FPE Electrical Panels – Two Main Problems

FPE (Federal Pacific Electric) electrical panels were manufactured and installed in homes from the 1950’s through the 1980’s. They were built by the Federal Pacific Electric Company (hence FPE). On many of these panels you will often see the “Stab-Lok” name too.

FPE Electrical Panel STAB-LOK logo
STAB-LOK logo on FPE Electrical Panel

FPE electrical panels, at least the ones with multiple breakers inside them, are generally considered unsafe and should be replaced. No panel, that I know of, has a worse reputation. There are a couple reasons for this. The first is that the breakers don’t reliably trip at the indicated amperage. The other is that the Stab-Lok feature, how the breakers get locked into the panel, is problematic.

The FPE Breaker Problem

The story I have heard about why the breakers don’t reliably trip at the indicated amperage is that the breakers that were sent to Underwriters Laboratory for testing had breakers with copper-alloy parts inside. What ended up getting produced by the company were breakers with steel-alloy parts inside. I heard this from an engineer that worked for FPE during that time. Over the years the steel-alloy parts inside can become weakened, likely from corrosion, and fail to trip the breakers when they should. So instead of a 15 amp breaker tripping at 15 amps it might trip at 20, 30, 40 amps or higher. Or, it may just not trip. This can cause overheating of the wires inside the home, which can lead to fires.

Now this condition of too many amps running through a breaker will only occur if some electrical device in the system has a problem and draws more current than it should. Or if someone added more devices to a circuit than they should have. Both conditions are rare but they lull an owner of such a panel into saying “Well, it’s been fine for 30 years. Why should I worry about it?” I actually hear people, buyers and sellers, say this. You should worry about it because someday that problematic condition may occur in your home when you’re sleeping or away on vacation. Waking up to, or coming home from vacation to a burning home would not be fun!

Over the years replacement breakers have been developed and sold for these FPE electrical panels. See photo below. I have never heard of any problems with these replacement breakers, but there’s that other problem I mentioned.

FPE (Federal Pacific Electric) replacement breakers.
Replacement breakers are on the left side and the two in the middle on the right. They’re visibly different than original breakers.

The FPE Panel Problem

The other problem with FPE electrical panels is that the STAB-LOK mechanism of connecting the breakers to the panel is problematic as well. If the breakers aren’t inserted in these panels just right the connection between the breaker and the panel is poor. A poor connection can cause arcing, arcing causes overheating, and overheating can cause a fire. So the panels are just generally bad and should be replaced. For around $1000 you can replace the panel, get on with your life, and have a safer home.

FPE (Federal Pacific Electric) electrical panel - circuit breaker connection method.
Poor breaker locking mechanism can lead to arcing, overheating, and ultimately panel-self-destruction.

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