Most people don’t think about their electrical panels (otherwise known as a breaker box) much. And if you aren’t experiencing any problems there is probably no need to think much about them. However, if your home was built before 1990 you may want to do a little investigation to make sure your home is safe and an outdated panel isn’t posing any hidden problems for your home. There are four types of panels that are either unsafe or could pose problems as you add electronics or appliances to your home.
Federal Pacific Electric
Federal Pacific Electric (FPE) panels were installed in homes built between the 1950s and 1980s. These panels will have the Federal Pacific Electric or Stab-Loc (name brand of circuit breakers) engraved somewhere on the panel. After research in response to thousands of electrical fires reported electricians determined that these panels fail to do exactly what they were created for trip breakers when unsafe conditions surface. The breakers in these panels fail to trip when the circuits become overloaded or short out. Also, homeowners and other contractors reported that the breakers fail to cut power when switched off creating electrocution hazards to workers doing maintenance on the electrical system.
Zinsco panels although defunct now still appear in many older homes. Some Zinsco panels melt circuit breakers. When the circuits become overloaded or short the breakers melt the wires, in turn, starting fires in the home. Zinsco will be somewhere on the panel. Also, be wary of GTE-Sylvania or Sylvania panels many of these are rebranded Zinsco panels. This is not true for all GTE-Sylvania or Sylvania panels, so to be sure have a certified electrician inspect the panel before replacement.
The next two panels are not a problem on their own and when originally produced worked well. Other factors have contributed to the danger of the panels. Either age or the ever-increasing use of electricity in homes has deemed the next two unsafe.
Split-bus panels are just that, they have two buses. Most electrical panels and all produced today have a single bus. Electricity passes through the main breaker into the bus and is distributed to each individual breaker. To cut power to the entire home you simply trip the main breaker. In a split bus panel, the power travels to the main breaker and is then sent to one of the two buses and then distributed to the individual breakers. These systems have two shut-offs each controlling the power to certain breakers. The only problem is these types of panels haven’t been produced in over 40 years therefore they are dated and most likely worn. These breakers may not trip when overloaded due to the age of the panel. If your breakers are split into two groups in your panel you most likely have a split bus panel.
Fuse boxes use fuses instead of breakers. When a fuse blows instead of switching something back off you have to replace the fuse. Fuse boxes aren’t unsafe themselves. It is usually the modifications people make to the fuse boxes. Most homes that have fuse boxes have fewer circuits therefore it is easy to overload those circuits and continue to blow fuses. Often homeowners make adjustments to minimize the need to replace the fuses. For example, if you replace a 15-amp fuse with a 20 amp fuse the fuse will last longer. However, when the wires that are made to only hold 15 amps get overloaded the fuse doesn’t blow therefore creating a fire hazard. Even still, some homeowners place a metal plate or object where the fuse should be removing all the safety that fuses provide. Again, creating a major fire hazard. Most homeowners know if they have a fuse box instead of a breaker box. If not, there will be fuses that look like little knobs instead of switches.
All of the electrical panels listed above really need to be replaced. At the very least have a certified electrician inspect the panel to make sure there aren’t any present problems.