Federal Pacific Stab-Lok circuit breakers are installed in thousands of homes in North Texas. Unfortunately, these Federal Pacific Stab-Lok circuit breakers are dangerously defective. An estimated 20 million homes nationwide still use these circuit breakers because the Consumer Product Safety Commission said there was insufficient data to support a recall. Worse yet, homeowners have not received any warning of the dangers. They do not even know they should replace these circuit breakers.
According to Bob Charvoz, chief home inspector for the American Association of Professional Inspectors in Plano, as reported to Dallas News:
“If your house was built during the ‘60s, ‘70s, or ‘80s, it probably has one of these breakers. About 90 percent of houses we see from that time have them.”
Federal Pacific Stab-Lok circuit breakers started experiencing high percentages of issues around 1980. The breakers would fail to trip which can cause them to overload and catch fire. Federal Pacific is no longer in business. However, their circuit breakers remain in millions of homes across the United States.
A circuit breaker’s job is to interrupt electrical current for overheated and overloaded circuits. This interruption helps prevent shocks and fires. More than 25 percent of Federal Pacific breakers are defective in a laboratory setting. This number is likely much higher in a real world setting. Without the interruption, wires can easily overheat and combust.
Underwriters Laboratories is a nonprofit group who sets the standards for the Federal Consumer Product Safety Commission. They’ve unofficially set the circuit breaker standards for the past 100 years. John Drengenberg, an electrical engineer at UL advises:
Companies can sell products that don’t have the UL mark, but building inspectors will not pass a new home if something like a circuit breaker doesn’t bear the seal.
The Federal Pacific circuit breakers in question did carry the UL seal. However, there are those who wonder if the breakers were properly certified. J.F. Meacham, an engineer who resigned from Federal Pacific in 1978 wrote the president of the company advising that the circuit breakers were defective.
“We found that they would only perform for approximately 1,200 operations of 3,000 required by Underwriters,” he wrote, according to documents that were part of several lawsuits related to the faulty breakers. “At this point, the contacts would become badly burned and excessive temperatures would occur.”
Meacham also made mention of cases where the Federal Pacific Stab-Lok circuit breakers “cheated” the approval process. The document suggests the use of bribes to encourage UL inspectors to allow the faulty breakers to pass inspection. Unfortunately, Drengenberg can’t comment on the allegations made more than 30 years ago. He advised the UL records did not extend that far into the past.
The Clardy home of Lake Highlands, Texas fell victim to a fire caused by a Federal Pacific Stab-Lok circuit breaker. Dallas News reports:
Karen and Floyd Clardy remember hearing a giant pop from the garage. The lights in their Lake Highlands home went out, and suddenly there were flames. They watched as fire spread from the garage to the attic and two rooms in the house, causing $160,000 worth of structural damage.
“The breaker box was shooting flames, and there were sparks,” Karen Clardy said.
Dallas Fire-Rescue determined that the fire started in the electrical panel in the garage.
It’s difficult to say how many other house fires are caused by the Federal Pacific Stab-Lok circuit breakers. While many fires originate at the circuit breaker, it’s also possible that the fire could start somewhere else in the home due to circuit breaker failure.
When tested by engineer experts in laboratory conditions the circuit breakers regularly prove to be defective. In fact, they are so problematic that a significant number of Texas home inspectors advise homeowners to replace the circuit breakers prior to purchasing a home. Unfortunately, many homes slip through the cracks. Dallas News continues:
The Clardys’ house, built in 1978, had two previous owners. After the fire, they were surprised to learn the history of the type of circuit breaker that was in their house.
“We had no idea we had a problem” Floyd Clardy said. “No one ever said, ‘Replace the breaker box. This is dangerous.’”
“If they had, we would have done it in a flash,” his wife said.
Jesse Aronstein, a New York Engineer, has been sending letters to the Consumer Product Safety Commission for several years in an effort to have a warning issued. Aronstein advises that these failures and fires could be prevented if the commission will simply update the statement they issued in 1983. Scott Wolfson, spokesman for the Consumer Product Safety Commission advised they are now working on this.
“If homeowners have been experiencing these incidents, we want them to report them to our agency,” Wolfson said. But he added, “We need to recognize that there was no final conclusion.”
The dangerous circuit breakers were manufactured starting in 1960 and used through the 1980s. Many builders across the nation used the Stab-Lok circuit breakers. A major builder in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, Fox & Jacobs, used them exclusively. This means that roughly 80 percent of homes in the area built in the 1970s use these dangerous circuit breakers.
There’s a reason why only some home inspectors advise that the Federal Pacific circuit breakers need replaced. The federal government hasn’t issued a statement that they are dangerous. Consequently, not all inspectors are aware of the risks of these faulty breakers. Those that do warn homeowners have had experience with the hazardous breakers. Most inspectors who are aware of the dangers will flag the Federal Pacific breakers during home inspections. However, it’s not mandatory that the previous or new homeowners replace the breakers prior to the close of the sale. Charvoz continues:
“There’s a good chance that things will fail later,” even if they’ve worked properly for decades, said Charvoz. “There are electricians out there who say, ‘Don’t change them, it’s OK.’ That’s something that needs to be changed.”
If your home has a Federal Pacific Stab-Lok circuit breaker we strongly recommend that you replace it as soon as possible. Not replacing the panel can cause unimaginable tragedy for our family. The Clardy family is very lucky that their fire didn’t result in any injuries or deaths. However, these types of fires occur every day. The best thing to do to prevent them is make sure that you don’t have a faulty circuit breaker in your home.