FPE Panels--Hazard or Hype

I have had the privilege of meeting and talking with Douglas Hansen and Mike Casey at several conventions in the early 2000s of the California Real Estate Inspection Association. In my opinion, their knowledge of all things electrical is unparalleled.

In going through all my computer files related to home inspections, 15 years worth, I found this paper by Doug. In reading it twice this evening, and following its sources and references, I do believe it is the most balanced discussion of FPE panels that I have read and a worthwhile addition to the home inspector’s library, not to mention a great document to share with Clients when an FPE Stab-Lok panel is found.

Just sharing. I won’t be involved in any discussion. Been there, done that.

The file is too large to upload to the message board, so go to this link to access it:
http://www.housekeynews.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/06/FPE2003DouglasHansen.pdf

Well , from a discussion early on this MB it went back and forth . It is a problem for Home inspectors for sure . I changed my Narratives with all the links on both sides of the coin . With a additional statement due to the uncertainty and typical age it is recommended to have the panel serviced and reviewed by a licensed electrician ( which will Likely recommend a upgrade ) BTW i just had a client call and said the assessor said it had to be changed . Customer was a little miffed , after a call we agree he needed to call a electrician and was happy . The problem is the issues are out there , Misinformation perhaps , but it is going to put the inspector in a spot yes . I have more say it is a problem (electricians ) compared to one ( electrical engineer ) BTW he was also the listing agent saying it isn’t a problem . Thanks Russel for the info

That could have been said for most panels.

No kidding.

Russel is just another crusader relying on oft repeated info.

Thanks Russel, that is good article.

I’m going to weigh in just once, and then I have work to do.

I found this part of the document on the last page very telling:

“I personally was not a believer until I witnessed a multiple failure of FPE breakers in a dead short. The branch circuit breaker, the feeder to the subpanel, and the main breaker all failed to open while a dead short carrying thousands of amps ran through the breakers. Those of us conducting the experiment heard a violent shaking that nearly tore the panel out of the wall, and the service wires whipped in the air from the magnetic fields created by the high currents going through the breakers. That experience was convincing. I continue to hear stories from the field, and Dan Friedman is always adding new ones to the web site.”

Hansen describes many problems that I also have had with this specific brand of electric panel, problems that I have never had with any other type of panel. Problems such as

  • the dead front cover not coming off, usually because of a 2-pole breaker with a large tie on it but also because of the way the panel was designed (see top of column 2, page 3);
  • accidentally shutting breakers off when removing the dead front cover (see top of column 2, page 3);
  • breakers “jumping out” at you (top of column 1, page 5). This happened to me at three different inspections early in my home inspection career. After the third time, I quit removing dead front covers for FPE Stab-Lok panels and summarily recommended that a licensed electrician inspect the panel;
  • scorching (see bottom of second column, page 3)—I have accompanied over a hundred electricians who were inspecting Stab-Lok panels that I had noted, and they always found scorched breakers. Arcing is never good (which is why AFCI’s were invented) but probably even worse in an electric panel.

Here’s the latest biographical information on Douglas Hansen for those who don’t know who he is: http://www.codecheck.com/cc/DouglasHansen.html

Okay, that’s it. Y’all continue this amazing fight while I go make money.

After my previous post, I thought I would email Douglas Hansen to see what he had to say since the document is 13 years old and his book is about 10 years old. It didn’t take long to get a reply:

Russel,
Thank you for your years of service. This information is very valuable to the entire industry. If you don’t mind, I would like for you to share with us your narrative on this product.

Best regards,

Since I’m not a home inspector, I don’t have a narrative…LOL.
However, when I was a home inspector, this was my narrative:
A Federal Pacific Electric “Stab-Lok” service panel was present. FPE circuit breakers may fail to trip in response to an overcurrent or a short circuit. A circuit breaker that may not trip does not afford the protection that is intended and required, creating a fire hazard. Simply replacing the circuit breakers might not be a reliable repair. A common “defense” of the electric panel is that “it’s always been there and hasn’t caused any problems.” Electric panels in and of themselves typically do not “cause any problems.” It is the electric components or appliances that typically cause problems, e.g., a short in an appliance, an electric outlet, or a light switch. Electric panels and circuit breakers are designed to prevent personal injury and property damage in the event of a short (or other problem) by shutting down the electric current to the faulty appliances or electrical components. The fact that there “have not been any problems” simply means that the electric wiring, switches, and outlets; and the appliances using the wiring, switches, and outlets, have not had any problems. There appears to be no official recall on these panels, mainly because the companies that made these panels are out of business. Due to the problems associated with Federal Pacific Electric panels and inadequate clearance between breakers and edges of covers (removing covers can dislodge circuit breakers and/or all circuits might need to be shut off), I do not remove covers; type of power cable and/or main wiring was unknown; type of branch wiring was unknown; adequacy of grounding system was unknown; and condition of wiring and any specific wiring problems was unknown. For additional helpful information about Federal Pacific electric panels, click here, click here, click here, and click here. This electric panel might be at the end of its useful life. Standards generally recognize the life expectancy of electric panels to be about 25 years. With older panels, contact points become corroded, possibly causing arcing, brownouts, and, at worst case, fires, personal injury, and property damage. I do not remove any circuit breakers to inspect for corrosion at the circuit breaker contact points since that would require shutting off electric service to remove the circuit breakers. Note that home inspectors are not licensed as electricians in the State of California. Recommend further evaluation by a licensed electrician before close of escrow.

If I were still a home inspector, I would put Douglas Hansen’s article on my web site and also reference it, as well as a link to Hansen’s biography over at Code Check. I find it to be a balanced discussion, and I can think of no better authority to discuss the pros and cons of FPE.

FIFY,

Any breaker can fail to trip.

Your old narrative continues to point out that you could not figure out how to get a smaller opening over a larger object. Doesn’t say much for problem solving skills. Since that design issue does not happen with other brands of panels might explain why you only had that issue with FPE.

Jim,
Home inspectors are constantly under a barrage of scrutiny. Russel has done what he felt was right. If you would like to create a website for the world to read saying that FPE stab-lok panels are safe, then feel free. I’m sure there will be plenty of soft home inspectors that will reference that site.

Respectfully,

When my assets are involved, my problem solving skills involve going to my insurance carrier, attorneys, and other experts. And in a litigious state like California, and in an industry that has no licensing or regulations, I freely gave lots of money to my insurance companies and attorneys to protect my assets.

Your last sentence is key: “Since that design issue does not happen with other brands of panels might explain why you only had that issue with FPE.” Uh, der. Thanks for continuing to point that out since it only happens with the FPE design. Uh, der, again.

I was just planning on letting this thread run its course, but alas, someone said something that struck a nerve.

Mr. Port is far more qualified than Mr. Ray on this matter.

I have the utmost respect for Doug Hansen as well, but on this matter we do not see eye to eye.

For you to imply that this disagreement means I am a “soft” inspector, well, simply means you lack the experience necessary to make an informed decision on your own.

So you’re a “hard” inspector because you agree with Russel? Please, tell me more…

^^^LOL

Just as an aside, I’m 61. My dad, three uncles, and grandfather were all licensed electricians in Texas. I’ve been working with electricity since I was 12. My avocations for the past 40 years have included research and law. With that, I’ll just leave the rest of Jeff’s (I can’t be condescending enough to call him “Mr. Pope”) comment alone.

Jeff,
We all know where you stand on this panel/breakers. Anyone who has been here 5 minutes knows that.

As far as Mr Port goes, he is an experienced electrician, not a home inspector with his assets on the line like you, me, or previously Russel. People are only too happy to trash home inspectors for cosmetic damage. So when a known threat is found, I have no problem communicating it to my clients. So no offense, but Mr. Port’s words on this subject are hollow. Again, if he wants to defend this panel, feel free to create a website for anyone to reference.

Below is what I base my recommendations on:

  1. http://www.nbcbayarea.com/news/local/Federal-Pacific-Circuit-Breakers-Investigation-Finds-Decades-of-Danger-171406921.html
  2. http://www.nbcdfw.com/investigations/Experts-Warn-of-Fire-Danger-With-Certain-Boxes-117060393.html
  3. http://www.codecheck.com/cc/ccimages/PDFs/FPE_2012.pdf
  4. http://www.ismypanelsafe.com/files/FPECircuitBreakerHazards070525.pdf

One of the reasons why I always wanted licensing for home inspectors in California (and every state, really) is because as it stands right now, an 18-year-old who just passed his exam to become a licensed electrician is considered to be much more knowledgeable about electricity than someone like me who has been working with electricity for 49 years, including as a general contractor for 14 years in Texas. So if Jeff and Douglas meet in the courtroom, I’m going to go with Douglas on this subject, and I’m 99.9% certain the State of California and any judge and jury in California would, too.

My father and his brothers worked for SCE from the time I was born until in my early teens. I stuck a fork into a receptacle when I was 6 :roll: What does that have to do with the price of beans?

If you don’t know at this point in your lifetime, then nothing I can say will help you. Sorry…