When this wire insulation started melting, this breaker should have tripped
There has been a lot of hype about the safety of Federal Pacific "Stab-Lok" circuit breakers and the fact that they may have inherent defects. The result of the defect has linked them to numerous electrical fires in the past. There is no supporting evidence from any government agency or regulatory authority stating that FPE panels are unsafe and should be replaced and there has never been a recall by the consumer product safety commission. If you have one of these FPE breaker panels or intend to purchase a home that has these FPE beaker panels, I suggest that you talk with your Electrician and decide what is right for you and your family.
These panels are very easy to identify. Simply look at the image above. All FPE breaker panel covers will display the FPE and/or the "Stab-Lok" logos / insignia. Some breaker handles are orange in color while others are black. Typically a knowledgeable Electrician will recommend replacing these FPE panels. A typical replacement of an FPE breaker panel will cost you approximately $1200.00.
As a Home Inspector, this information puts me in a very difficult situation when I perform a whole house Home Inspection. These FPE breaker panels do seem to "perform their intended function" when I'm performing my visual inspection. The panel does not "initiate" an unsafe condition, which leaves me in the precarious position of knowing that a latent problem may exist in an FPE breaker panel that I check off as "performing its intended function".
The following has been said about Federal Pacific Electric "Stab-Lok" panels:
Published reports of tests conducted on FPE two pole 220volt circuit breakers indicate that under certain conditions one leg/pole may attempt to trip the breaker. The result is a circuit that stays live, and a circuit breaker that has been compromised and when reset will not trip again under any excessive load. In some instances the breakers have been known to fall out when the cover is removed. Loose contacts can also cause arcing which would result in a fire. These panels appear to work perfectly during normal operation allowing electricity to flow without any problems or symptoms. The real question is, what will your panel do if it has an overload?
The Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) did conduct product testing of these FPE breakers and found that their failure rates were significant. The CPSC's advice concerning these panels is for consumers to avoid overloading circuits as well as to turn off and have examined any devices that are causing the circuit breakers to trip. (This is easier said than done and defeats the whole point for having the breaker.) Federal Pacific's statement in response to this problem is cautious in tone:"FPE breakers will trip reliably at most overload levels." The clue word here is "most". Note that they will not state "all"
It should be noted that Federal Pacific is no longer in business. Aftermarket breakers are widely available for FPE panels. Most of these panels are large and contained a lot of circuits and the cost of replacing every breaker is often more than the cost of installing a new panel.
The best solution is to replace the panel. Recently some companies have started making replacement breakers for FPE panels. In many cases these are manufactured with the same problematic design of the original, and there is no data that they are more reliable. Also, replacing the breakers does not address problems with the buss bars in FPE panels that are not as well documented as the circuit breaker problem. In closing, remember that any repair work should be performed only by a licensed Electrician.
Here are some interesting sites relating to this FPE issue...
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Just wanted to send you a note of appreciation related to our home inspection at 14 Sunset Rock. We found your approach to be thorough, with great attention to detail, along with balanced and very practical advice. We are very pleased with your work!