Federal Electric – later known as Federal Pacific Electric (FPE) – was a popular manufacturer of panels and breakers from the mid 1950s- early 1980s. Based in New Jersey, their products were very popular throughout the country, and some communities have FPE panels in almost every home. For years, stories have circulated about the hazards and defects unique to this equipment, and the darker rumors include tales of product recalls, fraudulent manufacturing, and house fires resulting from failed breakers. Inspectors and electricians share tales of breakers falling out of panels when the deadfront is removed, or breakers failing to shut off when the handle is operated.
Problems with FPE panels can be broken down into three basic categories. First, there is the simple fact that the equipment is old, and manufactured to less stringent codes and standards than modern equipment. Electrical equipment is not something that improves with age or use. Second ,there are problems unique to the design of the FPE Stablok breakers, problems that are not found in other equipment this age. Third, there are issues of manufacturing defects and circuit breaker failures. This last issue causes the greatest concern; what good is a circuit breaker that won’t trip when overloaded or shorted? What good is a breaker that doesn’t de-energize the circuit when the handle is tripped?
Several of the problems found with FPE panels are found in other brands of equipment of the same age. There is less gutter space in the panel than we find in modern equipment. The result is crowding of the wires in the panels. It is sometimes impossible to see all of the terminals in a FPE panel. The space for bending wires is also less than required in modern panels. Over the years, the required minimum space has increased, with the most significant changes in the 1981 National Electrical Code, near the very end of the days when FPE panels were made. FPE manufactured some panels with less clearance than the minimum code rules by installing the lugs at an angle, so the conductor was already parallel to the wall opposite the breaker terminal.
There are at least five design issues that are no longer allowed by code; the gutter space, the wire bending space, spring-mounted bus, breakers that are on when down, and the split bus service equipment. These issues mean that a panel that has been sitting on the hardware store shelf for 20 years would not meet today’s code, despite the UL listing of the panel at the time it was manufactured. Another even greater concern is that older breakers – of any brand – do not become more reliable with age. The internal mechanical components can become corroded or distorted, and the springs, hinges, and levers, might not operate as designed after sufficient passage of time. Most breaker manufacturers guarantee their products for only a year, and for valuation purposes breakers are considered fully depreciated after 15 years.
The Federal Pacific Electric company was headquartered in New Jersey, and was acquired by Reliance Electric Company in 1979. A 1982 financial statement from Reliance indicated that they 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.” Shortly after, the manufacture of FPE Stablok breakers under that name ceased, and for a time the breakers were manufactured under the Challenger name. Meanwhile, lawsuits were initiated between the purchasers and sellers of the prior company in its various business manifestations.
Considering there was such a high rate of failure in CPSC tests, why were they not recalled? The answer is tied up with the economics of the situation. The CPSC stated that they had insufficient data to accept or refute the claims from Reliance, and that it would cost several million dollars to conduct the necessary studies to determine if a re-call was warranted. Their budget for 1983 was only 34 million and they did not have the funds to pursue the issue.
Experts now say that FPE panels can appear to work fine for years, but after one overcurrent or short circuit, they can overheat and become fire hazards. In a class action lawsuit, a New Jersey State Court ruled that the Federal Pacific Electric (FPE) Company “violated the Consumer Fraud Act because FPE knowingly and purposefully distributed circuit breakers which were not tested to meet UL standards. (To see the Class Action Settlement Notice issued for New Jersey Residents, click here.) An expert who investigated the potential hazards of Federal Pacific Electric panels stated under UL 489 test conditions, that FPE panels fail to trip at a much higher rate than standard panels.
When a breaker fails to trip, an extreme amount of power from the outside electrical supply surges into a home’s panel and circuits. Once that happens, it cannot be stopped or shut off manually. Electricity will burn until it runs out of fuel or the wires melt. The panel could overheat and catch fire, causing serious harm to a home and its occupants. Many Federal Pacific Electric panels and breakers can operate properly for years. But if and when they do malfunction, a disaster could occur.