Electrical circuit breakers manufactured by the Federal Pacific Electric (FPE) Company, and Stab-Lok® models in particular, have the potential to fail to trip in the case of an overload or short-circuit. A circuit breaker that fails to trip or that is conducting electricity after it has been disabled could cause a fire or personal injury.
Federal Pacific Electric panels were installed between the 1950s and approximately 2000. It has been estimated that there are approximately 30 million FPE Stab-Lok® breakers in use in the U.S. In the early 1980s it was confirmed that FPE fraudulently applied Underwriters Laboratories, Inc. (UL) labels to their circuit breakers falsely indicating that the equipment had met UL safety standard requirements. The Consumer Product Safety Commission performed tests on the equipment and determined failure rates in excess when compared to similar equipment produced by other manufacturers. Due to budget constraints preventing conclusive testing, no recall was initiated. It is estimated that thousands of fires each year may be a direct result of malfunctioning FPE panel breakers.
There are several distinct design deficiencies with FPE circuit breaker panel and components that promote unsafe conditions including:
- The breaker handles stick out slightly over the dead front cover opening making it difficult to remove the panel cover without tripping the breakers.
- The set of prongs at the rear of the individual breakers are designed to be inserted into a slot in the rear bus bar, but allow loose metal connections resulting in overheating and arcing. It is not unusual to see scorch marks on the bus bars of FPE equipment once the circuit breakers are removed.
- The stabs of FPE half size circuit breakers (also called “wafer” breakers) can be bent and forced into sockets designed for full-sized breakers, resulting in an overcrowded panel and loose connections.
- Having been designed and manufactured several decades ago, the equipment does not meet current codes and standards. The typical FPE panel does not have adequate space resulting in insufficient wire bending space and overcrowding of the wires.
Identification of the presence of FPE equipment is important for the safety of a building and the value of a condition assessment. There are several ways to confirm FPE as the manufacturer of electrical circuit breakers including:
- The electrical panel will typically display the FPE or related name or logo on the front cover.
- Stab-Lok® circuit breakers may be marked FPE or Federal Pacific, but may not be marked “Stab-Lok® on the breaker.
- The name “Stab-Lok® may be printed near the center or side of the inside of the electrical panel, behind the door, or on the door itself.
- The individual breakers will have a red strip across the front.
Depending on the conditions and type of FPE panel found at a building, replacement of the equipment is typically warranted.
This post is excerpted from Chuck’s recently published book, When Bad Things Happen to Good Buildings | Red Flags in PCAs: A Reference Guide to Problematic Building Materials & Conditions in the U.S.
The presence of various historically-deficient building materials such as polybutylene piping, fire-retardant treated plywood, and aluminum branch wiring is considered a “red flag” by real estate investors, managers, and lenders. The identification of these problematic building materials and/or conditions is vital to the legitimacy of the due diligence effort, critical to successfully operating a property, and imperative to profitable real estate investing.
For those investing in real estate, managing properties, and performing Property Condition Assessments, it is important to have a good working knowledge of these materials, components, and conditions due to their history of failure and the resulting impact on safety, real estate value, and operations.
The first publication of its kind, this month we are publishing a reference book which discusses 20 different problematic building materials, components, and conditions seen in commercial and residential real estate throughout the United States. The book is designed to be used by students, due diligence engineers, and real estate professionals as a reference guide while studying, evaluating, and operating commercial properties.
With over 300 images and diagrams enabling the reader to identify these problematic materials, this book discusses the following building components and conditions:
- Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene (ABS) Sanitary Piping
- Aluminum Branch Wiring
- Cadet and Encore Electric In-Wall Heaters
- Chinese Drywall
- Composite Wood Siding
- Cross-Linked Polyethylene (PEX) Piping
- Edison Base (Type T) Fused Electrical Overload Protection
- Federal Pacific Electric (FPE) Electrical Panels
- Fire Retardant Treated (FRT) Plywood
- HCFC and CFC Refrigerants in Air Conditioning Systems
- Insufficient Apartment Unit Electrical Amperage
- Microbiologically Influenced Corrosion (MIC) in Fire Sprinkler Systems
- Phenolic Foam Roofing Insulation (PFRI)
- Polybutylene (PB) Water Distribution Piping
- Recalled Fire Sprinkler Heads
- Recalled PTAC, Heat Pump, and Room Air Conditioner Units
- Single-Ply Thermoplastic Membranes
- Synthetic Stucco / Exterior Insulation Finish System (EIFS)
- Zinsco/Sylvania Electrical Panels
In addition, the book features examples of historical and informational exhibits including landmark class action settlement documents, notable recall claim forms, and detailed manufacturer’s brochures of historically-deficient building components over the past fifty years.
This first edition of the reference guide has been arranged to present the 20 historically problematic building materials and conditions commonly acknowledged in the commercial building evaluation industry. Each chapter features a different red flag with information and discussion on the following topics:
- Description of the Material, Component, or Condition
- Installation Dates
- Geographic Region
- Manufacturers and Trade Names
- Common Problems
- What to Look For During an Inspection
- Lawsuits and Recalls
- Replacement Materials
- Cost to Correct
These topics provide specific data designed to be used by due diligence and real estate professionals as a reference while evaluating, operating, and investing in commercial and residential properties. For more information, go to http://consultmcclain.com/books/.
“It takes a wise man to learn from his mistakes, but an even wiser man to learn from others.”
An important aspect of a facility assessment is a review of available documentation pertaining to the property. This step in the evaluation can uncover information otherwise unavailable once a building has been constructed.
From a review of the construction drawings one can identify many aspects of the building components that are now obscured by interior finishes and exterior cladding.
For example, analysis of the structural or waterproofing details can identify issues contributing to the poor performance of the building envelope.
In essence, the job is to learn from the mistakes of others who have participated in the facility’s construction or management in the past.
In addition, repeated and incessant questioning is integral to the facility assessment process. It is beneficial to ask similar questions in different ways during the assessment process to gain insight into the condition and status of the facility and associated equipment.
This is true for each phase of the process, including:
- initial project set up,
- issuing the pre-survey questionnaire,
- requests for documentation,
- physical inspection of the facility,
- conducting interviews, and
- report preparation.
While the assumptions and analysis of the expert engineer may be important, the success of an evaluation often depends more on the questions asked and analysis of the resulting information obtained.
The above was excerpted from Chuck’s 2014 book Zen and the Art of Facility Assessments
Buddha once said, “Things are not as they seem. Nor are they otherwise.” Every facility – new and old – has deficiencies. A new building will likely appear better than an older building with its new materials and painted surfaces, but no matter how new the facility, there are always items of note.
It’s generally assumed that a recently constructed facility will be in excellent condition and free from defects, but even new buildings can have significant deficiencies. In fact, the issues are often more subtle and more difficult to identify.
Recently constructed buildings are frequently more challenging to evaluate than older structures, since the defects and deficiencies have not yet become obvious.
There may be hairline cracks in the concrete resulting from initial shrinkage during the curing of the concrete, but there might not have been adequate time elapsed to fully decipher their implications.
New buildings may have non-compliant Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) components, even though construction was approved by the local building department and the building was granted a Certificate of Occupancy.
Buildings constructed many years ago will have experienced typical post-construction settlement and wear. Building envelope components will have experienced repeated climate cycles. Interior finishes will have experienced deterioration due to occupancy and tenant use. Older buildings will tell you a great deal about their condition, history, and likely future.
New buildings haven’t had much time yet to begin telling their story. Patterns in component use and performance are not yet established in new construction. That’s when the evaluator’s experience and expertise come into play – to determine whether or not the conditions at the property are as they seem.
~This post was excerpted from Chuck’s book Zen and the Art of Facility Assessments published in 2014.
Through the years I have had the opportunity to train new professionals in the building evaluation industry. One of the biggest challenges for those who are initially learning the ins and outs of assessments is the large degree of subjectivity and “gray areas” with which our industry is fraught.
For example, certain types of exterior wall cracking may simply be the result of routine initial material curing and other types of cracking might indicate a significant structural concern.
In certain instances it is crucial to know to what degree to rely on the building engineer’s interview answers in lieu of or in addition to your assumptions based on your site visit observations.
Or, what per unit opinions of cost are appropriate for the report may depend on the type or age of the property, the scope of repair/replacement work needed, or the client’s role in the project.
Sometimes, the best approach during an assessment is to refrain from speaking and just keep listening. What is the building engineer saying and not saying? When specific questions are asked, such as whether there are any problems with the roof or water infiltration at the windows, it is best to listen carefully to their words and body language to discern as much as possible. Conversely, sometimes it is more effective to talk informally and extensively so as to put the building contact at ease. In some cases, he or she will communicate more about what is happening with the building systems if they think of the evaluator as being on their side.
In our field, an almost Zen-like approach to issues is typically the most useful. In fact, the technical engineering field of facility assessments has a great deal in common with the ancient practice of Zen. Both Zen and facility assessments focus on the journey, with process being integral to the result. Both are focused on discovery, listening, and uncovering truths available in the moment. Allowing questions, navigating variables, and accepting the unknown are vital to both the practice of Zen and the success of a facility assessment.
Having thought about these issues through the years, this past month I completed and published a new book: Zen and the Art of Facility Assessments. It was a labor of love and includes insights into the “art” of building assessments with corresponding Zen quotes. In addition, I included artistic photographs that I’d taken at properties through the years.
Feel free to take a look at the hardcopy version at Amazon Books and the eBook version on Sellfy Books.
Exterior Insulation Finish System (EIFS) is a type of exterior building wall cladding. It was developed in Europe after World War II and became popular in the United States building industry beginning in the 1960s. EIFS is a composite material system applied to a building in pre-made panels that are a combination of an insulation component and a finished wall surface.
While EIFS can look very similar to stucco and is referred to as “synthetic stucco,” actual stucco is a very different material.
Stucco is a type of wall or ceiling finish made from cement materials, sand, and water mixed together to form a plaster. It is applied wet and hardens to a very dense solid.
Although EIFS and stucco are similar in appearance, one can distinguish them by knocking on the surface.
If it sounds hollow, it’s EIFS. If it sounds solid, it’s stucco.
Excerpted from Chuck’s upcoming book, Zen and the Art of Facility Assessments.
Property Condition Evaluations identify and quantify existing conditions and provide a framework for future facilities management. There are many reasons why real estate owners and investors perform systems evaluations. Depending on the reasons, the scope and depth of building evaluations can range tremendously.
Evaluations can range in scope from single system reviews of the electrical or roofing system, for example, to comprehensive evaluations of each building system. The level of depth in the evaluation of each system may range from a simple cursory review performed during a brief visit to the property, to extensive documentation review, field investigation, testing, laboratory analysis and engineering calculations. Evaluations can consist of destructive or non-destructive testing of system components and equipment. In an appropriately planned evaluation the reasons for, the scope of, and the depth of the evaluation are identified and implemented in such a way as to provide the maximum results to the client, whether they be owner, manager or investor.
The level of effort is usually correlated to the monetary or public relations investment in a property. If the public works department is acquiring a storage shed on the outskirts of town, an extensive review of the property is not typically necessary. A prudent course may just be an environmental assessment of the site. But if the property is a downtown high-rise which will house corporate offices or which will cost $100 million to acquire, an in-depth evaluation is warranted.
Recently we were asked to clarify the various scopes of work available to a client considering an acquisition of the property.
It could be said that there are generally three different levels of third-party engineering due diligence PCAs for properties:
- Level 1: The highest level is a team of specialists working together to perform a detailed evaluation of a facility. Typically employed for more complex buildings such as high-rise offices or historic properties, the level of effort is very high for this work and the fees to the client are in the range of $10,000 to $100,000+ depending upon the scope, facility and specialists involved. Turnaround time for reports will typically be in the 2-3 week due diligence timeframe. We have performed several of these assessments on high-rises office buildings this year and they are a great deal of work in a short amount of time but the quality and depth of the analysis are tremendously beneficial to the client.
- Level 2: The second level of assessment includes the scope that investors have typically requested through the years. This includes an extra level of effort and service in each phase of the project. While usually performed by a single evaluator, the site inspection is conducted by an experienced (likely over 10 years of experience in the due diligence field) and typically licensed engineer/architect. The assessment provides a level of investigation in between that of the team of specialists described above and the cursory baseline ASTM evaluation discussed below. More time is spent at the site and more in-depth interviews are conducted. The fees typically range from $3,000 to $5,000 but are sometimes in the $5,000 to $10,000 range depending on the scope of work and complexity of the property. Turnaround time for reports will typically be in the 1-3 week timeframe depending upon the client requirements.
- Level 3: The lowest level evaluation is a baseline ASTM level PCA that is a cursory review of a property by a single generalist. In many companies, the generalist is usually a relatively junior evaluator with less than 10 years of experience. The consultant fees for this work typically range from $1,500 to $3,000 and the market for this work is primarily focused on the lending/refinancing industry, not the pre-acquisition industry. The fees are less because the reports are ultimately less valuable. The client receives less information and service. For the most part, the ASTM level of reporting is driven primarily by lenders, not investors, whose primary interest is facilitating the transaction. Firms that offer baseline ASTM level PCA firms typically provide Phase I ESA reports as well at generally the same fees. Generally speaking, the nature of the ESA is more black-and-white than that of a PCA where there are many different components at each property and experience of the on-site evaluator is the key to whether or not the client is getting the information they need. Turnaround time for reports will typically be in the 2-4 week timeframe.
There is a place for each of these levels of service depending upon what will serve the client’s needs. Obviously, the level of due diligence in an ASTM baseline PCA is not nearly as thorough as a team of specialists evaluating the property and it is much more likely that unexpected issues and expenses would be encountered post-acquisition. The challenge for the client lies in deciding what level will work best for their investment and risk tolerance.
How do you define your levels of service? What do you think about the way I’ve defined the levels of PCAs? Do you agree, or do you think I’ve overlooked something important? Leave a comment below!
For the better part of a year, in between assessment projects for clients, I’ve been spending time updating a book I wrote back in the early 1990s called the Building Systems Evaluation Handbook. Initially, it seemed like and simple task to put out a 20th anniversary edition. A few new pictures, some new information – that sounds easy, doesn’t it? As I began to delve into the project, I realized that it wouldn’t be enough to just update it here and there – 20 years was a lot of new information and industry advancement to cover. I ended up rewriting quite a bit of the text, updating what was still accurate and writing new sections entirely until eventually a whole new book, complete with a new title: the Property Condition Assessment Handbook , was born.
The visuals required updating as well. The original book was written and illustrated on a Macintosh SE with 256KB of ROM and 1MB of RAM for the entire system! The new book needed new graphics, charts, and numerous pictures. It was enjoyable revisiting my years of evaluations to select images for each section.
All of the forms and appendices have been updated, including new sources for additional information. My staff and I performed hours of research to find the best exhibits to include with the new text.
What was supposed to be a very easy project quickly became very complicated, although it was nostalgic to go back in time two decades and remember how we used to perform the work – before cell phones, ASTM standards, digital cameras and email…
Evaluating Structural Systems – Excerpted from Chuck’s upcoming 20th Anniversary Edition of the PCA Handbook.
The scope and level of depth in diagnosing the structural system can vary widely. The system’s components are frequently reviewed superficially during a general ASTM-Standard PCA walk-through of the interior and exterior of a building. All going well, this level of review will typically identify the most obvious of deficiencies. For example, the deflecting of a cracked structural member or significant perimeter wall settlement cracking should be discovered during this level of review.
The structural system can also be reviewed in greater depth than almost any other building system. Complete structural calculations and 3-dimensional modeling can determine design and actual load capacities for any given member in a building. This type of detailed analysis is most easily done if the original as-built construction drawings are available.
Typically, the scope of an evaluation falls somewhere in between those two extremes. The structural system’s components typically will have been designed with an adequate factor of safety and, with the exception of lateral load resisting design, significant deficiencies are unusual. Also, the majority of the system’s components are concealed behind building finishes, both exterior and interior, thus in most cases in-depth observation is cost-prohibitive for the client. The system’s horizontal components and connections can usually be investigated by accessing a ceiling or floor cavity.
Sometimes a representative number of members and connections are accessible for review to provide a sufficient indication of the system’s condition. In some instances, destructive testing is warranted to verify structural connections. The appropriate level of investigation can be dictated by the age and complexity of facility, geographic region, and the specific interests of the client.
Excerpted from Chuck’s upcoming 20th Anniversary Edition of the PCA Handbook.