When you hear "Federal Pacific Electric Stab Lok" what does that mean to you? If you're like most people, it doesn't mean much. That's ok! Many people just haven't had any experience with them. Well, what does it mean to me? DANGER - potential safety hazard. Ok, so what do I mean? I'll explain.
Federal Pacific Electric (FPE) was a manufacturer here in the US that made electrical panels and breakers. These were installed in many homes from the 1950s to the 1980s. FPE made a line of breakers called "Stab Lok" that are particularly troubling to find in your home - I'll explain as we go along. FPE manufactured these breakers, which were tested and given a UL certification. (UL is a third party testing company that certifies a product when it is deemed to perform its function safely). As it turns out, UL was deceived purposefully by FPE to gain this certification and be allowed onto the market. So, these breakers were installed in many homes, not performing as they are intended to, and this was not common knowledge.
These breakers often fail at their job (to open the circuit in case of over current, short circuit, etc), and fail to mitigate the safety problem. If you somehow have a problem with your electrical system it's the breaker's job to "trip" and break the circuit. If your breaker doesn't perform as expected the circuit will continue to allow current to flow. Often times the breaker will flip because there is more current flowing than there should be (for a multitude of possible reasons), and when the breaker doesn't flip this continues to flow, creating an unsafe situation. Estimates range from between 25-60% of these breakers manufactured will not perform as expected.
Let's not forget about the panels - these can be dangerous too. FPE made 3 styles of panels, one being more dangerous than the others. These panels have been studied, and the problem is both with the design and the material used in construction (copper vs. aluminum). Please check out the reference section for a great article detailing this more.
Tens of thousands of fires have been attributed to these breakers and panels. This is a big problem! (In fact, some insurance companies won't insure a house that has them!) So, why don't we all know about this? These faulty products were placed in many homes before anyone got word that there was a problem. The Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) began an investigation into this which lasted over two years. They suspended their investigation in 1983, citing budget as the reasoning. Their press release statement at that time neither indicted FPE nor exonerated them. Since then the evidence continues to mount against FPE panels and breakers as a safety concern. No formal recall has ever been issued. The FPE company has been sold, factories sold to multiple other companies, and basically has been dissolved.
What we know currently is that a large proportion of these products don't perform as designed and expected. The trouble if you have them is that they would need to be tested to determine if they function properly. The cost to test these is generally more than the cost to replace. So, most home inspectors and electricians will just recommend replacement as soon as possible.
How can you tell if you have FPE equipment? The panels have FPE written on the front, and the breakers are a distinct red/orange on the switch. Also look for anything that says "Stab Lok". Again, check out the reference section for more information on these.
You can currently find many used FPE breakers online - knowing what you know now, would you be willing to take the risk and buy one? Yes, it's tempting to avoid the cost of replacing an entire panel, instead only replacing one breaker... But keep in mind the risk. Without rigorous testing of the entire lot of FPE breakers manufactured we don't know for sure which types are safer, if any. We only know they have been clearly implicated in a large number of fires. There are small batch tests that have been independently performed, and they all draw the conclusion that these fail more times that what is the acceptable rate. Just to be clear - I DO NOT recommend you buy a used breaker, only that you replace everything as soon as you are able to with new equipment.
It's also tempting to say "I've never had a problem, so my breakers must work just fine". Well, yeah, maybe - or there hasn't been a problem YET. A quick Google search will return stories of breakers working just fine for years, but when the panel was pulled for replacement there was obvious heat damage.
So, what should you do? First, take a quick look at your panel to determine if you have FPE equipment. Read through the resources listed below. Call if you want Justin to come take a look, or give a quote on replacement cost. PLEASE be careful when you are looking into this - if you have any questions about how to perform this safely, err on the side of caution! Also, this is a great time to mention that you should ensure you have working smoke detectors, a fire extinguisher, and a fire evacuation plan - regardless of this topic.
Best wishes to you all, and SAFETY FIRST