When the power surges, circuit breakers are supposed to trip and stop the flow of electricity. Safety experts know that does not always happen with Federal Pacific Electric (FPE) brand of breakers. Some electricians say they would never allow these breakers inside the same homes as their families. Still, the nation's top safety agency has refused to issue a warning.
Phillip Freeman Sr. wears his son Brian's gold cross as a constant reminder. Four years after the electrical fire killed Brian, the Caryville, FL, father says his heartache has failed to ease.
"My wife will tell you I don't laugh a lot anymore," Freeman said. "I don't joke around anymore."
Freeman showed KCTV5 the place where Brian's trailer home used to stand and described the day he lost his son.
"It was a feeling that you could not describe," Freeman said. "Felt like somebody hit you in the chest with a sledge hammer."
The cause of the deadly blaze traced to a circuit breaker brand with a checkered past that even Freeman, a former electrician, had heard about.
"The fire marshal told me it was caused by an electrical panel, Federal Pacific Electric," he said.
KCTV5 has learned those FPE "stab-lok" circuit breakers can still be found in an estimated 17 million homes across the country, homes were built before the early 1980's.
Topeka electrician Larry Warner figures that in his city alone, there are probably 1,500 homes with one of those breakers installed.
"You are risking your life, your spouse and your kids by doing that," Warner said. "Is that a risk you are willing to take?"
"Would you live in a home that had one of these circuit breakers?" asked KCTV5 investigative reporter, Eric Chaloux.
"No. They'd make a great boat anchor," Warner replied. "That's about all it's good for."
Mechanical and materials engineer, Dr. Jesse Aronstein, has conducted numerous lab tests on the "stab-lok" circuit breakers.
"The FPE breakers may not trip when required and that presents them with an increased risk of fire and injury," Aronstein said.
Based on his research, Aronstein estimated that 2,800 electrical fires each year may be the result of breakers failing to trip; causing 116 injuries, 13 deaths and $40 million in lost property.
So how did these suspect breakers make it into American homes in the first place?
According to Aronstein, "They (FPE) basically cooked the books."
Underwriters Laboratories - or UL - is an independent safety group that tests consumer products. The lab's stamp of approval appears on a variety of household items from hairdryers to major appliances.
In 1979, FPE was bought by a different company. In March of 1982, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) received a letter from that new owner, disclosing a disturbing discovery.
It stated that, "the company has learned that the Underwriters Laboratories, Inc. (UL) listings on circuit breakers made by Federal Pacific had previously been obtained through the use of deceptive and improper practices."
A UL spokesman confirmed that with KCTV5, saying that the FPE breakers had passed their initial tests. But later, when the lab learned of apparent discrepancies, it removed its certification.
A 2002 ruling from the Superior Court of New Jersey found that "the defendant FPE knowingly and purposefully distributed circuit breakers which were not tested to meet UL standards as indicated on their label."
Still, no warning has been issued.
"CPSC has the ball in this regard," Aronstein said. "However, they have been unwilling or unable to carry this further up to this point in time."
Aronstein is referring to the Consumer Product Safety Commission, a government agency that routinely issues recalls and warnings about dangerous products.
Twice, in 1980 and 2011, the CPSC has closed investigations into the FPE breakers without being able to establish a serious risk of injury to consumers. The agency says it doesn't have the budget necessary to fully investigate the problem.
Others, like south Kansas City resident Steve Moore, have decided against waiting for any official warning. While he's never had any problem with the FPE breakers in his basement, a conversation with an insurance agent out at the family farm, east of town, prompted Moore to eliminate the brand from all his properties.
"The agent came downstairs and looked at the box and said, ‘You've got to have that replaced within 30 days, or we will not insure the house,'" Moore said. "That's when I knew there was something serious with the Federal Pacific circuit breakers."
Moore is advising other homeowners with older homes to study the research on these circuit breakers.
"Listen to what the problems are with the breakers like that," Moore said. "I didn't know. I'm sure glad I found out."
In the meantime, Freeman plans to keep telling his story of loss in the hopes of preventing others from feeling this pain.
"What do we have to go through to get somebody to put a stop to it, to something that is killing people and burning other people's houses down?" he asked.
Since investigators are not required to list specific brands in their reports, fire marshals in Missouri and Kansas could not shed light on how many fires, if any, have been caused faulty FPE breakers.
FPE has gone out of business. KCTV5 reached out to the company's former lawyers for comment but got no response.
Copyright 2012 KCTV (Meredith Corp.) All rights reserved.
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