Is a Federal Pacific Stab-Lok electrical panel really dangerous?
Few brands are so notoriously well known in home inspection circles as the Federal Pacific Stab-Lok name. These electrical service panels were installed in millions of homes from the 1950s through the 1980s and their failures are well documented. If your home inspection reveals a Federal Pacific Stab-Lok panel at the property, it was likely noted as a safety hazard in the report. The following is more information on why these panels are considered so dangerous and should be replaced.
Before we get to the specific dangers of the Stab-Lok panels, a quick word about electrical panels in general. Electrical panels (sometimes called service panels, distribution panels, or just panels) serve a few purposes in your home. They split your electrical service into separate circuits, with each circuit protected by one breaker. The breakers provide over-current protection, which keeps your plugged-in devices safe from receiving too much electrical current. If too much current is present, or if a circuit gets shorted, it should automatically trip, cutting the power to the circuit. Breakers can be manually operated, as well, if needed.
The documented issues with Stab-Lok panels (the specific model sold by Federal Pacific Electric) fall into a few different categories. They can be group together as follows:
First of all, the Stab-Lok panels were installed from the 1950s through the 1980s, making the youngest models at least 30 years old. In that time, there have been numerous updates to the National Electric Code (NEC). Panels of that age often have too few circuits for a modern home and they may also not be supplied with enough amperage for a modern home (just think of all the electronics and appliances we use today that were not in frequent use during the 70s). This is a common occurrence in older homes that can be experienced by any brand of electrical panel.
Secondly, certain design “features” of the Stab-Lok panels may lead to dangerous situations. These include a depth adjustment screw for the breakers (code now requires breakers to be stationary); the dual-row alignment of breakers, where the switches face opposite directions; and the actual attachment method of the breakers to the bus bar, which is where the Stab-Loks get their name.
Finally, due to the above issues as well as failures in the actual material they are made of, the breakers may fail internally, which can cause several dangerous conditions. They may fail to trip in an over-current situation. Or they may display show that they are “OFF” when in fact they are still allowing current through, which is a serious electrocution risk for the occupants of the home and anyone trying to fix the panel. These flaws are internal, and cannot be found by merely looking at the breaker.
The issues above are why Federal Pacific Stab-Lok electrical panels and breakers have earned their bad name over the past decades. Given the long list of defects and the difficulty in diagnosing these, we recommend that every Stab-Lok service panel be replaced. Besides that, just their old age would be enough to recommend replacement in most cases. Most homeowners know that a roof needs to be replaced every few decades, and your electrical service equipment is similar.
One final word of caution we like to give homeowners: If your electrician says he can “fix” the panel, or “clean” the bus bars, or find “reconditioned” breakers or that everything in your Federal Pacific Stab-Lok panel “seems fine,”... Get a new electrician!