Federal Electric – later known as Federal Pacific Electric (FPE) – was a popular manufacturer of panels and breakers from the mid-1950’s until the early 1980’s. Based in New Jersey, their products were very popular throughout the county, and some communities have FPE panels in almost every home. For years, stories have circulated about the hazards and defects unique to this equipment, and the darker rumors include tales of product recalls, fraudulent manufacturing, and house fires resulting from failed breakers. Inspectors and electricians share tales of breakers falling out of panels when the deadfront is removed, or breakers failing to shut off when the handle is operated. Home inspectors need the facts so they can present their clients with accurate information on which to base a decision on accepting or replacing FPE panels.
The Problems with FPE panels can be broken down into 3 basic categories: First, there is the simple fact that the equipment is old, and manufactured to less stringent codes and standards than modern equipment. Electrical equipment is not something that improves with age or use. Second, there are problems unique to the design of the FPE Stablok breakers, problems that are not found in other equipment this age. Third, there are issues of manufacturing defects and circuit breaker failures. This last issue causes the greatest concern; what good is a circuit breaker that won’t trip when overloaded or shorted? What good is a breaker that doesn’t deenergize the circuit when the handle is tripped?
Older isn’t Better
Several of the problems found with FPE panels are found in other brands of equipment of the same age. There is less gutter space in the panel than we find in modern equipment. The result is crowding of the wires in the panels. It is sometimes impossible to see all of the terminals in an FPE panel. The space for bending wires is also less than required in modern panels. The rules that proscribe minimum wire bending space are found in the National Electrical Code (NEC) in section 312.6 in the 2002 edition. Over the years, the required mini- mum space has increased, with the most significant changes in the 1981 NEC, near the very end of the days when FPE panels were made. FPE manufactured some panels with less clearance than the minimum code rules by installing the lugs at an angle, so the conductor was already parallel to the wall opposite the breaker terminal (figure 1). However, the bends shown in figure 1 defeat the purpose of the angled lugs, and the wire is bent too sharply.
The bus bars on several of the FPE models were set on springs, with a depth adjustment that enabled the position of the breakers to be moved forward or backward. For a recessed panel, this feature allowed the breakers to be brought out flush to the deadfront cover even if the panel set too far back into the wall. The code today does not allow this, and states that bus bars must be rigidly mounted (section 408.31). Rigid mounting prevents the entire bus from moving when a single breaker handle is operated. Another problem with spring-mounted bus bars is that the breakers sometimes push against the deadfront cover, creating a danger to the inspector when they remove and put back the deadfront cover.