Stab-Lok Circuit Breakers: What You Should Know

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Make sure that you know how your circuit breaker works.
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If you have an older home, your electric panel may have been manufactured by Federal Pacific Electric, Federal Electric, Federal Pioneer or one of a number of related companies that produced Stab-Lok circuit breakers, and if so, it's a matter of some urgency that you replace your panel. Stab-Lok breakers have been identified as being hazardous because they don't always work as intended, and when they malfunction, circuit wires can overheat and start a fire.

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These breakers were installed in millions of homes, and a study reported by the ​Washington Post​ found evidence to suggest they have been responsible for 2,800 fires, 13 deaths and $40 million in property damages every year. You should act before your home becomes another statistic.

Circuit Breakers That Don't Trip

The main electrical panel in a building is the interface between the power grid and all the electrical circuits in the building, and each circuit is required by code to pass through a circuit breaker in the panel. It's a safety device that trips, or shuts off, automatically the instant the current passing through it exceeds its preset current rating. This prevents a current surge from passing through the wires, overheating them and starting a fire.

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The problem with Stab-Lok breakers is that they don't always trip. Although they may function normally nine times out of 10, the odds of failure aren't negligible, and that's unacceptable when it comes to the safety of your home and family.

Stab-Lok breakers do not comply with Underwriter's Laboratory (UL) standards. A 1983 investigation by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission into whether Stab-Lok breakers constituted a risk to the public was inconclusive, but that's only because the CPSC admitted that it lacked the budget to study the matter in detail. In 2005, a New Jersey court ruled against Federal Pacific in a class-action lawsuit, finding that it fraudulently marketed Stab-Lok breakers knowing that they did not meet UL standards.

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Identifying Stab-Lok Breakers

Your home is most likely to have Stab-Lok breakers if it was built when Federal Pacific Electric was manufacturing electrical panels. If you see a label with the name Federal Pacific Electric (FPE), Federal Electric (FE) or Federal Pioneer (in Canada) on the panel, and it's a breaker panel — not a fuse box — it has Stab-Lok breakers. They have red stripes on the toggle faces. You may also see a label that says Stab-Lok or the labels of companies affiliated with FPE, such as Challenger Electric, American Circuit Breaker Company (ACBC), Connecticut Electric, Electrical-Mechanical Industries, Inc. (EMI) or Federal NOARK.

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Replacing Stab-Lok Breakers

If you have a Stab-Lok panel and one of the breakers is faulty, you can replace it either with a reconditioned FPE breaker or a third-party substitute. Reconditioned and third-party Stab-Lok breakers contain upgraded components that meet all contemporary safety requirements. Even though Federal Pacific panels haven't been outlawed, the fact that electricians are almost unanimous in recommending that they be replaced is cause for concern. Replacing a panel is work that must be completed by a licensed electrician, and it can be costly, but given that FPE panels are a fire risk, it's money well spent for the safety of your home and family.

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Chris Deziel is a contractor, builder and general fix-it pro who has been active in the construction trades for 40 years. He has degrees in science and humanities and years of teaching experience. An avid craftsman and musician, Deziel began writing on home improvement topics in 2010. He worked as an expert consultant with eHow Now and Pro Referral -- a Home Depot site. A DIYer by nature, Deziel regularly shares tips and tricks for a better home and garden at Hunker.com.

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