Video: Federal Pacific Circuit Breakers Investigation Finds Decades of Danger [NBC Bay Area]

The following video that aired on NBC Bay Area shows the dangers of leaving older Zinsco and Federal Pacific circuit breakers (aka electrical panels, breaker boxes” or fuse panels) in your home. Be sure to check your panel to see if it is one of these older models and if so — get it inspected right away (remember that we offer free electrical panel inspections). Your family’s health and safety could depend on it!

Video Transcript

(Note: Video is sole property of NBC Bay Area)

Raj Mathai:  They are critical to the safety of our homes and they’re designed to prevent fires, not cause them. Tonight, the NBC Bay Area investigative unit has uncovered problems with circuit breakers in thousands of Bay Area homes.

Jessica Aguirre: The chief investigative reporter Tony Kovaleski is here with the details. And Tony you discovered it’s been really a long history a problems.

Tony Kovaleski: There have. Jess, Raj; it’s supposed to make everyone safer but but this circuit breaker has a long history of failing. For decades the Consumer Product Safety Commission is known about the problems but there has been no recall.

Geoff Williams: It lit up cherry red.

Voice over: He’s a master electrician.

Geoff Williams: And it lit up the crawl space like the gates of hell. It could have killed me.

Voice over: Remembering a morning back in 1979, working a crawlspace under a Bay Area house.

Geoff Williams: At the roll, an approach I pay on my hands and knees through the small opening from the crawlspace shut off Manny with the panel on fire spitting flame on my face

Voice over: He blames a faulty circuit breaker – a Federal Pacific stablok breaker.

Geoff Williams: I’ve seen so many fires. I’ve seen so many places burned by the panels. It’s frightening to me every time I see it over and over again.

Voice over: Circuit breakers are designed to prevent fires. When working properly, they stop the flow of electricity following excessive demand or a short circuit. Today, Federal Pacific circuit breakers are in millions of homes nationwide, including hundreds of thousands of Bay Area houses. They’re most commonly found in homes built before 1990.

Jesse Aronstein: The breaker is a safety device that is supposed to prevent fires. If it doesn’t work as required, you get an increased risk of fire.

Voice over:Jesse Aronstein is an expert on Federal Pacific circuit breakers. He’s an engineer; he spent more than 20 years researching the problem and he has testified in lawsuits against the now defunct company.

Jesse Aronstein: There’s no inconsistency and no dispute as to the fact that they are defective.

Voice over: Aronstein says test by the Consumer Product Safety Commission and a number of other credible labs all proved Federal Pacific breakers are not reliable.

Tony Kovaleski: This is a Federal Pacific breaker

Voice over: So how does it fail? Watch closely.

We had a Federal Pacific circuit breaker tested at this lab in Berkeley

We started

Voice over:  It’s a 60m breaker – the same as you find in many homes. We’ve doubled the current it is rated to handle that means it should trip in less than two minutes.

Bernard Cuzzillo:  For about a minute and 10 seconds now, and there’s smoke coming out of the breaker. There’s a definite smoke coming out.

Voice over:  The lab cut away some of the plastic sidings so you can have a closer look. An aesthetic change that experts say will not alter the functionality of the breaker.

Tony Kovaleski: We are almost four minutes and its smoking and it hasn’t trip. Why not?

Bernard Cuzzillo:  I because the mechanical mechanism that is supposed to be tripping the breaker is stuck.

Voice over:  It raises many questions how can a defective circuit breaker pass federal inspections? How did they comply with federal Electric Code and receive this UL stamp of approval? And, how did a known defective product get into millions of homes?

Jesse Aronstein: FPE he was cheating on the testing and applying a label to product that was defective did not meet the requirements.

Voice over:  An accusation of cheating that is supported by this document obtained by NBC Bay Area. It’s a 1982 SEC filing from the company that purchased Federal Pacific. Look closely it reads:

                  “UL listings on circuit breakers made by Federal Pacific have previously been obtained through the use of deceptive or improper practices.”

According to this respected expert, Federal Pacific tricked government inspectors by using a hidden remote control to force the breaker to trip, if it was not tripping properly.

Jesse Aronstein:  They represent an abnormal hazard that should be replaced.

Voice over: And take a look at this internal document we obtained from Bay Area Rapid Transit. It shows BART also had electrical equipment problems with Federal Pacific. It reads:

                  “There have been two instances have failures with the all the Federal Pacific Electric secondary distribution panels.”

And it goes on to say “failure this all the equipment has caused delays to BART train service and create a potentially unsafe conditions.”

BART replaced the Federal Pacific equipment.

Daniel Schmidt:  To protect all the burgers out of it from the wires over here, new breakers. That’s the story.

Voice over:  And homeowner Daniel Schmidt also decided to remove Federal Pacific from his home’s electrical system removing the risk from East Bay home.

Daniel Schmidt: I know it’s going to be safer. It’s a panel with got quite a reputation.

Bernard Cuzzillo:  So this breaker is so hot that it’s smoking. It will not trip.

Daniel Schmidt: You cannot run the risk of having breakers that might malfunction.

Tony Kovaleski: The Consumer Product Safety Commission tested the Federal Pacific breakers back in the 80s at legal challenges then followed the CPSC never forced to recall. Some believe the CPSC did not have the budget for that legal fight. Now we spoke with the Bay Area attorney representing the defunct Federal Pacific company, she declined a request to comment on the investigation.

Now this is interesting Jesse Aronstein believes failures with Federal Pacific circuit breakers are responsible for two thousand fires nationwide each year. Many undetected by fire departments because they don’t drill down that deep.

Jessica Aguirre: Okay, so I know where the circuit breakers are my house but how can I figure out if those are this Federal Pacific ones.

Tony Kovaleski: I brought this one along to show you. This is a Federal Pacific circuit breaker. Generally, you can tell if it has this unique orange front on the on the very beginning.

Jessica Aguirre: Okay.

Tony Kovaleski:  Also, it’ll have a staff market; may say and have that label there. Now, we have put together a video demonstrating with an expert, who will take you through step-by-step to check to see if you have a breaker like this made by Federal Pacific in your home.  You can find it at our website at NBCBayArea.com so something to take a close look at how many many homes in the Bay Area may have these inside.

Jessica Aguirre:  That’s definitely something you want to go outside look at.

Raj Mathai: Thank you, Tony.

Raj Mathai:  Thank you, Tony.  A lot of people will be checking. If you have a tip for investigative unit, give us a call. You see the numbers right in front of your screen 1-888-996-TIPS or send us an email directly to TheUnit@nbcbayarea.com.

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