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Experts say electrical panels may be a fire waiting to happen
Karen and Floyd Clardy remember hearing a giant pop from the garage. The
lights in their
Lake Highlands home went out, and suddenly there were flames.
A contractor working on a remodeling project at Todd Holmes' house
suggested that he
replace his Federal Pacific Stab-Lok electrical panel. Holmes, father of
Sydney (left) and
Katie, agreed. 'It's going to be $2,000 or so, but we're getting it
changed to be on the safe
side,' he says. "
LOUIS DeLUCA/DMNA contractor working on a remodeling project at Todd
suggested that he replace his Federal Pacific Stab-Lok electrical panel.
Holmes, father of
Sydney (left) and Katie, agreed. 'It's going to be $2,000 or so, but
we're getting it changed to
be on the safe side,' he says.
They watched as fire spread from the garage to the attic and two rooms in
the house, causing
$160,000 worth of structural damage. "The breaker box was shooting
flames, and there were
sparks," Karen Clardy said.
Denton engineer Mark Goodson, whose firm investigates for insurance
the Clardys' insurer, says he's seen fires caused by Federal Pacific
breakers. Dallas Fire-
Rescue determined that the fire in March started in the electrical panel
in the garage. The
Clardys' home was equipped with a Federal Pacific Stab-Lok, a type of
circuit breaker in
thousands of North Texas homes that is now widely thought by engineers,
house inspectors to be defective – and dangerous.
Experts first began saying in 1980 that a high percentage of the circuit
breakers failed to trip.
After testing the devices for about two years, the Consumer Product
Safety Commission said
the government lacked sufficient data to warrant a recall. No warning was
But in recent years, engineers studying them independently have found
that the circuit
breakers can overload and cause fires. Many have been replaced in the
decades since they
were manufactured, but one expert estimates they are still used in 20
"They're everywhere," said Bob Charvoz, chief home inspector for the
American Association of
Professional Inspectors in Plano.
"If your house was built during the '60s, '70s or '80s, it probably has
one of these breakers.
About 90 percent of houses we see from that time have them."
New York engineer Jesse Aronstein said he has been writing to the
Consumer Product Safety
Commission for six years, urging that a clear warning be issued.
Aronstein met with the
commission most recently in February, saying that fires could be
prevented if the commission
would update its 1983 statement. The commission now says it is working on
a way to make
its stance clearer, spokesman Scott Wolfson said.
"If homeowners have been experiencing these incidents, we want them to
report them to our
agency," Wolfson said. But he added, "We need to recognize that there was
Federal Pacific is no longer in business.
Although the suspect breakers were used in homes constructed by many
builders, Fox &
Jacobs installed them exclusively in the Southwest up until the mid- to
late 1960s, according
to a spokeswoman from Pulte Homes, which now owns the company. Fox &
accounted for about 80 percent of homes built in the Dallas-Fort Worth
area during most of the
No one can say how many house fires can be traced back to faults the
experts see in the
boxes, although fire departments and insurance inspectors say they
regularly see fires start
there, or start elsewhere in a home because a circuit breaker fails to do
Several engineering experts who have tested the boxes under laboratory
found them to be defective. Potential problems with the Federal Pacific
circuit breakers are
such that many Texas home inspectors regularly advise home buyers to
remove them before
But not always. The Clardys' house, built in 1978, had two previous
owners. After the fire,
they were surprised to learn the history of the type of circuit breaker
that was in their house.
"We had no idea we had a problem" Floyd Clardy said. "No one ever said,
breaker box. This is dangerous.' "
"If they had, we
would have done it in a flash," his wife said.
The suspect Stab-Lok circuit breakers were manufactured beginning in 1960
and used through
the 1980s by Federal Pacific Electric. Most – but not all – were
installed in closets.
The standards set for breakers can be compared to those for automobile
Brakes should be able to stop a car within a set distance; circuit
breakers should interrupt
the electrical current when circuits become overloaded and overheated.
This can prevent
hazards such as overheating and shocks and at worst a fire.
Aronstein said his two decades of testing showed that more than 25
percent of Federal
Pacific circuit breakers are defective in lab settings. The rate could be
higher in non-lab
settings, engineers say.
Denton engineer Mark Goodson's consulting firm investigates fires for
including the company that insured the Clardys.
"I think they're dangerous," Goodson said. "They don't timely trip. I've
seen fires caused by
these breakers. I've seen wires overheat where a Federal Pacific breaker
did not trip. If left
unchecked the wires can combust and spread to cardboard, paper,
For more than 100 years, standards for circuit breakers has been
unofficially set by
Underwriters Laboratories, a nonprofit groups that tests appliances and
sets standards used
by the federal Consumer Product Safety Commission.
UL electrical engineer John Drengenberg said companies can sell products
that don't have the
UL mark, but building inspectors will not pass a new home if something
like a circuit breaker
doesn't bear the seal.
The Federal Pacific circuit breakers carried the UL seal, but there have
long been questions
about whether some or all were properly certified.
A Federal Pacific engineer who resigned in 1978 later wrote the company
president with his
claim that internal testing found certain breakers defective. "We
found that they would only
perform for approximately 1,200 operations of 3,000 required by
Underwriters," he wrote,
according to documents that were part of several lawsuits related to the
faulty breakers. "At
this point, the contacts would become badly burned and excessive
The engineer, J.F. Meacham, cited several other cases where circuit
breakers were "cheated"
through the Underwriters Laboratories approval process, and he alleged
that UL inspectors
were paid to "turn their heads," the document says.
The engineer wrote that the cheating would hurt the company, but no
mention was made of
possible safety consequences. "I think you know me well enough to know
that I could not
turn my back or take part in what I have described in this letter, so I
left," he wrote.
Drengenberg said UL couldn't comment on the 32-year-old allegations
because records do
not extend that far back. .
If an inspector has heard of the potential hazards of a Federal Pacific
circuit breaker, it's
through experience, Charvoz said, not through the federal government.
"There's a good
chance that things will fail later," even if they've worked properly for
decades, said Charvoz.
"There are electricians out there who say, 'Don't change them, it's OK.'
That's something that
needs to be changed." Dallas electricians and home inspectors
almost always flag Federal
Pacific breakers during inspections because they might be dangerous, home
Whether people decide to replace the breakers is an issue for the home
buyer and seller to
determine; it's not mandatory. Todd Holmes, a father of two, was
remodeling his bathroom
when the contractor redoing his electrical system suggested he replace
his Federal Pacific
electrical box, including the breaker.
"It's going to be $2,000 or so, but we're getting it changed to be on the
safe side," Holmes
said. "It's the smartest thing to do."
/ The Dallas Morning News