Faulty Circuit Breakers in Thousands of Homes Could Cause Fire

Federal Pacific Electric breakers, mostly found in homes built before 1990, sometimes don’t trip.

By Chris Glorioso and Tom Burke of WNBC Channel 4, New York
Originally broadcast Thursday, May 10, 2012.

Video courtesy of WNBC Channel 4, New York .

Circuit breakers are designed to keep you and your family safe from fire, but one brand of breaker might not only fail to protect your family — it could actually cause a fire.

The breakers in question, mostly found in homes built before 1990, were made by a now-defunct company called Federal Pacific Electric, and there are scores of those breakers still in homes today.

If you are unsure as to the age of your electric service or panel, please set up a service call request with us at Brubaker Inc. at 717.299.5641 or email us.

A circuit breaker is designed to trip during an overload or short circuit, thereby cutting off the flow of electricity and preventing a fire.  But if the breaker doesn’t trip, the increasing current can cause the wires to overheat, and even ignite. Sometimes, Federal Pacific Electric breakers fail to trip.

Firefighters around the country as well as home inspectors and even some insurance companies are aware of problems with Federal Pacific Electric breakers.  Some insurance companies are refusing to cover homes that have the breakers.

Engineer Jesse Aronstein has been studying the breakers for decades.  He has testified in lawsuits against the company and published reports about the failures. According to his research, Federal Pacific Electric breakers may be associated with as many as 2,800 electrical fires each year in the U.S.

“People should know that these have a high defect rate and should be advised to have them replaced… they were applying UL labels to products that did not meet the UL requirement,” said Aronstein.

Aronstein said Federal Pacific Electric cheated on testing and inspections decades ago to achieve approval from Underwriters Laboratories, a nonprofit product safety testing and certification organization.  Nearly every item using or carrying electricity sold in the United States is tested and verified by UL.

According to Aronstein, representatives of Federal Pacific Electric would use a remote control to “trip” the breaker if it didn’t trip properly during UL testing.

A 1982 Security and Exchange Commission filing by a company that purchased Federal Pacific Electric reads, “UL listings on circuit breakers made by Federal Pacific had previously been obtained through the use of deceptive and improper practices.”

The company and UL ultimately removed the UL listing for the breakers, but not before millions had been sold from the 1950s to the 1980s.

Not every Federal Pacific Electric breaker will fail to trip if overloaded and, after the company was bought in the early 1980s, the breakers were modified and did legitimately pass UL inspection.

According to Aronstein, the safer, working breakers are marked with a white dot on the on/off toggle switch.  He also suggested that anyone with a Federal Pacific Electric breaker contact an electrician to determine if it should be replaced.

Federal Pacific Electric is no longer in business and was ultimately divested by the company that purchased it.  It exists now only as a legal entity.

If you are unsure as to what brand of electric panel or breakers that you might have, or if you know that you have Federal Pacific in your system, please set up a service call request with us at Brubaker Inc. at 717.299.5641 or email us.

See more on electric panel safety here.

See the original WNBC Channel 4 article and video in its entirety here.