Circuit Breaker Hazards

Now a story you'll see on just one station: Experts say it's a flat out fire hazard if it's in your home. And Hank's uncovered its caused a series of fires in Massachusetts and across the country. What is it? What should you do if you have one? Hank Investigates.

When the lights started flickering, Worcester homeowner Bill Ambrose knew something was wrong. He ran to the electrical box in his basement..and it was on fire!

Bill Ambrose, Worcester Homeowner

"It was a melted mess of metal and plastic, the fire was that hot!"

When firefighters arrived they discovered the electrical system had shorted out and the circuit breaker that should have cut the power – didn't! So much power was surging thru the box – it burst into flames.

Bill Ambrose, Homoeowner

"It could have been a total loss for the house."

Bill's electrical fire was not unique. Investigators say this fire in Warren and this one in Longmeadow and this one in Texas were caused by the exact same thing: defective circuit breakers all made by Federal Pacific Electric Company.

They look like this: the brand is "Federal Pacific Electric Stab-lok." If there's one in your house.. Chief Eric Madison, who investigated the Longmeadow fire-has a warning for you.

Chief Eric Madison, Longmeadow Fire Department

“Get it replaced. It simply isn't worth the risk.”

Though the company no longer exists, their circuit breakers are still out there-they were

installed in millions–millions!–of homes across the US between 1960 and 1980.

Chief Eric Madison, Longmeadow Fire Department

“They're not always going to perform as they were designed to perform. And do you really want to risk your life and your home on that?”

The whole point of a circuit breaker is to cut the power when the electrical system in your house is overloading. But experts say sometimes these FPE boxes just don't.

Jim Egan, Master Electrician, Egan Electric Corporation

They can catch on fire and burn your house down

Hank

Do people know this?

Jim Egan, Master Electrician, Egan Electric Corporation

I don't think they do

How common are they? We went to this Ashland neighborhood with a master electrician who'd already removed one of these circuit breakers from a home on this street. Going door to door, we found an FPE box in the third house we checked!!

Jim Egan, Master Electrician, Egan Electric Corporation

"It's dangerous. I would not have it in my house, I would not sleep in this house, I would get rid of it immediately."

We found this one in this Charlestown condo –the owner had no idea it was potentially dangerous until we told her. She had it changed out the very next day.

Valentine Callahan, Condo Owner

I was surprised because it was a newly renovated condominium. I had no idea and I'm really glad we've taken care of this.

When this electrical engineer analyzed 1500 FPE boxes in his lab, he found up to 30 per cent wouldn't have prevented a fire.

Dr. Jesse Aronstein, Engineer

"Problem is, that you can't tell from looking whether this breaker, inside, is defective."

Insurance companies sometimes find the boxes during home inspections–when they do, some refuse to provide coverage until the boxes are removed!

American Integrity Insurance told us:

"…it's a known hazard. We care about people's safety."

Narragansett Bay Insurance sends homeowners this letter: Calling the boxes "a major hazard" that "must be replaced."

Back in 1983–the Consumer Product Safety Commission put out this notice saying "while the commission is concerned about the failure of these FPE breakers to meet calibration requirements, the commission is unable at this time to link these failures to the development of a hazardous situation." The CPSC went on to say "because of a limited budget" the agency would "not commit further resources" to an investigation.

Aronstein estimates these FPE boxes cause almost 3000 fires every year–just like the one at Bill Ambrose's house.

Bill Ambrose, Worcester Homeowner

"This is a potentially tragic event and people need to be aware that situation exists in many of the homes in New England."

Bottom line, experts say, it's up to you to check your circuit box. Information on what to look for if you think you may have a panel in your house:

http://ismypanelsafe.com/files/FPECircuitBreakerHazards070525.pdf