Below is a excerpt of an article prepared for the 17th Annual Spring Seminar, Feb. 21, 2004 St. Louis Chapter, American Society of Home Inspectors by J. Aronstein, Consulting Engineer, Mechanical and Materials Engineering BME, MSME, Ph.D., N.Y.S. P.E. LIC. NO. 39860, 50 Pasture Lane, Poughkeepsie N.Y. 12603.
Unlike over-fusing and pennies behind the fuses, defective FPE breakers cannot be spotted by an inspector or tested by an electrician or homeowner. Without doing a functional test (at overload and short-circuit conditions) on each breaker, one pole at a time for the two-pole breakers, one cannot actually determine the present operating characteristics of a breaker. Most electricians or electrical inspectors can only look at the breakers ("they look OK to me"), and operate the toggle ("they click on and off OK"). But without doing live-current functional testing on all of the breakers, it is impossible to determine which of the breakers in the panel are defective. Will they all trip properly on electrical overload or short circuit? Electrical contractors and inspectors are generally not equipped to do that type of testing, and homeowners or potential purchasers are not likely to have the required budget for extensive specialized testing. In fact, thorough testing would most likely cost far more than changing the panel.
The presence of an FPE panel in a home should be classified as a “Safety Defect”. The FPE breakers are primary safety devices of questionable operating reliability. It is not quite correct to call the non-tripping breaker a “fire hazard”. That term should be reserved for the electrical failure that causes ignition. The breaker’s function is to stop certain electrical sequences that could, if allowed to proceed, lead to fire in the building. If an electrical fire hazard develops somewhere in the building, the breaker is supposed to trip and minimize the possibility of fire ignition. If the breaker is defective, fire is more likely to result.