What to know, are they safe, what should I do with them if I purchase a house with one?
First, what is the big deal? Well, the big deal is that FPE Stab-Lokpanels and circuit breakers did not meet or fully comply with Underwriters Laboratories (UL) requirements. Additionally, FPE was the subject of a class action lawsuit, in which the court ruled that “FPE knowing and purposefully distributed circuit breakers which were not tested to meet UL standards as indicated on their label. This constitutes an unlawful practice proscribed by the Act.” There were many facets to the suit and investigation, but at least part of the courts’ decision was based on FPE’s own documents and confirmed testing practices. Because FPE deceived the UL testing compliance team by hiding that their products did not meet UL guidelines, it allowed them to sell and put millions of breakers and panels in homes in the United States. The company stopped production of the circuit breakers and panels in the mid-1980’s.
What does all of that mean, technically? FPE Stab-Loc breakers are calibrated high which causes the breaker to not correctly trip in an over-current situation. English, please? Testing has shown that when current (the amount of electricity going through the circuit) is at 135% of what the breakers should normally trip at, the FPE breaker does not trip at acceptable testing levels. Testing by several independently agencies shows that the failure rate can be between 15% to 75% on both single-pole and double-pole breakers with amperage ratings of 15 amps to 100 amps. Additionally, the testing discovered that some of the breakers also jammed. One inspector likened it to putting a penny in the old fuses to by-pass the safety of the fuse. There is a design concern as well, the FPE breakers used an undersized screw and post to secure the clip to the busbar. The design is dependent not just on the undersized screws to hold them on the busbar, but also the front of the panel. Over time, the design allows the breakers to come loose and can possibly create a fire hazard.
Well, that was a bit technical (on purpose), so let’s talk in practical terms. There are millions of FPE breakers and service panels in residences around the US today. Most have not had any issues that have resulted in a fire. But, the evidence shows that as the equipment gets farther from its date of manufacture, there could be a higher probability of incident. Part of that is due to just age itself, but when combined with the failure issues of both the breakers and the service panels, it becomes a clear safety concern for any family in the residence, owner or renter.
Once you know, well……….there are a few options.
Costs for a change out
Costs can very because of the number of factors that are in play. Is the service feed underground or overhead? How many service panel penetrations are there? Does the interior wiring include a ground or not. If you are in an Excel customer area, you will be required to upgrade to a 200 amp service (but in a practical sense this is really only about $30 of extra cost to the contractor).
Overhead services will generally be more expensive because of dealing with the masthead and the soffit. The number of service panel penetrations increases the labor hours involved. Grounding may increase the cost to bring it up to code, which may involve cold water grounding and ground rod attachment as well.
Who you contract does matter. Some of the larger electrical companies may charge upwards of $6,000 - $8,000. So getting quotes and examining qualifications are vital to your budget. In general the range should be between $1,500 and $4,500. The more complicated the change, the higher the cost.
Let’s digress for a moment. When considering any potential work on your home, you should always get multiple quotes. When doing so you should also do your homework to set the criteria for your project, for the contractor, and for your decision making. Price should be at the bottom of your considerations, not that price is not important, it always is, but other things do take precedence. When considering an electrical service panel change out and upgrade, safety should be the number one concern. You should weigh all factors in your final decision, your criteria, what is the code involved, what is the quality of the solution and the quality of the company bidding on the project, does one have a wildly different solution than the others, why? Such a decision may seem overwhelming, but when thought out before you start, it can create some stability to make a good, thoughtful decision.
Seller / Owner
As a seller, owner, or rehab specialist, you may choose to keep the panel as is and sell the house as is or use the panel as a negotiating tactic. In fact, that is exactly what many rehab companies do in our experience. Partly, and unfortunately, it is strictly a financial decision. But, that is also a little short-sighted. Hypothetically, let’s say they decide to not include that in the requests for safety upgrades in the purchasing process. At a later date the unthinkable happens, in this case no one is hurt, but the fact is with such a litigious society, it really is a financial risk. If there are injuries or worse, that creates even higher stakes.
Now if this is a negotiating tactic and there is a reduction in price to allow the purchaser to make the change, then make sure that is clearly documented. Pre-close and post-close upgrades are regular aspects of sales today and both have their advantages and disadvantages.
As the purchaser, you should always have your own inspector and they should flag any FPE panel, At that point you and your broker can decide on what is the best course of action for you and your family’s needs. There are many safety items that you could take on yourself, like changing outdated fire alarms and carbon-monoxide detectors. This is a safety item that should not surprise the seller. Unfortunately that does not mean the seller is reasonable.
As a purchaser, the FPE panel is a clear safety concern. We would recommend replacing and upgrading the panel. This is where your broker will help you the most. They will give you good information about the negotiation and help you prioritize the concerns for your objections to the seller. They want you to be happy and safe, the sale should be subservient to that, always. If this sale does not work, the next one will.
Some may instead suggest just a breaker replacement with NOS (New Old Stock) breakers. Here are important reasons why that is not the best option or even a good option.
- There are no Stab-LokAFCI breakers to bring your system up to code, in fact, some electricians may not even offer it as an option
- Testing and evidence on the NOS is not available to confirm their safety
- Finally, and maybe the most compelling is that the NOS breakers do not address the busbar defects. Those defects are just as concerning, if not more concerning that is breaker defects.
Purchasing a new home is both exciting stressful, but the more you know the better chances you make the right decision for you and your family. We hope this information was helpful.
Hazardous FPE Circuit Breakers and Panels an FPE Report by J. Aronstein, Ph.D., P.E.
Look for our podcasts and video casts for maintenance items and fixes after you move in.
Till next time.