Federal Pacific Electric circuit breakers raise safety concerns but government won't say if risky

Push to get government to reopen FPE investigation

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. - Michael Fazio never thought much about his electric panel until he was ready to pack up and sell his Boca Raton home.

"They suspect that panel to cause fires," explained Fazio.

A home inspector alerted Fazio to the potential fire hazard.

"Did I risk my family in a possible fire?" questioned Fazio.

He said he would have replaced it 20 years ago had he known the potential hazard with his Federal Pacific Electric Stab-lok circuit breaker.

Investigators said a central Florida home caught fire from an FPE circuit breaker. The homeowner said the breaker failed.

"It's a problem nationwide," explained Lynne McChristian of the Insurance Information Institute.

The insurance industry feels these panels are risky enough that most won't issue a policy if you have an FPE breaker.

"This is a safety factor you can't ignore," explained McChristian.

Problems first surfaced in the 1980s when the company told the government some of the breakers may be defective. The Consumer Product Safety Commission never determined if the breakers posed a safety risk so they're still in homes today.

Federal Pacific Electric circuit breakers put to the test
"Would you have one of these breakers in your home?" we asked master electrician Mike Pendl of Pendl Electric .

"Absolutely not," he explained.

Pendl said he's seen the breakers fail to trip or shut off when the system is overloaded.

"There's no way to really test it until there is a fire," explained Pendl.

Unless you remove the breaker, and test it then. Pendl mounted an FPE breaker and a non FPE breaker recently removed from Florida homes.

Pendl said the trip is a safety mechanism.

At Palm Beach State College Fire Training Academy, Pendl overloaded the system on both electric panels similar to what might happen in your home if you turned on too many appliances at once.

"As the wire heats up the breaker is going to sense that and shut down the circuit," explained Pendl.

The non-FPE breaker trips in 30 seconds, but the Federal Pacific Breaker stayed on two minutes longer.

"We are at quadruple the time it takes to trip a standard breaker," explained Pendl.

In another test using a different FPE breaker, the non FPE breaker trips quickly.

Minutes later, the FPE breaker is still hot. The wires feeding it reached over 100 degrees.

"You don't want that to get hot," explained Pendl. "In your home these wires are running through insulation behind drywall all flammable materials."

It takes five minutes and 43 seconds for the FPE breaker to trip.

"For that breaker not to trip for five minutes is unbelievable," explained Pendl.

In government testing, some FPE breakers did not trip. However, it wasn't enough for the CPSC to link it to a hazardous situation. 

Former CPSC Chairman wants investigation reopened
"I think this is an issue that needs attending to," explained Ann Brown, former Chairman of the Consumer Product Safety Commission.

Brown took office after the agency wrapped up its two year investigation into the breakers.

"If the insurance companies are not insuring homes that have these defective breakers, that calls for an investigation," explained Brown.

The CPSC discontinued its investigation in the 80s due to funding concerns, and refused to reopen it in 2011 leaving homeowners to decide if the risk is worth it.

The Consumer Product Safety Commission said it respects Brown's push for reopening the investigation, and it continues to encourage industry experts to give them the latest data. However, at this time the CPSC has no plans to reopen an investigation.

The CPSC said given its budget, its focus now is on deadly products. The agency admitted it still gets complaints and reports of property damage from homeowners who have the FPE breakers in their home.

"The scariest thing about these it might trip 10 times and then one time it doesn't. It only takes one time for there to be a fire," explained Pendl.

It's unknown how many fires have been caused by these breakers, because not every fire department tracks that information. Many of the fire investigations we reviewed locally showed pictures of melted breakers and the cause of the fire was electrical. However, none of those records mentioned the panel manufacturer.

The State Fire Marshal's Office said it identifies the manufacturer of a circuit breaker if the remnants of the burned panel are available. The state said usually it's in such bad shape that you can't determine that information.

The cost to remove a panel is around $1500, but it varies so shop around. The product is often found in homes built between 1950 and the late 1980s. Look for a red busbar or the words "Federal Pacific Electric."

 

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