Most of us take our older home’s electrical system for granted. Unfortunately, the panels that route the power throughout the home could have worn out components, or they could be outdated and require a critical update to prevent a fire hazard.
Electrical panels house the connections and circuit breakers which bring power into and distribute it throughout the home. This is where all the power is being received and distributed, and this is where most of the safety features protecting the home and occupants from power surges, overloads, short circuits, or ground faults are located. There are currently three brands of electrical panels that are no longer being manufactured and should be replaced, Federal Pacific Electric (FPE), Challenger, and Zinsco (we have seen several Federal Pacific and Zinsco in our inspections in DE and MD). These panels, most of which are well over 20 years old, have breakers that appear normal but which can overheat over time and create a risk of fire. Replacement parts are hard to come by and expensive. Additionally, these problem panels are well known amongst tradesmen and home inspectors, as well as most insurers, and their mere presence will almost certainly encumber any future sale of the home.
You can check the brand of your panel by looking at front dead panel/cover or inside where the breakers are. Unfortunately, you will not be able to see if any overheating has started to occur as this happens from the back of the breakers as they char or melt. Pulling a breaker to check is beyond the scope of a home inspection and the connection in the back may crumble during removal. This is why professional evaluation and replacement is critical, you don’t know how long the breakers may have been overheating and only an experienced electrician can see how close the panel is to failing without causing damage or compromising safety.
To recap, a breaker melted to the buss bar of one of these panels can no longer adequately trip (open the circuit and stop the flow of electricity) during an overcurrent or short circuit, which periodically occurs in any residential electrical supply. Once that happens, it cannot be stopped or shut off manually inside the home. Electricity will burn until it runs out of fuel or the wires melt and/or the panel catches fire!
Older panels from other manufacturers are not free from potentials risks and should be inspected if they were installed over twenty years ago. The components of the breakers that help them do their job effectively can degrade over time and cause them to malfunction. This can lead to overheating and a possible fire hazard. Scheduling a panel and smoke detector inspection is a good way to safeguard your family or employees and mitigate the risk posed by worn or obsolescent electrical distribution equipment.