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668 - Neighbor of the Beast

Losing your power during a heatwave is fun, fun, fun. So is learning you were lucky to not have your house burn down.

Rating: 2 votes, 5.00 average.
Power had been flaky all week, really. This heatwave that's swamped the US has obviously made a lot of people desire to crank up the AC and cool off. Breakers and stuff began flipping on our old box, but obviously, we thought little of it aside to go over to the breaker box, flip it back, and maybe try to use a little less juice.

That was all good and well, until about 8 PM Wednesday night, when four ACs were running in the house. This time, the whole house went dark, and when we tried to flip it, not only would the main breaker not re-flip, but we could smell the fried wires.

We were smart, and got the electricity shut off until an electrician could come out in the morning, but man was it a fun night. The rooms rapidly warmed up into the 80s, and once the sun rose, the house quickly reached a sweltering 92. A night spent playing on my DSi XL, PS Vita, and OpenPandora just to kill time.

The electrician comes, and we get two shots of bad news.
  • His original estimate of $500 to fix the thing? No longer happening. He needed $1300 - $800 for parts, $500 for labor.
  • He figured we might be without power for up to three days, pending what his second guy said.

Now, to balance this out, we also did get one shot of good news... in a way. As it turns out, our old switchbox was from a company called Federal Pacific Electric Company, and they were in business from the 1950s up to about 1986. It was basically one generation removed from the old screw-in fuse boxes. He called these things "Widowmakers" and said that he's seen no less than three houses burn down entirely due to the fact they were using Federal Pacific switchboxes. Research on the Internet definitely confirms he wasn't bullshitting at all.

As it turns out, they faked tests to get a UL certificate, and these boxes have a failure rate of 60-80% once even a single breaker trips. This means that it might still be conducting electricity even when you flip the breaker switch to off, or it could start a fire by failing to trip in response to overcurrent.

But in the end, everything worked out well. Aside from the fact that I'm the one who had to pay the $1300 (as I'm the only one who had that kind of money in their bank account...), within six hours we had power restored, on a much cleaner, now totally up-to-code breaker box. He had us test it by turning everything in the house on - lights, all four ACs, all TVs, computers, you name it - and after half an hour, the new wires weren't even warm. As it turned out, it wasn't even that we were running four ACs - it's that the amount of current was just to much for a box that old; a modern home is supposed to have 150 Amps for it, but the old box wasn't quite equipped for that.

The old Federal Pacific box, on the other hand? It was still noticeably warm to the touch when the electrician began working on it - 14 hours after it blew.

So, lessons learned? It's good to pay $1300 over the alternatives of your house burning down or, worse, losing your life. And, for the love of god, if you happen to have one of those Federal Pacific switchboxes in your home, get that damn thing replaced - now, before something like this happens.

Click here to see if you got one of the two most problematic types of circuit breakers, either the Federal Pacific or Zinsco. They apparently still exist in millions of American and Canadian homes, so it can't hurt to check. If your home was built after the 1970s or so, odds are you won't, but if you do, seriously consider getting an electrician out to replace the thing.

You don't want to gamble with "It works fine" because one good short is all it takes to start a fire in the walls. Electricity is one of those things you simply do not screw with, and no monetary cost is comparable to your home or your life going up in flames.


  1. Bittersweet's Avatar
    Wow, Darpies! Are you okay? :(
  2. Dark Pulse's Avatar
    Quite fine. Just $1300 in the hole, but thankfully no longer dealing with a sweltering heatwave. (The thunderstorms are rolling through right now and knocked the temperature down to 70.)

    Those two burnt-out pictures, obviously, are not of my switchbox, but show just how dangerous these Federal Pacific switchboxes can be.
  3. Vigilantia's Avatar
    Glad to hear you're okay. 4 ACs though... that seems excessive. Do you live in Arizona or something?
  4. Dark Pulse's Avatar
    Quote Originally Posted by Vigilantia
    Glad to hear you're okay. 4 ACs though... that seems excessive. Do you live in Arizona or something?
    ...You could see where I lived on the right sidebar.

    No, we just baked under an excessive heatwave for most of the last week. Rain moved through late Friday into Saturday and as a result, we've now cooled off a good deal.
  5. Bittersweet's Avatar
    Roast Darpies.
  6. Dark Pulse's Avatar
    I've already been burned a few times in my life; I'd prefer to not do that again, thank you.