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FPE Breakers - Hazardous?
On March 22, 2004 there was a service call that I had to perform in the South Denver area. One of the upstairs bedroom circuits was out. While troubleshooting, I needed to find the correct breaker and kill it, so of course I did this the way many electricians do so, by trying to short that circuit out.
The first time I tried doing this by directly crossing the neutral and hot conductors of a 14 gauge copper romex cable. Sparks flew everywhere for about a full second, but then I found the circuit still alive!
So I stripped off some more insulation from the two conductors and tried it again. This time I could see the copper drip and explode, as I held the two together for a longer period and still again the circuit did not trip!
Again I tried doing this two more times and though I had welded away over 1 1/2" of copper from both conductors, the circuit was still on! And this is a bedroom circuit for a child!
I went down to the electrical out in the back yard and found this place to have a FPE panel and then I knew why the circuit was not tripping, as this is not my first experience with FPE panels and the breakers not tripping.
My previous experience was with a 2 Pole 30 Amp circuit breaker not tripping and causing a fire. This time, it was a 1 Pole, 15 Amp single breaker that was failing to do its job.
Usually a circumstance like this is still a tough sell as far as convincing the homeowner NOW is the time service change. There are too many people who still want to wait until an actual "problem" occurs, but what are they waiting for, the house to burn down?
The entire housing community of this service call all have FPE panels, as there are many neighborhoods with thousands of homes all having FPE panels originally installed when they were built here in the Denver Metro area. Back in the 1970's they were one of the, if not the, most popular panel used by electrical contractors in this area of the country.
Since this was a rental unit, the management company was able to convince the homeowner that this panel needed to be removed ASAP. Once it was removed, I sent the complete guts and all of the breakers intact to Dr. Jess Aronstein in New York so that it could be thoroughly examined to find out why the breaker failed.
Several summers earlier I had a service call in the Polo Grounds area of Denver. When I arrived at this residence I found that the dryer circuit was in a dangerous condition.
Somehow a metal spoon had gotten into the dryer and then ended up getting across the heating element, causing a direct short. Rather than the breaker shorting out, the receptacle over heated to the point that it actually caught on fire and burn the receptacle and outlet box enough so that the fire actually stopped the short and then fortunately the fire burned itself out!
The panel was a small FPE loadcenter that was located near the middle of the house in the kitchen of all places! And this one small load center was the only breaker panel for the entire house! A very dangerous situation that was cured by a complete service change where the new electrical panel was moved to the exterior of the house.
Mike Holt's Comment: The failure rates for these circuit breakers are significant, see the CPSC study. For Additional information about this problem, visit the excellent website http://www.inspect-ny.com/fpe/fpepanel.htm managed by Daniel Friedman http://www.inspect-ny.com.
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