Today’s podcast covers bad electric panels, as well as panels with bad reputations that really aren’t bad. This includes a discussion of Challenger panels, Bulldog/pushmatic panels, FPE Stab-Lok Panels, and Zinsco/Sylvania panels.
Bill Oelrich: Welcome everyone. You’re listening to Structure Talk, a Structure Tech presentation. My name is Bill Oelrich, alongside Tessa Murry and Reuben Saltzman, as always, your three-legged stool home inspections and anything else that’s rattling around in our brain. Welcome to today’s episode. I’m going to warn you, we’re gonna get a little technical on today’s conversation, and we’re diving into service panels, electrical service panels in residential homes, and we’re gonna be very specific about that. But before we get to the meat and potatoes of this podcast, Reuben, Tessa, how was it going?
Tessa Murry: Hey, pretty good, how about you?
BO: I’m excellent, I’ve got no complaints. Even on a bad day, I have very few complaints. I mean, nobody’s listening anyway, so…
TM: [chuckle] How about you, Reuben?
Reuben Saltzman: I’m doing well. It feels like summer has finally popped here in Minnesota.
RS: It’s nice outside, the sun is shining, it’s warm out. I’m taking golf lessons. I got friends and family who golf. My wife golfs, my kids both golf. I’m like the only person I know who doesn’t do it ’cause I don’t know how, and…
TM: [chuckle] I don’t know how either. [chuckle]
RS: [chuckle] Alright. Well, I’m gonna leave you behind Tessa. I am learning, and I signed up for golf lessons through like parks and rec or whatever, Three Rivers District…
RS: And I’m taking five one-hour lessons, and I will know the basics of how to play golf at the end of this.
TM: How is your back feeling?
RS: You know it hurts. I’ve got back pain. I had back surgery, you know, back seven years ago or whatever.
RS: And it’s not great, but I’m pretty active, so I don’t think it makes a big difference.
BO: It hurts when you swing, is that what you’re saying, or is it you just get sore afterwards?
RS: After I’ve been driving balls for an hour straight, it starts to hurt.
RS: But, you know, just a few swings here and there, it’s nothing at all.
BO: Well, there’s nothing quite so satisfying as teeing up a ball and hitting it straight and far with a nice little right to left draw on it, and that…
RS: I would love to know what that feels like.
RS: Maybe some day.
BO: If I have any advice for you, hit half as many balls in the time that you’re normally hitting them, because people, they get going too quickly through… “Let’s get through these balls.” And by the time they’re done, their form is just garbage because they’re hustling to get through and not continuously focusing on the shot and the…
BO: Muscle memory and all that other stuff. So quality over quantity when it comes to practicing. Just a one man’s humble opinion.
RS: Alright, good tip. Thank you, Bill. Appreciate it. You’ve done your share of golf?
BO: I don’t golf as much as I used to. I can hit the ball straight and relatively far, but my short game is nothing to speak to anybody about. And so I decided if I was gonna go spend 4-5 hours of being frustrated, I was gonna learn to fish, and I went hard at fishing and gave up golfing. So transferred the resources of golf into fishing, and I’ve never looked back and I’m happy I did.
BO: But I still like to hit a ball straight and far occasionally.
RS: Yeah, it’s kinda like going to a batting cage. I’ve been doing that. I’m trying to do that at least once a week ’cause I’m on the softball league for my church, this men’s league, and so I’ve been going to batting cage regularly. And man, that is so satisfying.
RS: Every time you just get a good piece of it.
BO: You go to a batting cage to hit softballs?
BO: Okay, that’s not a batting cage Reuben.
RS: It’s not. Oh, what is it?
BO: That is something with net to over the top of slow-pitch softballs. Batting cages are, you know, balls coming at you at good 85-95 miles an hour where you gotta put your head down and make a level swing and get through that.
TM: Well, it’s the same facility, you just push a button and you say which one you want.
RS: Okay. It doesn’t count. Alright.
RS: Man, I used to be able to hit those and I recently went to one. I did like the 40-mile an hour one and I think I hit one. [laughter] like…
RS: I used to be able to hit them when I was in little league, but I can’t do it anymore.
TM: Gosh, I haven’t hit a softball since high school.
RS: Did you play in high school ball?
TM: Yeah, I did. Yeah, I played like when I was a little kid all through middle school, high school, but I mean, I think I quit sophomore year, but it’s been a really long time since I swung a bat.
RS: Yeah, okay. Alright.
BO: I’m hearing a softball game in Tessa and Reuben’s future possibly at some sort of company outing and…
RS: I think…
BO: You have a lawn bowl contest or something?
BO: Alright, you heard it here first, folks. They will be doing it. Pictures to follow…
TM: You know what…
BO: On the website.
TM: I wouldn’t argue if we had another ping-pong competition too.
RS: Oh well, yeah. It’s ’cause you took us all to school, that’s why.
TM: No. [chuckle] No, your dad is really good at ping-pong. I had no idea.
RS: Yeah, yeah. He’s got game for sure.
TM: Yes, he does.
BO: Well, we should probably get to the meat and potatoes. I mean we could talk, you know, entertainment and recreational all hour if we wanted.
RS: We could, we could. Alright.
BO: Let’s get to why are we having this conversation Reuben?
RS: Alright. Why is this coming up? Okay, so let’s just back up. So when we talk about an electrical panel, we’re talking about your breaker box, people call it, or the load center, or whatever you want to call this. The overcurrent protection devices in your house, if you’re a purist, you wanna hear the technical name for them. We did an inspection probably about a year ago at this town home, and we didn’t say anything about the particular panel that was installed. It was a brand of panel called Challenger, and we didn’t say anything about it because our official stance is that there’s nothing wrong with these panels. But then earlier this year, another home inspector, not somebody from our company, but somebody else in Minnesota inspected another town home in the same development and said, “Oh, you’ve got this Challenger panel. These Challenger panels are bad. They are a fire hazard, you need to replace it. You need to get an electrician out here.” And the town home association ended up getting involved in this saying, “Wait, we got bad panels? They are all Challenger panels.” And they ended up contacting the electrician and they said, “Well, can you replace all the panels?” The electrician’s like, “Yeah, sure.” And then, of course, this ends up being an assessment to all of the homeowners in the association.
RS: And our client ends up getting back to us saying, “Hey, Structure Tech, you inspected my place just a year ago. You didn’t tell me these panels are a fire hazard. What’s your problem? You missed this.” And our response was, “Well, they’re not a problem. We’ve known about these for a long time.” I know that there’s home inspector… I don’t know… I don’t know. I wanna say folklore. I’m not trying to put anybody down, but…
RS: Misinformation maybe. There’s a lot of stuff on the internets that you can find that says that these are bad, but I haven’t found anything credible saying they’re bad, and so we don’t say they’re bad. I think these panels are just fine, and every electrical expert that I have talked to is in agreement. There is no known issues with these panels. So we’ve never said anything bad about them, but we really got thrown under the bus because it looked as though we’re just trying to cover our butts and we’re making excuses for having missed something, but that’s still our stance. These panels are just fine. And that made me think I ought to get in front of this a little bit, probably do a blog, do a video, maybe we’ll do a podcast and talk about electrical panels a little bit to talk about some of the panels that really are bad, and some of the panels that aren’t so bad that seem to get a bad reputation, people seem to kind of freak out about them, and Challenger is just one of them.
TM: Reuben, I think what you just said is gonna be extremely controversial, because…
RS: I’m sure.
TM: From… Before I did the podcast.
BO: Reuben lives for controversy.
TM: I just… Yeah, I was just doing some Googling, some research, and every single article I was reading about Challenger panels was saying the same thing, that they’re bad panels and they should be replaced. So I didn’t find anything that said that they should be… They’re fine, or there’s nothing credible out there that’s saying that they are not.
RS: By the time this podcast airs, there will be one blog post [laughter] out there saying that they are fine, and that will be my blog post defending these panels. And it’s not that I’m saying they’re good and they’re reliable, and there’s no problem with them. I’m saying there are no known problems. I’m saying that everything that’s out there today is hearsay. It’s anecdotal evidence. You want anecdotal evidence? Tessa, why don’t you share some of the stuff that you found? Let’s start with that.
BO: Wait, wait, wait, wait. Can I jump in just a quick second here? ’cause…
BO: You guys are going right through the technical parts.
RS: Alright. Sorry.
BO: Alright. I just wanna put everybody’s mind at ease. This is a conversation about service panels, but this is not a massive investment. This is not a huge expense to upgrade your service panel. It’s maybe $3000 now in the 2022 environment if… Parts and pieces are really expensive compared to what they used to be. In the last five years, I replaced two service panels and properties that we own, my mother-in-law’s and my own service panel. And my mother-in-law’s was in the range of $1400, and ours was in the range of $1800. And that $1800 included doing some wiring in the basement, which is why I was upgrading my service panels. So we are not talking about a massive expense. I just wanna keep the perspective on this a little bit.
RS: Thank you, Bill.
TM: Yeah, that’s helpful.
RS: Yeah, good point.
TM: Well, so some of the things that stuck out to me, and I know you’ve captured them I think in your upcoming blog, should I just read some of these quotes that you’ve taken off of these different websites and sources online?
RS: Yeah, why don’t you read some of them, and let’s discuss them one at time?
TM: Okay. Here’s one. It says, “Since they’re correlated with Zinsco, they had similar safety hazards to worry about.”
RS: Okay. So they’re correlated with Zinsco. There was some overlapping ownership, and I can’t remember what company it was, but one company that owns Zinsco purchased Challenger or something like that, and…
TM: I think it was GTE Zinsco. Yeah.
RS: That sounds right, yeah. And to me, it’s like, who cares? Just because a company made a bad product doesn’t mean that everything the company makes is a bad product. Let’s just look at Ford. They made the Ford Pinto. I think people have argued that that’s one of the worst vehicles ever made. They used to explode and start on fire during low-speed accidents, and so should we just say all Fords are bad. Never buy a Ford vehicle because they’re associated with the Pinto? That’s ridiculous. No, no, that’s not a good argument.
TM: I agree with you. And I think I even read too. Someone was arguing that they were… So these panels, these Challenger panels were made like in the ’80s and ’90s for the most part?
RS: That sounds right.
TM: And I think I also read somewhere that someone made some argument or connection between FPE, Federal Pacific Electric and Challenger by saying, “The FPE got bought out. They went out of business, and so a lot of those engineers, workers, assembly people were looking for employment and could have gone over to Zinsco.”
RS: A specious argument at best.
BO: Are these factories even located remotely close to one another? I mean, come on.
TM: I don’t know. Okay, so here’s another one. “Although there are no records of Challenger E-panels on fire, their overheating can be potentially harmful for the user or worse if neglected.”
RS: Okay. How do you neglect your electrical panel? I would like someone to explain that for me versus taking good care of your electrical panel. I don’t do any type of maintenance on my electrical panel.
TM: That’s a good point.
RS: Tessa, help me out.
TM: The only argument I could make to that one is I guess we are supposed to turn breakers on and off on a regular basis to make sure the mechanism doesn’t…
RS: Doesn’t jam?
TM: Doesn’t jam or something, but does anyone ever do that? I’ve never done that. I’ve never, on a monthly basis, gone down and turned every breaker off and back on again.
BO: I don’t recommend it because I have a service panel on my garage at the cabin and my switch is broken, so I use the breaker to turn the lights on and off once a weekend and… Or however often we’re up there, and now the breaker’s not working. I’ve gotta shake the hell out of it to get it to work again. So probably not…
RS: That’s not totally safe.
BO: Yeah, well, yeah, eventually I’ll get around to fixing it, but…
RS: I’m probably gonna mis-quote something here, but I remember when I was taking electrical inspections back in 2004, I’m sure there was something about how it’s okay to actually use a breaker as a switch as long as it’s rated to be used as a switch.
BO: How do you understand or know or ascertain if it’s rated to be used as a switch?
RS: My guess is there’s probably gonna be a little SW on the front of the breaker, but I was not prepared for this. So I have not done my research before talking about this, and I last took that class 18 years ago so…
TM: Wait, you don’t remember?
RS: I’m a little rusty on that. [laughter]
TM: I’m surprised Reuben, you remember everything. Okay. Well, I wanted to go back though to this comment talking about overheating and causing fires, because a lot of what I was reading about online was that these panels tend to… Basically, the breakers failed to trip and that leads to overheating, which can lead to obviously a fire in the panel. And a lot of these panels people were saying have issues with signs of overheating bus bars and breakers that are not tripping like they should. But really, is there any evidence out there? Has there been a lot of testing done on these Challenger panels that is… That’s a fact? I know there’s a lot of evidence out there for FPE panels. Where is this coming from?
RS: For Challenger, I don’t know of anything. The only thing I’ve ever seen in a handful of websites, blogs, etcetera, is pictures of scorched bus bars and signs that there’s been overheating in the panel, but we’ve got that for every brand, and I shared that in my blog post. I’ve got pictures of GE panels, of Square D, of Cutler-Hammer, of ITE panels, all the big ones out there today. I’ve got pictures of scorched bus bars in every panel that you can think of. This doesn’t mean that all these panels need to be replaced because I’ve got some anecdotal evidence of them overheating. This can happen in any panel.
BO: Well, why is that evidence of overheating anyway, right? Like have you ever taken your jumper cables and accidentally hit your… Hit something with them, like the side of your battery when you weren’t expecting and how hot that thing got, how quickly? It’s not like it overheated, it just made momentary contact when it wasn’t a good idea. And so how can you say this bus bar overheated just because you see this one thing, right?
RS: Yeah, you don’t know. But I will say any time we see signs of scorching in a panel at the bus bar or whatever, we’re calling an electrician to come in and check it out.
TM: Mm-hmm. Well, and I think I did read too, that Challenger did have two types of breakers recalled, I think it was like in ’88. I think I read from February of ’88 to April of ’88, there was a breaker that was recalled by Consumer Product Safety Commission, and it was like just a 15/20 single pole breaker that was manufactured by Challenger and then a GFCI breaker that was manufactured by them. And so, I mean, there could very well be a few bad breakers that are still installed in these Challenger panels like from the ’80s or ’90s that are not performing the way that they should which could lead to these problems. But there’s been tons of recalls on breakers. It’s not just Challenger.
TM: It’s… I mean it’s any manufacturer, right?
RS: Yes. Yes, you hit the nail on the head, Tess.
TM: Okay. Well, thanks for helping me understand that a little bit better. Here’s another quote that you pulled from a resource online that you’ve got in your blog, it says, “Let’s not forget as well, the fact that this electrical panel brand is more than 30 years old and they don’t reproduce the product anymore. As a result, you have a house supported by a load center on the brink of extinction.”
RS: [laughter] Come on. We’ve got hundreds of thousands of panels that are over 30 years old throughout the Twin Cities. So are we to say that all of these panels are on the brink of extinction and just call out every panel that’s over 30 years old? That would be insane. No, that’s not a valid argument.
TM: No, I will say though, haven’t we talked to a lot of electricians, and we’ve even had some teach at our local ASHE chapter here, tell us that kinda there is like a recommended age for replacement for all electrical panels?
RS: I wouldn’t say a recommended age for replacement. I mean somewhere around the 40-year mark, people start to raise some eyebrows and start to say, well, it’s pretty dated equipment, but we sure don’t make a habit of recommending replacement of panels that are over 40 years old during our home inspections. I mean…
RS: The biggest reason I can see why you might wanna upgrade an outdated panel is because you can’t get replacement parts for it and you want to do work on your house, and you can’t get replacement parts, or you can’t get parts that have modern safety features like Arc-Fault protection breakers. I mean that… I can understand that, but it doesn’t mean that your panel is unsafe. It just means it’s old.
TM: Do you think that, you know, things wear out over time? And if so, like personally, what would you say to someone who’s got a panel that’s like 50 years old? Would you say it’s probably a good idea to have it replaced?
RS: I probably wouldn’t.
TM: You wouldn’t even say that?
BO: No. That’s a major depends answer right there. I mean…
RS: Alright. I blew my chances there. Hold on, Tess. Ask me again.
RS: So I can say it depends to you.
BO: What are they gonna be doing in this house? What future changes might be happening, so on and so forth? What does that panel look like? Is it in a basement that’s like 110% humidity nine months out of the year and it’s rusted and corroded inside the panel? I mean, there’s… Every situation is gonna be different. I personally upgraded mine because I had a panel that was out of room and I had a sub-panel that was out of room, right? Like sometimes you tap yourself out and the only option or the best option is to just get a bigger panel and replace the old stuff and go with it. I was gonna save this for later in the conversation, but I think there are some things that are just old and they should go, because these are metal components that trip back and forth and rust can affect things, and I don’t know. I mean there’s some panels out there that look pretty sketchy.
TM: All Mechanical things fail at some point.
RS: Yeah, and to your question Tess, I’m assuming that this is all pristine and it’s in good shape and it doesn’t look like there’s been any damage or hack wiring done, and it just all looks good and clean.
BO: How many of those have you seen over the years? [chuckle]
RS: We see them, we do see them.
TM: But I think it’s good just to let our listeners know that just because a panel is 30 years old or 40 years old or 50 years old, we’re not saying, “hey, this thing needs to be replaced because it’s old.” There’s a lot of variables that we look at to determine whether or not we think it should be upgraded or repaired or replaced.
RS: Correct, correct. But the older it gets, the greater the chances that you do have a problem with it, no question about that.
TM: Yeah, that’s helpful clarification. Okay, so here’s another one, “bad news always comes with outdated breaker panels.” Well, I guess that ties in with what we just talked about.
RS: Although you can’t say always, it doesn’t always come with outdated breaker panels, it’s more likely to happen with outdated breaker panels. But sorry I you cut off, what else?
TM: Okay, well, this next one actually, I was reading this article online too, separate from your blog, but this one kind of cracked me up, it says, “If you’re at home relaxing, don’t be surprised if sparks come out of your basement while you re-heat your food in the microwave oven”.
TM: Talking about Challenger panel.
RS: What? What? I don’t even know what to say, stop it.
TM: I think this actually came from one of the first articles that popped up when I Googled it too, I read this. I just thought, huh!
RS: These are scare tactics.
RS: Come on…
RS: Sparks coming out of your basement, when you turn on your microwave oven?
TM: That’s intense.
RS: Okay, I’m gonna say if that happens, I don’t care what panel I have, I’m going to be surprised.
TM: [chuckle] Oh my gosh, okay, so here’s another one, “a rotting breaker panel is not recommended for new appliances especially if its main breaker cannot support the appliance upgrade you did in your house.” And what you say is, I’ve never seen a rotted breaker… What is that?
RS: Yeah, I was gonna ask you what a rotting breaker panel was.
BO: They stink, they stink like…
TM: I don’t know.
BO: Like rotting flesh.
RS: I’ll agree. A rotting breaker panel is surely not a good thing and you don’t wanna connect new appliances to a rotting breaker panel, but this applies to any panel. I don’t know what this has to do with Challenger.
BO: This sounds more like they’re saying somebody who just keeps adding more and more to this panel and it’s overloaded. And that’s a bad thing. Well, of course that’s a thing.
RS: For any panel.
TM: On the flip side, they’re not up to UL safety codes because one, it is an old model and two, fire risks are high if kept in use, thus they’re not safe.
RS: That’s called circular reasoning, we’ve got a logic flaw there Tess. We’re saying they’re bad because they’re not safe, because they’re a fire risk, so they’re bad, like, stop it. Where are we going with this. They met the UL safety codes at the time that they were made. Are we saying that every time the UL safety standards change everything previous to that is bad now? That’s what this is saying.
BO: Well, if you take it to the next level, it’s bad and it needs to replace and that’s an undue burden to put on a home owner or anybody. It’s just ridiculous.
TM: Yeah, if we were inspecting a house built in 1950 and we were holding it to today’s current safety standards and codes, nothing would “pass” in that house.
RS: Yeah, yeah.
TM: And we’re not… That’s not the purpose of our inspection, it’s not to say the house passes or fails, we’re looking for safety problems, defects, maintenance issues and so, yeah, just because it’s… Just because it was built to an older standard doesn’t inherently mean that it’s bad, that’s safe to assume.
RS: That’s right, that’s right.
TM: Okay, here’s another one, don’t be complacent and wait for your home inspectors to see that you’re still using an old load center, breaker boxes being outdated need an immediate replacement, they know that a Challenger is a forbidden breaker box at this age, so they’ll report this as a violation of the electric code too.
BO: Forbidden, such strong language.
TM: This one must have been written by a home inspector or… I hope not.
RS: No, forbidden. They’re not forbidden and your home inspector is gonna what, require replacement? We don’t require replacement of anything, we’ll make recommendations, but that’s it.
TM: And when was Challenger panel in a violation of electric code?
RS: I’m not aware that they ever were.
RS: I don’t even know what that means.
TM: Even panels like we’ll talk about the FPE panels, that’s not in violation of electric code.
BO: It’s violation of human code.
TM: Okay, here’s another one, “in truth it is one of the outlawed electrical services in the market with existing reports of overheating issues.”
RS: Outlawed, that’s patently false. They are not outlawed. All of this stuff you’re reading Tess, this is just inflammatory language, it is over the top, and I think when you get a lot of maybe newer home inspectors, they see a panel that they’ve never seen before, you go to the internet, you Google it, you type it in, “well, I’ve never heard of Challenger, I’m gonna do a little googling” and this is what you read, and maybe if you don’t take the time to really digest what all of this means, what they’re really saying, you just say, “well, there’s a lot of bad press out there about these panels, I better call it out to be safe.” And I think that that’s all that’s going on here is… It’s bad press, creating bad press, and then you get people reading about this and then they regurgitate it. And it gets repeated over and over again and it’s all anecdotal.
TM: Now, one thing I did read was that there might be a problem with some insurance companies covering houses that have Challenger panels. Is that a real concern?
RS: That is a potential concern. Insurance companies can have problems with a lot of stuff, I’ve heard that it’s just in Florida, maybe there’s other places, but that’s the one credible thing I’ve heard is that Florida insurance companies don’t like Challenger panels, but as we’ve learned, when it comes to insurance companies, I think most of them aren’t even going to ask what brand of panel you have. I have never had an insurance company asked me about that, they ask the server size perhaps, they might ask if you’ve got fuses or breakers.
TM: Fuse, yeah.
RS: But yeah, maybe the type of wiring you have, but I’ve never answered the question, “What brand of panel I have?” So it’s not a great argument if you ask me.
BO: Can we go back to that bad things happen with old panels quote? You watch the TV fix it shows where they’re doing the house remodeling. There’s… Inevitably in every episode there’s some moment when the designer, the contractor, needs to sit the homeowner down and have the conversation about, “Oh, my God, we lifted this thing or we found that thing, and this means this thing, it’s gotta be into that thing.” So some of these old panels are going to generate those types of conversation, okay. And one example of that would be something, Reuben, you haven’t talked about yet, but I know you’re probably going to. The Bulldog Pushmatic, it’s this service panel, it’s got these funky breakers and nothing of a new variety works in them, and so you would have to… If you needed Arc-Fault or GFCI, or something like that in the panel, you would have to install a sub-panel which… You start talking about a sub-panel, well, you’re gonna add a $1000 or probably more to the conversation, that’s one of those hidden… Hidden expenses that people don’t know about or think about. And so old usually means you’re gonna have to do some more work to make it good enough to pass inspection at…
BO: At a certain level. So…
RS: Yeah you’re right.
BO: Maybe that, too.
RS: No, you’re right, Bill. The Bulldog panels, Pushmatic panels, they are old, they’re outdated. Like you said, you can’t get replacement parts, or maybe you can, but you’re not gonna get them at your local home improvement store. And you’re certainly not gonna get Arc-Fault breakers that fit in those panels, so if you’re doing work, it can turn into a big hassle. But there’s nothing wrong with those breakers themselves, there’s no history of them failing to trip, I just wanna be clear about that. So we don’t call those out as a problem either, we might say, “You got an old outdated panel,” that’s about that.
TM: And are they from the ’50s and ’60s, roughly?
BO: ’50s up to the ’80s.
TM: ’50s to ’80s?
BO: Yeah. I think the last Pushmatics were built in the early ’80s.
TM: So one thing that can happen though, I know we’ve talked about this, is the breakers becoming stiff and difficult to reset, right? And you think about it though, you could be dealing with a breaker that’s 70 years old. It’s not shocking that… No pun intended, that it would have problems.
BO: Yeah, that means it’s been a good soldier in your basement. Do that thing a service and set it free, let it go, protect it from other…
BO: Structure, like a shed or something.
BO: I think for too many people, they get too hung up on being right and kinda… Sure you can have this very technical and conversation that sounds like a doomsday affair, but it’s not a big deal, you can fix it. There’s electricians, that’s their bread and butter replacing panels, if you ask an electrician, they probably love to do it every single day, all day long. And the other thing I wanna say is just like we sit here with our world class opinions, every single person walking around has their own opinion about what’s right, what’s wrong, what’s good, what’s bad. And because one electrician showed up and said this, or one home inspector showed up and said that. Before I get too wigged out about it, I’d probably ask for another opinion of a trusted source and just validate or corroborate this comment or this evidence, then move forward in a methodical way versus just “Oh, my God, you didn’t tell me about this panel and now I’m out $1500.”
RS: Yeah. But… Although, I will say there are some bad panels where we call them out every time and say, “Hey, you should just have this replaced.”
BO: Yeah, run through the list of garbage and why, and then… Well, maybe we can…
BO: Have a better understanding where people… These are true concerns.
RS: Yeah, yeah. The most infamous one is Federal Pacific Electric Stab-Lok panels. And those are these breakers where they would fail to trip under overload conditions, you get too much current going through it, like a dead short or something, and they just simply don’t trip, and then what happens, the wire start on fire. We had Douglas Hanson on, he shared an awesome story, about a house…
RS: He was at where the breaker tripped, another breaker tripped and then the main… No, all of the breakers of the circuit, the dryer circuit, the circuit breaker at the panel and the main circuit breaker all failed the trip, and the overhead wires were whipping back and forth [chuckle] ’cause there was so much current going through there. So Federal Pacific, we always call out for replacement of those, right?
BO: Yeah. It’s amazing how many are still around. I can take you to a 30-storey building that’s full of people, 230 condos, and I bet you 180 of them still have their Federal Pacific Panels in them.
BO: And that is all over the countryside with these early ’80s buildings, there are a lot of Federal Pacific parts and pieces used. Okay, which other ones are bad? And why?
TM: Okay, so a couple of other bad panels that we recommend replacement on are Zinsco or Sylvania panels. And for those panels, they can have problems with the busbars and expansion and contraction and… Which can lead to fires and the overheating and all sorts of problems. So those two panels are just an automatic recommendation for replacement when we come across those.
BO: You can spot them from six blocks away, because why? They look so unusual, right?
TM: Yeah, they have a different look to them and the breakers are usually thinner, and you’ll see different colored breakers too, like a light blue, a light green, even pink.
TM: Red? Yeah.
RS: Yeah. Yeah, they experiment with pastel colors.
TM: Yeah, so they just look different…
RS: Yeah, we don’t like those panels either?
TM: Not good panels.
BO: So there it is. You’ve got FPE, you’ve get the Sylvania, you’ve got the Zinscos. The Sylvanias and Zinscos that are bad look the same, they’ve got that center bar with the goofy looking breakers on them.
RS: Yeah, yeah. And there’s another one out there, similar design, similar busbars, Magnetrip, not nearly as common, but there’s a handful of those out there, I’ve got a few pictures of Magnetrip panels too. Basically, the same thing as a Zinsco or Sylvania… Older, older model.
BO: Reuben, why don’t you just explain the hazard of taking the panel off or panel cover on those center stacks, bars and breakers?
RS: Well, a big concern with this is that they would get loose from that bus bar, they had this design where they could slide up and down on the bus bar, and over time where they get hot and they get cool… At some point, the jaws stop working and stop holding it in place, and you got the potential for the breakers to just slide down right out of place and fall out of the panel, when you take the panel cover off, it’s just the cover that’s holding everything in place, and for that reason, we just don’t remove the panel covers on those. Now, if it’s a house where we suspect aluminum wiring, we’re gonna go to a bunch of other areas and we’re gonna look really hard for signs of aluminum wiring. That’s probably the one big thing we’d be concerned about inside the panel but because of these problems, we do not remove panel covers on those.
BO: And that’s simply because those dates overlap when the aluminum wiring and that panel was in service. There’s just that potential.
RS: That’s right.
TM: Yeah, mid ’60s and mid ’70s. Has that ever happened to you, Reuben? Have you ever had breakers fall out on you?
RS: No, thank goodness I haven’t, or if I did…
TM: You blocked it out.
RS: I probably shouldn’t say this, I blocked it out because I took the breaker and I put it back in the panel.
RS: But you know what, I will never admit to that. I’ve never done that.
TM: Wow, that’s scary. That’s the last thing you wanna have happen when you’re inspecting a house is you remove the panel cover and the breakers fall out on you.
RS: Yeah, yeah. Because then what do you do? You’re standing there like a dope, like, “Oh, it fell apart when I took the screws out, and I don’t know how to put it back together,” it’s like you couldn’t look any more incompetent if something like that happens, and it’s not because of anything you did, but good luck explaining that to anybody.
BO: Exactly from what you did, you took the panel cover off. This is a case of an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Just don’t do it.
RS: I know we’ll get push back on that, people saying, “Well, but then how are you gonna know if, blah blah blah, you got aluminum wiring?” Well, like I just said, we look at other places.
BO: Well, they’re welcome to come over and do it and take on the responsibility any time they want to.
TM: Any other concerns that might be going on inside the panel, like an undersized wire or double tap breaker or something like that, I think the fact that the panel is an FPE panel overrides any of those little things, or a Zinsco or Sylvania…
BO: And we’ll fix it when they put the new panel in.
TM: Yeah, exactly.
BO: That settles it. Challenger panels are just fine according to Reuben.
RS: And we may change our tune, next week, I might read some report with some really damning evidence that says that these really are bad, and if so, we’ll let people know about it and we’ll start calling those out, but as of today, all I’ve ever seen is anecdotal evidence, never seen anything to justify us calling for replacement of these panels.
BO: And like anything you get off the internet, verify it, see who’s saying it, see what their connection is to some other company and… Why would somebody get up today and decide that I’m gonna go just take down Challenger, it doesn’t make any sense to me. And again, it’s one of those problems that I would say is not a deal breaker under any circumstance, it’s just a matter of who’s gonna foot the bill and pretty low test stuff. It’s a good conversation and we can get all technical and geeky about it, but it’s not something I’m worried about. We’ve tackled all the tough subjects today, and that was fun. I like that conversation. Alright, so by the time this comes out, Reuben will already have the blog up, so any technical references that we mentioned that you wanna go refer to, they are in print on the Structure Tech blog, and we will not forget to say this, every single show, Reuben where do people send questions, comments or other correspondence?
RS: Yes, please email us, firstname.lastname@example.org.
BO: Outstanding. Well, that’s a wrap on today’s episode, you’ve been listening to Structure Talk, a Structure Tech presentation. My name is Bill Oelrich, alongside Tessa Murry and Reuben Saltzman. Thanks for listening, we’ll catch you next time.