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Dealing with the Dangers of FPE Stab-Lok Panels.

Federal Pacific Stab-Lok are a safety hazard

We consider Federal Pacific FPE Stab-Lok to be a dangerous safety hazardIn both the construction and home inspection realms, Federal Pacific Stab-Lok electrical panels are widely known to be problematic. We’ve been educating our clients on the potential safety hazards associated with Federal Pacific Stab-Lok for many years, and in this article, we hope to educate a wider audience about the hazards of Stab-Lok and provide a useful resource to those who may encounter them.

Circuit Breaker 101 and the dangers of Stab-Lok.

Circuit breakers are protective electrical switches that under normal operation allow power to flow from the service to the components of the circuit, outlets, switches, appliances etc. When the demand for electrical power exceeds what the circuit can safely handle or when a short circuit occurs, the breaker will automatically trip to protect the circuit and thus the people in the property. When the breaker trips open, the flow of electricity is broken and thus the circuit is no longer supplied – just like a light switch.

 

Federal Pacific Stab Lok are a type of panel and circuit breaker arrangement frequently found in homes built between the mid 1950’s through the early 1980’s in the United States. The Stab-Lok name refers to the way the breakers are fitted to the bus bars in these panels, a push-fit arrangement where the pins of the breaker push into the bus bar.

Note the red label and bold black font.

Assorted FPE Stab-Lok circuit breakers.

Note the pins which grab the bus bar in the electrical panel.

Top and Side View of a 90 Amp Double Pole FPE Stab-Lok breaker

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Testing by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission has shown these breakers to have an unacceptably high failure rate, meaning they do not operate within the tolerances or criteria required to be deemed safe. Here’s a few key points:

 

  • The two common problems with Federal Pacific Stab-Lok breakers are the breakers failing to trip in circumstances that deem it necessary, and the breakers often not maintaining a good connection with the bus bars they are fitted to due to wear and corrosion.
  • Federal Pacific Electric (FPE), sold millions of electrical panels between the mid-1950’s and the early 1980’s.
  • Federal Pacific Electric falsified their Underwriters Laboratories (UL) data and testing, making their UL listing null and void.
  • Approximately 33% or 1 in 3 of all Stab-Lok breakers are considered defective.
  • Testing by the United States Consumer Product Safety Commission (U.S. CPSC) has found these breakers to have an unusually and unacceptably high failure rate.
  • Failure of circuit breakers to operate correctly creates a serious safety hazard and dramatically increases the potential for a house fire to occur.
  • Electrical fires account for an estimated house 51,000 fires per year
  • Electrical distribution systems are the 3rd leading cause of home structure fires. (Source: ESFi.org)

 

Click here to see the CPSC press release regarding the investigation of Stab-Lok breakers (Opens in a new window)

Note the red label with bold black font text

20 Amp FPE Stab-Lok breakers in Panel

FPE panels come in all shapes and sizes!

Another Stab-Lok Panel – Look at the breaker alignment! Yikes!

 Spotting these panels is easy, know what you’re looking for

 

Generally, these panels are clearly labelled as Federal Pacfic / FPE, and also with the Stab-Lok name. Breakers are usually black with notable red labelling. Below are some pictures of Stab-Lok breakers and panels we’ve encountered.

 

 

 

Note the Stab-Lok branding and red breaker labels

An FPE Stab-Lok panel we found in Morrison, Colorado in September 2017. Note the Stab-Lok branding in the upper-middle.

Federal Pacific Stab-Lok breakers

A closer look – Note the breakers out of alignment. This screams “These may fall out if you remove the dead front” to inspectors

How to deal with FPE Stab-Lok panels

 

During training as an inspector, one acronym that often crops up is CYA. It means Cover Your Ass and is usually used in the context of not over-exposing ourselves as inspectors to liability by using inappropriate narratives or giving misinformation. Such is the nature of the litigious society we live in.

So, instead of saying…

“hey, this is clearly incorrect and needs to be replaced”,  

…you’re far more likely to see an inspector write a home inspection report using a narrative along the lines of…


“We recommend a licensed and suitably qualified professional further evaluate this system/component”

 

It’s a smart way to give customers a heads up without offering advice that should be reserved for qualified tradespersons to give.

Electrical Panels can be tough to inspect. While there’s a few easy things to spot there’s also problems that are harder to identify without a closer look. One thing that every inspector should easily be able to spot is the name “Federal Pacific” and “Stab-Lok”. Without trying to be needlessly sensationalist, it’s akin to finding a sign that reads:

“Don’t enter this cave, we know bears live in it. 17 people mauled this week alone! STAY AWAY!”

 

How we deal with FPE Stab-Lok panels and how you should too

Today, we’re using the CYA acronym in a different context. As home inspectors, we’re recommending that all other home inspectors cover their asses by changing their narrative to a more aggressive tone, stop removing the dead fronts of Stab Lok panels, and simply call them out for replacement.

To homeowners and tenants, if you have one of these panels in your home, we recommend that you leave them alone, and have them replaced ASAP.

It’s as simple as that.

At Neon Inspections, we’ve recently changed our narrative on Federal Pacific Stab-Lok panels and instead of recommending further evaluation, we recommend changing them as soon as we spot them.

While our InterNACHI Standards Of Practice (SOPs) do not require we remove the dead front from any electrical panel / load center, we usually go beyond these and do remove them. We like to see what’s going on in there, discover defects problems and identify any evidence of unlicensed work, any problems etc. 

 

We absolutely will not remove a Federal Pacific / FPE Stab-Lok dead front panel. Ever. No Exceptions.

 

Henceforth, all Neon Inspections home inspectors will flag FPE Stab-Lok panels as a safety hazard in need of immediate replacement.

We firmly believe that further evaluation is a waste of time and money for everyone involved. The dangers of these panels are widely known across the trades, inspection community and even by many members of the public. They’re incredibly well documented on the internet and in the printed press, and various government departments, primarily the aforementioned CPSC have discussed them at length.

We also know there’s severe problems associated with this type of panel.

So, let’s just agree they need replacing, irrespective of how many decades it’s been fine for (a common rebuttal from real estate professionals). 

Not even a peek!

Stab-Lok breakers can also be prone to simply falling out of the panel, creating a highly dangerous situation for inspectors that they’re typically not licensed to repair, meaning an electrician must be called.

This also creates a potential conflict situation between the buyer, seller and inspector that nobody benefits from, all because the inspector was trying to go the extra step for their client and do a good, thorough job.

Put simply, the hazards and risks associated with these panels far outweigh any benefit to inspectors opening them for further inspection.

 

Our Survey Says….

 

We’re members of various professional groups on social media. In addition to asking on these forums, we discussed the issue of FPE Stab-Lok panels with several friends who are IBEW electricians, journeymen and masters, and employees of one of the largest electrical contractors in the Ohio region.

We received an interesting array of responses, none of them positive and none suggesting they’re fine.

The common denominator across most of them is that scorching and burning on the electrical contacts is the first thing they look for if the breakers aren’t loose, and that the breakers are frequently loose.

Three responded that they no longer work on them because they aren’t willing to warranty any work done on a Stab-Lok panel, simply telling homeowners they can replace them or call another contractor.

One key question we asked is “What would you do if you found an FPE Stab-Lok panel in your parents’ home?” and offered the following options:

  1. Leave it alone, they’re OK.
  2. Leave it but keep an eye on it.
  3. Test it for good operation and check regularly. Change or repair if required.
  4. Replace it ASAP.

100% of those who responded chose option 4. Remember, these are all electricians or work in related fields.

Finally, in general conversation on threads we started regarding these panels, the two most common adjectives we can repeat in public that kept cropping up? “Dangerous” and “Junk”.

Replacing Stab-Lok Panels

 

Replacing an electrical panel can be a costly endeavor, but weighed against the safety of the occupants of a property, it’s a relatively small investment for unbeatable peace of mind. Having consulted numerous friends and colleagues, including one of our own inspectors who has worked as an electrician previously, there are only two main options when it comes to FPE Stab-Lok panels. The first option is replacing the entire panel with something more modern and with a proven good system of breakers. This is the preferred option and would usually bring brands such as EATON, Square D and Siemens into discussion. A second, less common approach would be to remove the ‘guts’ of the FPE stab-lok panel and replace the bus bars and all other components with more modern equipment. We generally favor a new panel and enclosure, however we recommend consulting with a licensed and insured electrical contractor when discussing these issues.

Remember CYA!

  • Whatever your role, home owner, inspector, construction professional, we encourage your to keep CYA in mind.
  • Do not take the risks associated with these panels lightly.
  • Leave them alone unless you are a qualified, licensed electrical professional, and never remove the dead front from these panels.
  • Always treat them with care when operating breakers.
  • If you have one of these panels, please plan on replacing it immediately.

We’ll wrap up this article by leaving you with various snippets and clips we’ve found about these panels, shown below.

Thanks for reading and feel free to share any of your Federal Pacific stories, anecdotes or pictures with us by hitting the contact us button! 

 

 

 

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