Is Your Circuit Breaker Panel Safe?
The electrical panel is the heart AND brain of the home’s electrical system and, as such, if the panel doesn’t work properly, the home’s entire electrical system could fail. Any circuit breaker panel can develop problems due to age, or have known issues related to brand. There are two older brands of panels that have major manufacturing flaws, which can place homeowners at great risk: Zinsco (also listed as Sylvania) and Federal Pacific Electric (FPE) . We discuss the issues and potential damage that is associated with each brand, in turn, below.
Zinsco Electrical Panel
Most people would not know what a Zinsco electrical panel is today because they’re obsolete. However, up until the mid to later 1970s, it was commonly installed in new homes across Southern California and the entire United States. Although it worked well for some time, production of the panel was stopped when home inspectors and electricians discovered some major design flaws. Specifically, the breakers in these panels were known to fail while still conducting power and many homeowners were left with the fear of potential electrical fires or frequent electrical shocks. Breakers are required to trip, or shut off in the event of an overloaded circuit or a dead short. An overload occurs when appliances are drawing more amperage than the breaker is listed for. A dead short is when a live, or “hot” wire touches a grounded conductor or grounded appliance. The breaker should trip. Zinsco breakers failed to trip repeatedly and have actually ignited. There are You Tube videos showing Zinsco breakers catching fire when placed on a load. To watch, click here.
Advancements in technology have resulted in new electronic devices and appliances which required an increase in usage of electricity. Zinsco panels are known to not handle this subsequent increase and eventually began to overheat, with sections of the panel actually melting when breakers do not trip.
To summarize how the panel could malfunction: An overloaded breaker could melt into the bus bar of the panel, because the breaker has failed to trip when there was a surge of excess electricity or a short occurred . Unless there’s a “main” breaker in the panel, and seldom was the case, the current could not be turned off at this point, manually or otherwise, and the excess electricity would continue to flow through wires and power outlets. The electricity could then burn wires and the switchboards. Ultimately, the panel, the breaker, or even branch wiring within the home could catch fire and cause serious damages to the house and its occupants.
Federal Pacific Electric Panel
If your circuit breaker panel is a Federal Pacific Electric panel, then you’re better situated but remain with some risks regarding the breakers. This panel was the most common one used in the United States during the 1950s through 1980s. Similar to the Zinsco panel we discussed above, it’s breakers failed to protect homes and families from electrical problems. These panels & circuit breakers can work properly for several years but, with just one short circuit, could overheat, and turn into a major fire hazard with zero notice.
The overheating can damage the panel, which can cause the breakers to stop tripping when there is a surge of electrical current. When that occurs, without the presence of a “main” breaker, it becomes difficult or even impossible to shut it off manually, which can lead to an electrical fire. The wires can heat up & melt the insulation, and the panel may become a potential hazard. Furthermore, detecting the problem with the Federal Pacific Electric panel before it is too late is difficult – it will show no signs of technical problems until it starts sizzling or burning. A thorough inspection would require breakers be removed to inspect the buss bar in the panel. Anyone using a Zinsco or FPE panel should have an inspection performed by a licensed electrician ASAP.
The Damage Caused By These Panels
Electricians consistently warn homeowners that these types of panels have numerous risks associated with them. However, issues with both the Zinsco electrical panel and Federal Pacific Panel cannot be visually checked without removing circuit breakers. If the breaker and bus bar merge due to a high temperature, it will be too late to do anything but replace the entire panel. Panel replacement is highly recommended before any issues ever arise.
To avoid this, you should call in a professional, licensed electrician who can ensure this does not happen. Not only will they be able to detect the problem before it becomes serious, they will also do a thorough job to eliminate future risks. We are the only electrician in San Diego that specializes in older homes and our electricians cover most of San Diego County and some surrounding areas.