Angie’s List: Preventing Faulty Electric Panel Fires

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If you live in an older home that uses a Federal Pacific electric panel, you and your family may be at risk. These once highly popular panels have defective circuit breakers that can spark a fire, and millions of them are still in use.

Loose circuit breakers are just one sign of a shoddy electric panel, and Mike Inger isn’t surprised. A master electrician and electrical engineer who learned the trade as a teenager in Latvia, Inger has replaced dozens of these Federal Pacific panels over the years. The breakers can fail to trip if overloaded. Not always, but often – as much as 30 percent of the time.

“It’s like a bomb, a ticking bomb in your house. It might happen, it might not. Nobody can give you a hundred percent certainty," master electrician Michael Inger says.

Angie Hicks adds, “One company stated they replace about 300 of these panels every year. The cost of having a panel replaced can be a few hundred dollars to a few thousand dollars depending on the size of your house, but it’ll greatly reduce the risk of fire in your home."

Many people balk at the expense of replacing the panel, continuing to hope nothing goes wrong, but when they want to sell their home, they can’t take that risk anymore.

“The homeowners insurances are starting to crack down on your panels, fuses, these Stab-Lock breakers. They’re making you change those out," electrician Gregory Wells says.

Many companies won’t insure a home with these panels and some mortgage companies won’t lend on them. And if you want an electrician to change a few breakers instead of replacing the whole panel, you’ll need to find someone other than Mike Inger.

“If a homeowner actually will decline (to replace panel), then I would actually nicely decline to do the work because I know the panel is bad and I don’t want this to be on my conscience,” Inger says.

If you live in an older home that has one of these panels, Angie recommends having it checked by a licensed electrician. Federal Pacific Electric went out of business in the 1980s after a class action lawsuit that eventually determined the company committed testing fraud. Budget issues kept an investigation by the Consumer Product Safety Commission from being completed, so a national recall on the panels was never issued.