Quick! What kind of electrical panel do you have in your home? Chances are you don’t know—and that lack of knowledge could be harmful to you and your family.
If your home was built before 1990, you may well have an outdated electrical panel. Electrical panels are designed for safety: to prevent too much power from flowing to the same area at once and overheating or causing a fire. But many of the panels installed before 1990 have safety issues of their own. Let’s take a look at some of the most common outdated electrical panels, so you can be aware for your own safety.
- Federal Pacific Electric. FPE panels were very common in homes for over 30 years, until about 1980. Unfortunately, they don’t trip when they’re supposed to, and instead of short circuiting, can end up causing fires. And even when the circuit is turned off, power may still be flowing to it, which can cause electrocution if you think the circuit is off and it’s not. If you have this type of panel, it’s fairly easy to spot, as it will likely say, “Federal Pacific Electric” on the front. You can also check inside for the circuit breaker brand label, “Stab-Loc.”
- Zinsco. If your home was built in the 70s, it may have a Zinsco panel. The circuit breakers in these panels would melt to the bus bar, making it impossible for the circuit to trip. As such, a short or a power surge could melt the wires, causing them to burn. If your electrical panel says “Zinsco,” that’s a sure sign that it should be replaced. However, many Zinsco panels were rebranded as Sylvania or GTE-Sylvania panels, which can be just as dangerous. If you have one of these two logos on your panel, have an electrician inspect it to see if it’s safe.
- Split-Bus. While the first two outdated electrical panels were specific brands, these next two are general designs. Unfortunately, that means you can’t tell you have one just from a logo, and you’ll have to look a little harder. Split-bus electrical panels aren’t unsafe in and of themselves, but the design has since been replaced and hasn’t been used in 40 years. That means if you have one, it’s well past its expected lifespan, and could cause a variety of problems. To see if yours is a split-bus panel, look to see if the breakers are divided into two groups. Modern single bus panels have a single disconnect breaker, but split-bus panels don’t. If you see two groups of breakers and no single disconnect, you may have a split-bus and should look into having it replaced with a newer electrical panel.
- Fuse Box. These are the precursors to the modern circuit breaker. If you have one of these, you probably know it. With a circuit breaker, you can just reset after an overload by flipping a switch. However, if you have too much power on a single fuse, the fuse blows and must be replaced. Again, these aren’t inherently dangerous, but replacing fuses, in addition to being a costly hassle, can lead to other problems. First of all, fuse boxes typically have fewer fuses than circuit breakers have circuits. This makes it easier to overload them, and makes replacements more frequent. And if you take steps to reduce blowouts, by replacing the fuse with a bigger one, or by simply putting a coin or other piece of metal in the slot where the fuse was, you can inadvertently create a fire hazard.
If you find that you do have one of these outdated electrical panels, call an electrician. They can inspect it to see how likely it is to cause you problems, and advise you on which current models are the safest and most efficient. But the most important thing is to get it taken care of as soon as possible. The longer you wait, the more likely you are to have an incident. Safety first!