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Problematic (legacy) Electrical Panels

For every problem, there is a solution.

In the home inspection business, there are a few “givens;” Water is the enemy of your home, crawl spaces are terrible to have to get into and, there are certain electrical panels that will automatically get called out for replacement.

As a home inspector, one of my tasks is to explain the defects I find in a clear, non-alarmist manner. Additionally, whenever possible, my goal is to give viable solutions to the problem. Being able to demystify any problem goes a long way to help the buyer make an educated decision on buying the home.

The example of Federal Pacific (FPE), Zinsco, Challenger, Wadsworth, and Pushmatic electrical panels.

It is common practice for a home inspector to “red flag” certain electrical panels that, for varied reasons, are known to be problematic. When encountering these panels inspectors will use narratives like, “Pushmatic electrical panels have a history of problems and should be further evaluated by an electrical contractor” or “FPE panels are prone to issues that have resulted in fires. This panel should be replaced by a licensed electrician.” Don’t get me wrong, these companies have a long history of issues ranging from recalls, class action lawsuits, and bankruptcy; and it is important to report on the installation of these panels. If, in a situation like this, I just left it at, “it’s a bad panel, hire an electrician, you’re on your own” I would not be servicing my clients properly. There are a few important points that need to be made:

· An electrical panel is a metal box with components inside. In this case, the box itself is generally not the issue (although there could be age or maintenance-related problems). In nearly every instance, the issue with these panels is not the panel, it’s the breakers.

· “The panel has been there for 25 years. If there was a problem, it would have already happened.” Wrong. There have been numerous studies that have concluded that the issue is not related to the age of the device. On the contrary, as these panels become older, their internal parts tend to become more suspect and prone to failure.

· Do I have to replace the panel? The answer is (surprisingly), not necessarily. Again, the box may be fine. We know that the breakers are the problem. The unknown factor is the condition of the bus bars behind the breakers. These metal bars are the connection point between the incoming electrical service and the overcurrent devices (breakers) that protect the branch circuits throughout the house.

The first, best step would be to have the bus bars evaluated by an electrician. If the bus bars are damaged, rusted, or corroded then the panel will need to be replaced. Often, the bars are fine and we can look to other steps to mitigate the safety issues in the panel. We know that the breakers are potential safety hazards, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that we need to scrap the entire panel. The game-changer, in this case, is that it is possible to replace these faulty breakers with new ones. Connecticut Electric is a supplier that is the only manufacturer of "NEW", UL 489 safety agency tested, ETL listed replacement circuit breakers. These aftermarket breakers were designed, tested, and certified to overcome this common problem.

The two big takeaways in this post are:

1) Home buyers and sellers may have a viable alternative to replacing electrical panels that are known to be problematic. If the replacement of the breakers is feasible, this could potentially save thousands of dollars and the deal!

2) A home inspector should deliver a comprehensive inspection report, have the ability to speak, in simple terms, about the findings, and (whenever possible) give real-world solutions to the problem.

All the best,

Richard Katz

A couple of side notes.

· Information on specific breaker issues, problems with specific companies, and an overall history of these panels is easily gained through a quick internet search.

· Please keep in mind that I am not a licensed electrician. Any questions or concerns that an individual has with their electrical service should be referred directly to a licensed electrical contractor.

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