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Old Pushmatic subpanels


John Kogel
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I've got an inspection to do in a 50 year old condo building. I expect to see an antique Pushmatic subpanel in there. Copper branch conductors with conduit providing the grounding. No evidence of any problems, just old.

Should I automatically call for replacement of any breaker panel this old? Or testing of the breakers by an electrician?

There are about 40 units in the building. Would it be stepping out of line to recommend that strata council have all the breaker panels in the building tested?

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At least in my area, I haven't heard of any problems with Pushmatic panels, and have never personally seen any signs of problems with them on inspections outside of those seen on other panels. I never call for replacement of them, but do show the clients the different way to shut them off compared to what they're usually used to.

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I've got an inspection to do in a 50 year old condo building. I expect to see an antique Pushmatic subpanel in there. Copper branch conductors with conduit providing the grounding. No evidence of any problems, just old.

Should I automatically call for replacement of any breaker panel this old? Or testing of the breakers by an electrician?

There are about 40 units in the building. Would it be stepping out of line to recommend that strata council have all the breaker panels in the building tested?

I have a serious weak spot for those panels. They're some of the best ever made. I really like the way that the breakers bolt onto the busbar and the breakers themselves are very robust.

There's absolutely nothing to go wrong with the *panel* part. As for the breakers, they are old. That means that they'll have a lower interrupt rating (probably 5,000a vs 10,000a for a modern one) and, like any other mechanical device, they might be more prone to failure than a new breaker would be. In my experience, these breakers tend to fail mechanically when the old plastic bodies become brittle. One day you push the button, the plastic breaks, and bits & pieces of the breaker fly across the room. I'm not aware of a problem with the breakers failing to trip when they're supposed to, the way that FPE & Zinsco breakers do.

I doubt that most electricians in your area would have any idea of how to test the breakers to UL 489 let alone have a bench test rig set up. In my area, we have a company, Oregon Breakers, that does this kind of testing, but they use it as part of their business, which is salvaging & re-selling old breakers. I don't know if someone could walk in off the street and ask to have a bag full of breakers tested. Seems unlikely.

Personally, when I run into these puppies I inspect them just as I'd inspect a newer panel. I might mention that they might have to replace a breaker now & then and I'd warn them that new Pushmatic breakers are expensive. If I knew that my customers were planning to do work on the house, I might mention that you can't get AFCI breakers for these panels. So if they need to add AFCIs, they'll have to run those circuits to a small sub panel and put the AFCIs there.

- Jim Katen, Oregon

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We see hundreds per year with no specific concern. Kinda like a Rolls Royce vs a Yugo - Both can have flat tires, just that the Rolls likely does not have el cheapo skins on it.

I believe Pushmatic panels are one of the better panels. Little expensive.

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Ok. thanks. If I don't see anything alarming in there I'll just describe what it is and let the client decide if it suits the purpose.

A while back I found this really pristine Pushmatic panel in the basement of a 1960's house. It has the bulldog cover over the main breaker and was installed with obvious loving care.

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  • 5 months later...

How does 'inspector lore' begin?

I attended a seminar today; 2 hours was dedicated to electrical.

Here's one PowerPoint frame:-

Defected panels

Federal Pacific Equipment 'Stab Lock' (their spelling)

Zinsco

PushMatic

Failure of overload devices to trip, age of design or improper materials used.

They provided documentation (photos) of the bad Zinsco & FPE but nothing on a PushMatic.

Another statement he made to the class was DO NOT remove the cover of a FPE.

There were about 100 inspectors there; it easy to see where inspectors go wrong.

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Darren, I see them (FPE) all the time down here in south jersey.

I think they say not to remove the cover because you usually can't without tripping all the breakers, the twist-outs are too small to fit over the breakers in the "on" position.

Also, I've had several breakers fall off the busbars as well.

I don't remove them anymore.

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I remove the cover every time...real carefully. I always recommend replacement too but if I see abundant signs of burned conductors, busbars, etc, I may go beyond that and recommend that power be immediately removed from the panel until such time that it can be replaced. That's what I'm looking for when I remove covers.

Marc

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I remove the cover every time...real carefully. I always recommend replacement too but if I see abundant signs of burned conductors, busbars, etc, I may go beyond that and recommend that power be immediately removed from the panel until such time that it can be replaced. That's what I'm looking for when I remove covers.

Marc

That why I don't remove them.

What happens when the deal falls through and the homeowner is left with a panel with dangling breakers and no dead-front….they call me to fix it at my expense.

I don't own the house, my clients aren't buying it and I took it apart.

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I've removed dozens of them, maybe hundreds. I've only ever had one breaker fall out. I turned it off, snapped it back in, turned it on, compiled my laundry list of stuff that was screwed up besides that fact that it was an FPE panel and put the cover back on.

ONE TEAM - ONE FIGHT!!!

Mike

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There must be some significant regional variation on Pushmatics. They were popular here (SF Bay Area) in the early 1950s, and after that the other usual suspects became the equipment of choice. I might not feel bad about them if I had ever inspected one of those panels that wasn't a mess, but alas that is not the case.

The original equipment is no longer made, and last I looked Siemens held the rights for the only UL listed replacement breakers, and charged a fortune for them. The effect of them having been out of our market for over a half century is that almost every panel I have seen with them has been a maze of double taps or direct taps to the bus bars, along with all the usual things you find in equipment that has become inadequate to handle the additional loads that folks will apply in the decades since the panel was installed.

Adding to their woes, few Bulldog breakers meet the modern standard for a 10k AIC rating, and with our power grids being increasingly networked, and with rising available fault currents, any pre-1970s breaker is at risk of explosion in a dead short. While I've only personally witnessed that with FPE, there is no reason to think that Bulldog will somehow be able to handle high fault currents for which they were never designed just because they made a better bus connection.

It could be very different in other parts of the country. For instance, in Kurt's territory, conduit and EMT are the norm, and they create a separate grounding path. A bulldog subpanel with a bonded neutral might be repairable in the windy city, and it might not be as old as Kurt. Out here (in NM land), it is likely to require replacing an SEU cable that feeds the panel. The cost of replacing that feeder will usually make the cost of replacing the subpanel seem like small change.

We are in a very different era than that of the Bulldog panel. Today we have many more circuits, equipment grounding conductors, and AFCIs. As folks add more loads, any older panel is going to run up against the limit of its obsolesence, even if it was good equipment for its time. If I had a relative buying a house with a Bulldog panel, I would tell them to either replace it or use no electrical appliances manufactured since 1960.

As to FPE breakers falling out, I have only found that when the "E" type (wafer) breakers have been forced into the "F" slot that is intended to reject them. It does happen fairly often, and you generally can see if that is likely before you take off the cover. Even without that problem, it is still difficult to get the covers off due to the ridiculously poor engineering, where the cover can't pull straight off and must be jockeyed around the breaker handles on one side and then the other. Along with the spring-loaded bus mount, it becomes far more likely that you will inadvertently trip a breaker when taking off an FPE deadfront as compared to the deadfront of a civilized panel.

Douglas Hansen

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That why I don't remove them.

What happens when the deal falls through and the homeowner is left with a panel with dangling breakers and no dead-front….they call me to fix it at my expense.

I don't own the house, my clients aren't buying it and I took it apart.

Ahhh, But you can always say "it failed under testing and I may have saved your house from burning down."

Let's say your client does buy this 'bi-level' house and you recommended they replace the FPE that you didn't remove the cover from.

Douglas comes in to replace the panel and tells Mr. buyer; hey guy, I can replace the panel for $1,200, but it'll cost you another $5,000 to replace all the aluminum wiring in the house that 'your home inspector should of told you about'.

NJ SOP states a HI shall inspect...including interior components of main panel and sub panels.

I would say I've inspected over a hundred FPE and only once did a breaker fall out. I put it back in, told everyone on site (including the owner) what happened and to have an electrician come out and check the panel.

Douglas,

What you're saying has to be blamed on the 'on-site' work of homeowners and electricians, and would be pointed out by any HI on any panel- it's not that the PushMatic panel is 'Defective'.

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Douglas,

What you're saying has to be blamed on the 'on-site' work of homeowners and electricians, and would be pointed out by any HI on any panel- it's not that the PushMatic panel is 'Defective'.

Hi,

That's not what I took away from it at all. I'm paraphrasing, but it sounded to me more like he said that they are often screwed up by homeowner add-ons, which is bad enough, but they weren't designed with some of our modern-day issues in mind; and, because of that their design is obsolete and the breakers are quite possibly likely to literally self-destruct under certain modern issues. Sounds like a pretty good reason to recommend replacing them; especially if they are old.

When was the last time Bulldog panels were made and sold retail? I have a basic rule of thumb I go by; if it's a panel that's more than 40 years old it's obsolete and it's time to replace it. That makes it easy to deal with most older Zinsco and FPE panels.

ONE TEAM - ONE FIGHT!!!

Mike

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NJ SOP: #1

Enter any area or perform any procedure which is, in the opinion of the home inspector or associate home inspector, unsafe and likely to be dangerous to the inspector or other persons;

I include a "Super Boilerplate" on FCP's, a whole page telling people how I feel about this equipment. I really want them to have an electrician evaluate the panel.

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