Home Inspection Story About Federal Pacific Electrical Panels
It was just another home inspection, or so I thought, when I walked up on this electrical panel as I have for so many years. I knew the panel brand, which is Federal Pacific or FPE, had a history so I always approached this brand of panel with a little more respect than the other brands that are common to our area near Petaluma, CA. Despite my healthy respect and awareness of the possibilities I didn’t expect to happen what did happen on this day. It provided me with a little more excitement than I would like to experience when doing a home inspection.
The first safety tip you learn in inspection school when removing the cover from an electrical panel is to touch the outer cover with the back of your hand. In the event that the panel is energized it will push your hand away and possibly save your life. When you grab a “hot” panel cover your fingers may lock around the cover and keep the current flowing through your heart long enough to do real damage or stop it all together. With my understanding of the history with this brand I was careful to test the panel prior to removing the screws and thankfully all went well with the removal process. As I began to inspect the wiring, breakers, busses and other components of the electrical panel I was pleasantly surprised to not observe any overheated conditions (melted wire insulation, discolorations, ect). After giving the panel a thorough once over I began to fasten the cover back on the enclosure. All went well until it was time to put the final screw in the panel at the lower left corner (funny how after this many years I remember the exact location of the screw ) . Upon turning that screw a few times I heard a loud “pop”, saw a few bolts of light cross my face and observed smoke coming from the panel. In shock, I dropped my screw driver and jumped back away from the panel. Within seconds, smoke began pouring out of the panel and sparks continued to fly. It wasn’t injured (good news so far) but I knew I need to disconnect the service or an even bigger fire was sure to ensue. I was torn because I didn’t want to touch the breaker for fear that I might join the party (so to speak) but I knew I couldn’t just watch it go on. So I held my breath, kinda half closed one eye, shot a very direct prayer, reached for the breaker with my left hand and pulled it down. Now, the fact that I am writing the article so many years later may give you some indication that the worst didn’t happen. The fact that I escaped any injury at all in this circumstance was miracle in itself.
The purpose of sharing this event from my home inspector career is to personalize the remarks that I am going to share about Federal Pacific Electrical Panels. This encounter was not my only encounter with these panels that went awry. I won’t bore you with the details of those experiences in this article but I do want to elaborate on some of the research that has been conducted on these panels and why they are generally considered a hazard and how difficult it is to inspect them properly. There are essentially three categories of concerns with FPE panels. The concerns are:
(1) The panels are older and built to lesser standards than modern panels ( for brevity I will not elaborate on this topic beyond this statement)
(2) The panels were poorly engineered with many unique problems not found in other panels
(3) Many of the breakers are defective and should never have been allowed on the market
Without getting too technical here, the FPE panel design is inferior at its most critical juncture, the connection between the breaker and the bus (these are metal tabs behind the breaker).
It is important to note that this connection cannot be inspected with the breaker inserted into the panel and it is considered beyond the scope of a home inspection to inspect these connections which would require removing the breaker from the panel. For this reason, I always recommend having the panel inspected by a licensed electrician.
The design flaw in these components leaves very little surface area for good contact. This minimal contact area creates higher resistance. High resistance in electrical components generate heat and heat breaks down metal which deteriorates the surface further and creates even more resistance. This condition is worsened when more electrical flow is occurring and the condition will decline with age. The design of these components in the FPE panel are unique to the brand so the issue is mostly confined to the design as other brands without this design are not known for this problem.
Substandard Circuit Breakers
One of the surprises that I am came across when researching this article is that it seemed to be common knowledge in the industry the the Federal Pacific Company deceived regulators during the process of getting UL listings for their breakers. This is certainly one explanation for why these panels were approved and never recalled and yet have performed so poorly for many decades. The primary charge against the breakers are that they will not trip when under excessive load. The purpose of the breaker is to shut off the electricity when too much current is flowing. Every electrical wire has a rating as to how much current it can safely carry before it will melt, overheat, and possibly start a fire. In essence, the breaker,when working properly, prevents house fires. Conversely, when the breaker fails, it increases the risk of a house fire. The breakers used by the FPE panel have springs and metal contact points that are too light in design and when placed under heavy load will bend preventing the breaker from disconnecting the current. These inferior metals are also known to wear over time from use which is contrary to many recommendations to operate the breaker handles periodically to prevent “sticking”.
Now that I have presented the case for why the panels are a concern and need to be addressed during the home inspection it is time to answer the question of what should be done when a panel is disclosed as part of the home inspection. First and foremost, I recommend that you do your own research and hire a licensed electrician to fully inspect the panel. This is a bare minimum requirement for this brand with its sorted history. Another reasonable approach is to replace the panel. By replacing the panel you are eliminating the concern altogether and improving the value and safety of the home. There are many benefits to replacement which include increasing the electrical service or capacity of the home. You will likely have more breaker slots so you add that extra circuit for the air conditioning, hot tub, pool, or brand new kitchen. It is important to keep in mind that a licensed electrician may have other recommendations than the two I have presented and they may be good recommendations based on the individual circumstances for that home.
Steve Ramos Certified Home Inspector
Steve Ramos is a Petaluma Home Inspector and is Certified by InterNachi. In addition to being a Petaluma Home Inspector Steve is a Mold Inspector and Building Science Thermographer. He has over 10 years of home inspection field experience. Steve has a very diverse and well rounded background. His reports are detailed, accurate, and timely. Steve has been featured on over 104 episodes of HGTV’s House Detective. He offers his services in all nine Bay Area counties including: Santa Rosa, Petaluma, Novato, San Rafael, Napa, Sausalito, San Francisco, Walnut Creek, San Ramon, Rohnert Park, Cotati, Bodega Bay, and Cloverdale.
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