standards.
At least five FPE design problems no longer are allowed by code: its spring-mounted bus, breakers that are “on” when down, the split bus service equipment, the gutter space, and the wire bending space.
Code inspectors have not seen FPE gear installed since 1986. Kentucky electricians have no duty to tell consumers. Home inspectors are the only professionals whose scope of work includes inspecting and reporting their “professional opinions” to consumers on FPE equipment.
Alternatively, here’s the professional opinion on one leading Federal Pacific site:
“Federal Pacific Electric “Stab-Lok” service panels and breakers are a latent hazard and can fail to trip in response to overcurrent, leading to electrical fires. The breakers may also fail to shut off internally even if the toggle is switched to “off.” Some double-pole (240-Volt) FPE circuit breakers and single-pole FPE Stab-Lok circuit breakers simply do not work safely. There are other FPE panel-defects independent of the breaker problems, panel and panel-bus fires and arcing failures in some equipment. The failure rates for these circuit breakers were and still are significant. In some cases failure to trip occurs 60% of the time – a serious fire and electrical shock hazard. Failures are documented in the CPSC study and by independent research. Additional independent testing and research are on-going and are reported here. FPE Stab-Lok electrical panels should be replaced. Do not simply swap in some replacement breakers.”