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Hazardous electric panels

Federal Pacific Panel

The most notorious electric panel is the Federal Pacific Electric Stab-Lok panel, also known as an FPE panel, Federal Pacific panel, or Stab-Lok. All Stab-Lok panels were made by Federal Pacific Electric, and most panels I've found made by Federal Pacific are the Stab-Lok type. In other words, you can usually use these terms interchangeably.

I recommend the proactive replacement of FPE Stab-Lok panels, whether the panel has previously caused a house to start on fire or not. Here's why:

  • Federal Pacific Electric (FPE) sold millions of panels between the 1950s and 1980s.
  • Testing by the Consumer Product Safety Commission has shown these breakers to have an unacceptably high rate of failure, which creates a safety hazard.
  • Testing has proven that virtually every panel installed in the United States contains defective breakers.
  • FPE committed fraud by falsifying their UL testing, making their UL listing void.
  • If a breaker fails to trip when it should, the wires in the home that are supposed to be protected can start on fire.

So why don't we recommend having an electrician evaluate the panel?  There's no point. There is nothing that an electrician can do or say to make an FPE Stab-Lok panel safe. Some electricians are under the impression that FPE panels are safe if they can turn every breaker on and off, if every breaker is tightly attached, and if there is no evidence of overheating or scorching in the panel. These things would be dead giveaways that there is a problem, but to truly know if the breaker would trip when it needs to, each breaker would need to actually be tested. This testing would be more expensive than having the entire panel replaced.

What does it cost to replace a panel? Replacing an old, unsafe electrical panel is not a huge investment. In most cases, the total cost for this project is less than $1,500. Not only does this eliminate the hazards associated with this panel, but all newer panels have the option to have Arc-Fault Circuit Interrupters (AFCIs) installed, for added fire safety. AFCI devices are not available for older Stab-Lok panels.

What about condo buildings? We have a ton of condo buildings throughout the Twin Cities where every unit was constructed with an FPE Stab-Lok panel. Should you be worried about buying a condo in one of these buildings? I don't think there's any cause for concern. My advice is to have the panel replaced in your own unit, and consider bringing up the issue to the association. I've heard of associations here in the Twin Cities where FPE panels have been replaced in every unit of the building for a significantly reduced rate.

The bottom line is that hazards associated with FPE panels are a known issue throughout the electrical, insurance, and home inspection communities. To read more about FPE Stab-Lok panels, check these links:

For more information about Federal Pacific Electric panels, check out any of the news clips below:

Author: Reuben SaltzmanStructure Tech Home Inspections

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Smoke Alarm Standards—ahead of schedule

This blog post was written by Seattle home inspector Charles Buell and was originally posted on his website on 1/17/2020.

The UL 217 standard for home smoke alarms has not changed very much since it started in 1976. The most recent adjustment (and significant adjustment) to this standard was published in 2015 and again on January 2, 2020. All smoke alarms manufactured after June 1st, 2021 will be required to meet this standard. They will be more responsive to multiple types of fire scenarios and help reduce some of the shortcomings of current alarms.

While this post started out as an announcement of the adoption of the new standard and the availability of new life-saving technology, it turned out to be a bit more complicated as manufacturers seem to have dragged their feet in ways that have repeatedly put off implementation of the standard.

The move to improving the function of smoke alarms started with the 2015 UL 217, 8th Edition, but only one manufacturer has been approved under the new standard. There was also the problem of UL having to build a whole new facility to do the testing in. The new UL 217 is Edition 9 and may cause yet another push out of the effective date as manufacturers scramble to comply with Edition 9. Kidde’s UL 217, 8th Edition approved model will now have to be retested to make sure it complies with Edition 9 that just came out.

Note from Reuben: the new smoke alarm that complies with UL 217 8th Edition is the TruSense made by Kidde. The manufacturer says it has a new 'optical' sensor, but I've been told by industry insiders that this is simply a fancy term for multiple photoelectric sensors.

So what has the new standard made better?

Nuisance tripping related to cooking has been addressed, and they are now more sensitive to smoldering types of fires related to synthetic materials in modern homes.

The new technology will also allow for Combination Smoke/CO Alarms—something that was problematic with old technology alarms.

Does the confusion or apparent foot-dragging really matter?

Well of course it matters, and the fact that it is taking so long to get available technology in place is nothing but a shame.

For the home inspector, this amounts to quite a dilemma, because I am sure there will be builders installing the old technology alarms on May 28th, 2021. With a 10 year life, the house will not likely see the new technology until 2031.  Considering the technology has been available since 2015, and some alarms that complied with this standard since 2019, that amounts to several years of preventable deaths.

Note from Reuben: not only that, but the existing inventory of old smoke alarms can still be sold and installed. The old smoke alarms will be around for a long time after the new standard takes effect.

While it will be some time before current stocks are sold, I personally do not recommend purchasing anything that does not have the new listing. I will do my part to make sure none of the old technology alarms leave the stores. I love tilting at windmills.

If new technology alarms cannot be found, the best practice is to use photoelectric type alarms which approach 95% as good as the new technology. This is what the new ones are basically anyway.

The Kidde TruSense alarms can be found in home improvement stores and online. The packaging will carry a label that looks something like the one below.

While these alarms do not likely meet UL 217 9th Edition, they do at least meet UL 217, 8th Edition and are a better choice than old technology ionization alarms that are currently available. Another conundrum, in some states you can buy older alarms but cannot legally install them.

For me, I will be recommending replacement/installation (even at the current date) of any alarm that is not the new technology—other than photoelectric type alarms. I will not be waiting until the arbitrary date of June 1st, 2021 when conditions somehow mysteriously and magically get worse. The physics do not change. 

We have the technology now, let’s make our homes safer now—ahead of schedule.

Charles Buell, Real Estate Inspections in Seattle

One more note from Reuben: here at Structure Tech, we'll be making the same recommendation. Either upgrade to photoelectric smoke alarms or TruSense smoke alarms. 

Related links: Which Smoke Alarm to Buy, and Podcast: Don't call them smoke detectors!