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WMC The Investigators: Breaker, Breaker

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Some electricians are afraid of them and some insurance policies won't cover them. Some electricians are afraid of them and some insurance policies won't cover them.
Certain breaker panels are blamed for house fires nationwide. Certain breaker panels are blamed for house fires nationwide.
MEMPHIS, TN -

(WMC-TV) - Circuit breakers and panels that are potential fire hazards remain in millions of homes nationwide, even though both government and private lab tests have confirmed the devices can be defective.

The now-defunct Federal Pacific Electric (FPE) company manufactured circuit breakers and panels from the 1950s through the 1980s. Like all circuit breakers, they are supposed to 'trip' and shut down an electrical current when they are overloaded.

Nathan Harmeier, electrician and owner of Above & Beyond Electric Co., Inc., in Bartlett/Ellendale, arranged a test with a FPE breaker panel he removed from a customer's home.

He purposely overloaded a 30-amp double-pole breaker with 43 amps of power from four space heaters. For both safety and test purposes, he also ran the power through a back-up breaker panel, designed by another manufacturer.

A half-dozen times -- after several minutes of overheating -- the back-up breaker tripped, but each time, the FPE breaker failed to trip the overloaded wire.

"Eventually, that wire is going to heat up and burn up," Harmeier said. "They're not tripping, and I wouldn't want them in my home."

Investigative reports from local news stations all over the country -- San Francisco to New York, East Texas to Orlando -- have pinned an untold number of house fires on FPE's breakers and panels, particularly its Stab-Lok breakers.

Records from the Tennessee Division of Fire Prevention revealed from 2012 through 2013, 13 house fires in Shelby County -- including Whitehaven, Shelby Forrest, Millington and Parkway Village -- started at their circuit breaker panels.

But Shelby County's fire marshal said it's virtually impossible to determine if any of those panels were FPE panels.

"Normally, it is so badly damaged that we are unable to determine what panel it actually was," said Shelby Co. Fire Marshal Jake Haley.

In the 1980s, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission conducted its own tests of FPE circuit breakers and panels. According to a report by Jesse Aronstein, an engineer who consulted with the agency, the CPSC's tests "...found that 85% of the double-pole breakers and 39% of the single-pole breakers failed one or more of the UL (Underwriters Laboratories) test criteria."

Aronstein's report determined FPE's Stab-Lok panels "...are failure-prone due to marginal interconnections between the current-carrying components. The failing interconnections overheat at high current loading, and, in the worst case, fire ignites within the panel...their defective circuit breakers remain today in millions of homes, presenting an increased risk of fire and injury."

But in a news release dated March 3, 1983, the CPSC stated it would not recommend a recall of the panels because it "...was unable at this time to link these failures to the development of a hazardous situation."

"The Commission staff estimates that it would cost several million dollars to gather the data necessary to assess fully whether those circuit breakers that are installed in homes but which may fail UL calibration tests present a risk to the public," the release read.

In 2002, a New Jersey superior court judge ruled in a civil action that "...FPE knowingly and purposefully distributed circuit breakers which were not tested to meet UL standards."

"FPE cheated on the tests that were required to obtain and maintain UL listings," said Aronstein in his report. "Virtually every FPE Stab-Lok panel installed in homes today contains circuit breakers that are seriously defective."

An attorney for FPE at the time of the litigation did not respond to either a phone message or an e-mail requesting comment.

"It is very hard to believe there were that many defective breakers found," said Shelby County Electrical Code Board Chairman Jay Weatherington, a 60-year master electrician and owner of A/C Electric Co. in Memphis.

In six decades of servicing Mid-South homes, Weatherington said he's never experienced a problem with FPE breakers or panels.

"Your breaker panel is just like your automobile," he said. "It's like anything else. You've got to do maintenance and take care of your equipment, or it will deteriorate."

Even so, Bennita Wade, a Memphis independent insurance agent, said FPE's reputation is such that some insurance companies will not cover homes that have its circuit breakers. She said insurance companies will often dispatch someone to inspect the breaker panel before writing a homeowner's insurance policy.

"This is something we do not write. We won't cover these," Wade said. "There is no amount of verification from anybody that will get you coverage on this particular breaker.

"This is something that should be paramount in every homeowner's mind."

WMC Action News 5 recommends you check your home's circuit breaker panel, especially if your home was built before 1990.

Look for Federal Pacific Electric logos or labels -- and orange-red tabs on the breaker switches.

At the very least, consider having an electrician from a licensed electrical company inspect your breaker panel. In Tennessee, electrical companies are required to have only one licensed master electrician on staff. Companies' licenses can be verified here.

In Mississippi, research licensed electricians here.

In Arkansas, research licensed electricians here.

To link to our WMC 'Breaker, Breaker' Consumer Guide, please click here.

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