Controversial Circuit Breakers Still in Millions of Homes
Federal Pacific Electric’s “Stab-Lok” circuit breakers, a standard yet controversial breaker in many homes, were discovered to have issues decades ago. FPE’s parent company, Reliance Electric Co., acknowledged “a possible defect” in a 1982 Securities and Exchange Commission filing. The company also indicated FPE had obtained the Underwriters Laboratories seal of approval for these breakers “through the use of deceptive and improper practices.”
The issue of Stab-Locks starting fires was brought to the attention of the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) during the same time. However, the CPSC closed its investigation of the breakers in 1983, stating that based on the data available at the time it did not have reason to believe “the circuit breakers pose a serious threat of injury to consumers.” In the same release, it said, “Based on the Commission’s limited budget and the uncertainty of the results of such a costly investigation, the Commission has decided not to commit further resources to its investigation of FPE’s circuit breakers.” Then, in 2011, the agency released an updated statement, clarifying the case was closed “without making a determination as to the safety of FPE circuit breakers or the accuracy of the manufacturer’s position on the matter.”
82-year-old electrical engineer, Jesse Aronstein, who has been testing the FPE breakers for years, recently met with the CPSC and begged it once again to warn consumers about the circuit breakers’ tendencies to start fires. Aronstein has a doctorate in materials science, has lectured at universities, and has served as an expert witness in U.S. and Canadian court cases. He began to get involved with the circuit breaker issue in the 1980s when the CPSC hired the company Aronstein worked for at that time to test the safety of the Stab-Loks.
These breakers were made to shut off when electrical wires are overloaded so that wires don’t heat up and cause a fire. Yet, Aronstein found 51 percent failed to do so during his testing. “Nobody whose word can be taken as an authority…has made a positive recommendation that people should change out their [breaker] panels for safety reasons,” Aronstein said. “When some agency of authority picks up the ball on this, then I can stop.”
Aronstein not only reported the failed testing but co-wrote a peer-reviewed paper in an attempt to identify the extent of the controversial claims by applying statistics to published fire reports. The co-authors estimated FPE Stab-Lok breakers could be responsible for as many as 2,800 fires, 13 deaths, and $40 million in property damage every year.
FPE eventually stopped manufacturing products under its own name, but that didn’t help the fact that Stab-Loks were already in millions of homes, and other, similar manufacturers had acquired the rights to manufacture the same products under different names.
Today, two companies still make the controversial circuit breakers. Connecticut Electric produces and markets them under the name UBI, and a Canadian company, Schneider Electric, manufacturers them under the name Federal Pioneer. “We don’t believe the product should be recalled,” said Jeff Jensen, CEO of Connecticut Electric. “We believe our products are made with very high quality.”