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  • Scott A. Breyer

Federal Pacific Electric Panels - What You Need To Know.....

So if you bought or sold a home, chances are you may have encountered an issue with

the electrical panel. Espechially if the panel was made by Federal Pacific. This page contains a closing statement regarding a CPSC Investigation of Federal Pacific Circuit Breakers and additional safely information for consumers.

The problem with Federal Pacific Panels has been around for quite a while. Federal Pacific Electric "Stab-Lok" service panels and breakers are a latent hazard and can fail, leading to electrical fires. The problem is that some 240 volt Federal Pacific circuit breakers and possibly also some 120 volt units simply may not work. The Consumer Product Safety Commission announced that it is closing its investigation into Federal Pacific Electric "Stab-Lok" type residential circuit breakers. This action was taken because the data currently available to the Commission does not establish that the circuit breakers present a serious risk of injury to consumers.

The Commission investigation into Federal Pacific Electric circuit breakers began in June, 1980, when Reliance Electric Co., a subsidiary of Exxon Corporation and the parent to Federal Pacific Electric, reported to the Commission that many Federal Pacific circuit breakers did not fully comply with Underwriters Laboratories, Inc. (UL Requirements) Commission testing confirmed that these breakers fail under certain UL calibration test requirements. The Commission investigation focused primarily on 2-Pole residential circuit breakers manufactured before Reliance acquired Federal Pacific in 1979.

To meet UL standards, residential circuit breakers must pass a number of so-called "calibration tests." The purpose of these tests is to determine whether the circuit breakers will hold the current for which they are rated and also automatically open or "trip"(shut off the current) within the specified time limits if over-loading of the circuit breakers causes current levels in excess of the breaker's amperage rating. Overloading can occur because a consumer plugs too many products into a circuit or due to the failure of a product or component connected to that circuit. While the Commission is concerned about the failure of these Federal Pacific breakers to meet UL calibration requirements, the Commission is unable at this time to link these failures to the development of a hazardous situation.

According to Reliance, failure of these Federal Pacific breakers to comply with certain UL calibration requirements do not create a hazard in the household environment. It is Reliance's position that Federal Pacific breakers will trip reliably at most overload levels unless the breakers have been operated in the repetitive, abusive manner that should not occur during residential use. Reliance maintains that, at these few overload levels where Federal Pacific breakers may fail to trip under realistic use conditions, currents will be too low to generate hazardous temperatures in household wiring. Reliance believes that its position in this regard is supported by test data that is provided to the Commission.

The Commission staff believes that it currently has insufficient data to accept or refute Reliance's position. Consumers should read and follow the Commission's advice regarding circuit breakers, but this advice is insufficient. The Commission's advice to avoid overloading circuits and to turn off and have devices examined which seem to be creating a problem, is a poor substitute for reliable, automatic, overcurrent protection. It is precisely because dangerous conditions can and do occur without adequate recognition and that circuit breakers and fuses are installed to provide overcurrent protection in the first place. Therefore it is hardly an adequate "fix" for Federal Pacific breakers to just tell consumers to handle these cases with care.

A careful reading of the CPSC press release suggests that the press release was very careful NOT to conclude that there is no hazard, but simply that the information at hand did not prove the hazard, and that the Commission did not have funds to pursue testing. In this document, the representation that no real hazard exists is made by the manufacturer of the device - not exactly a neutral party, and even that wording is cautious in the tone, "Federal Pacific breakers will trip reliably at most overload levels." We as consumers should expect that most of the time most things work properly. It is the exceptions that cause fires.

It is the advice of expert electricians to replace Federal Pacific panels with newer equipment, particularly those which use 240 volt double pole breakers described in the literature. If a fire or other hazard occurs with this device, neither the manufacturer nor the Commission, who have suggested in the press release that data was inconclusive or inadequate to establish a hazard, will accept responsibility for losses that may ensue. Experts in the field are convinced that a latent hazard exists where Federal Pacific Stab-Lok circuit breakers continue in use. The hazard is worst for 240 volt double pole breakers. Published reports of actual tests that were performed indicate that under certain conditions it is possible for one legs of these circuits to attempt to trip under any load condition. The manufacturer and some Commission members were of the opinion that these conditions would not occur in the field.

Some very common household appliances are powered by a 240 volt circuit (protected by the type of breaker under discussion) but use two or more independent 120 volt sub-circuits inside the appliance. Two obvious cases are electric clothes dryers and ranges. If, for example, the low heat, 110 volt heater in a dryer were to short to the dryer case, a serious overcurrent would occur on one "leg" of the circuit. Another wiring practice, using a single 240 volt breaker to power a split circuit which uses a shared neutral, such as may be installed in kitchens in some areas, is nearly certain to have each leg of the circuit loaded independently and thus subject to single-leg overloading and subsequent breaker jamming. A breaker which jams and then fails to trip under this condition is, a serious fire hazard.

We at Walter R. Breyer Real Estate would urge all homeowners and homebuyers the same to take certain safety precautions with all circuit breakers and fuses.

Know your electrical circuit. Know which outlets and products are connected to each circuit. Never overload any electrical circuit by connecting too many products to the circuit. Be particularly careful not to connect several products that demand high current (such as heating appliances) to a low amperage circuit.

Comply with local building codes in wiring or adding electrical circuits. Make sure the wiring and devices used in the circuit are connected to a circuit breaker or fuse of the appropriate amperage. Immediately disconnect any electrical product if problems develop. Have the product examined by a competent repair person.

Investigate to determine why a fuse blows or circuit breaker trips. Do not simply replace the fuse or reset the breaker. If a fuse blows or breaker trips, it is often a warning that the circuit is overloaded. Check the circuit for causes of overloading (for example, too many appliances plugged in, a malfunctioning product, a short circuit). When in doubt, consult a licensed electrician.

Consumers who have questions concerning circuit breakers, or who wish to report information relating to their safety, may call the United States Consumer Product Safety Commission's toll free safety hotline at 1-800-638-CPSC.

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