an image of an old federal pacific electric panel

I typically find that there will always be a certain electrical event that will happen that will scare the fear of god into me and make me lose sleep at night until I decide to change out a panel.

Federal pacific electric panel breaker failure in a real world situation. Example 1

For instance, my Father is the type of person who comes from an old-school semi-barbaric mentality and he has absolutely no respect for electricity. I was lucky enough to be able to work with him on a remodel project where we tore out some soffits in a kitchen to open it up. More on that project later. When we removed the drywall from the soffits, what was left were some wires that had been originally run through the soffit. There are 3 rules to working safely with electricity and my father didn’t follow them at all. They are:

  1. Always check to make sure that the power is off before even touching a wire.
  2. Double Check.
  3. Lock Out/Tag Out.
  4. Triple Check.

Now, my Dad is a bit rambunctious when it comes to demo and he can really get ahead of himself if he isn’t careful. During the Demo of the soffit, Dad came across a wire and without testing the circuit first, he proceeded to try to pull out a staple with his hammer. The wire was live and he caused a short and a huge spark was unleashed where the wire tried to weld itself to his hammer.

Dad Getting ready to work

Any normal person would have stopped to shut off the power at this point, but my father in his cantankerous ways instead proceeded to try again and again to remove the staple causing the sparks to fly each time he did it.

I could hear and see what was going on in the other room and I came in shouting and telling him that he needed to turn off the power. As I entered the room where he was working, he gave the staple a final tug and was able to remove it, but he really could have gotten hurt.

After this incident, I had a long talk with him about safety and I eventually decided that when he does help me with projects, that I make sure that all power is off before he has an opportunity to work unsafely.

I also try to provide all of the people that I am working with electrical testers which provide an additional level of safety when working with electricity, but in this case, it wouldn’t have mattered.

Fluke 1AC-A1-II VoltAlert non contact voltage tester

This should be an eye opener for any contractor who hires unskilled help for demo, even unskilled workers who will be in the proximity of live wires should have proper training to identify and de-energize circuits near where they are working.

One tool that I love to use and give to all of my employees is the Fluke 1AC-A1-II VoltAlert Non-Contact Voltage Tester. This tester allows workers to test wires, outlets, and light sockets for power without the need to actually contact the conductors in the wire. While the non-contact tester is not a replacement for an electric meter when working directly on circuits, this tool can help people understand when there is voltage present in wires and devices that they are working near.

Federal pacific Electrical Panel Replacement Procedure

an image of an old federal pacific electric panel
This is an old Federal Pacific electrical panel

All that I could do after seeing those sparks fly repeatedly from my father’s hammer was think about how the original Federal Pacific panel in the house that we were working on was a liability.

So after I was finished with the soffit demo, the very next thing that we did was replace the electrical panel in that house.

Federal pacific electric panel breaker failure in a real world situation. A flaming Example 2

Fast Forward to a basement finish again with another Federal Pacific electrical panel. I was wrapping up an electric trim on a basement and we just tied into homeruns that were already existing in the house. After my electrical trim was finished it was time to turn on the power. I am a human and sometimes I make mistakes. If I never made a mistake I would be a god, but my mistakes are evidence of my humanity and remind me of my place in the universe.

On occasion, there is a possibility of a short to ground inside of an outlet box or fixture during an electrical trim. I always do my best when trimming outlets to run my bare copper carefully behind my devices but occasionally I miss. On this particular job, there was an outlet that was installed with the ground inside the outlet box just barely touching the hot screw of the outlet. It went un-noticed until it was time to turn on the power for the first time. Normally, if there is a short to ground in an outlet box, a modern breaker will trip almost instantly. Not so much the case on this job with an outdated federal pacific panel. When the power was turned on at the end of the electric trim, instead of the breaker tripping, it welded itself in the on position! The dead short and stuck breaker then proceeded to cause the wire to overheat outside of the electric panel in the wall below the panel causing a small fire. What’s worse is that in this situation, when you have a dead short and welded on breaker, it’s sometimes impossible or unsafe to flip the main breaker so you just have to let the wire become your fuse.

Luckily I was able to put out the fire before it spread beyond the size of a torch flame.

When doing electrical work always carry a fire extinguisher.

Here is a situation where there was complete and total breaker failure during a ground fault, and had this been a case where A kiddo was sticking a safetypin in an outlet while his parents weren’t home, we would have had a serious life safety problem on our hands.

I think it’s important to post this because we hear all the time that federal pacific breaker panels are fire hazards. However, when people hear it, sometimes I don’t think they understand. These panels are a ticking liability time-bomb.

“Now, every Federal Pacific panel I come across gets a mandatory replacement. It’s just not worth the risk to keep them in service.”

Swapping a federal pacific panel for a new electric panel.

First thing is first, if you are upgrading the panel, you will need to make sure that your service can handle the amp rating of the new panel. In our case, we were just swapping out a 100A panel, so it was painless. If you were upgrading say a 100A panel to a 200A panel, then you would need to check the service to make sure that the rating is 200A and also check to make sure that your ground is the correct size. You also need to check the building codes where you are working to see what year of the NEC they are enforcing. Below shows the 2008 NEC grounding guidelines and in our case, the ground was #8 so we were good to go without having to pull a new ground wire. Many times, inspectors will want to see you upgrade the ground to a ground rod and I believe that the code changed in 2011 to reflect this change, so you might be hammering depending on your local codes and inspector.

https://www.safecoelectric.com/images/resources_pdf/NEC2008%20Table%20250.122.pdf

Step By Step Electrical Panel replacement

Remove old panel and cut opening for new panel. A lot of electricians have a tendency to destroy drywall. I usually try to take my time and get out with minimal drywall repair. This saves time sometimes and will keep your GC happy.

Note. I’m not here to help a novice install a panel This site is here for me to showcase my work and experiences. Therefore, if you don’t know what you are doing, please hire an electrician, and absolutely pull a permit if one is required.

I also recommend the illustrated guide to the national electric code for anyone who has issues visualizing the code.

https://www.buildersbook.com/illustrated-guide-to-the-national-electrical-code-2020-8th-edition.html

I used to work harder at keeping my panels looking extremely tidy, but that isn’t good for times when you have to repair or replace breakers, or trace circuits. Now my method is to not twist wires, but bundle neutrals, grounds, and hots with leaving extra wire for the future. This will ensure that the next guy can trace through your work or move breakers around without too much of a headache.

The new panel has the torque specs listed inside the box. These are important numbers and to install the panel properly, the lugs and terminals need to be torqued to spec. If you don’t have a torque screwdriver, get one, or hire an electrician who has one. If your electrician doesn’t, don’t let him do the job!

https://homedepot.sjv.io/c/2091190/459920/I 8154?prodsku=205373996&u=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.homedepot.com%2Fp%2FKlein-Tools-Torque-Screwdriver-Set-6-Piece-57032%2F205373996&intsrc=PUI1_2950

If I have missed something, please leave me a comment! Thanks for reading.

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