Is your GTE-Sylvania electrical panel safe?

Do you have an electrical breaker panel in your home that has the name GTE-Sylvania on it?  At one point GTE-Sylvania purchased the problematic Zinsco electrical panel line.  But is your GTE-Sylvania panel really just a wolf in sheep’s clothing!

History of The Product Line

For many people the history part of any home building component is a boring subject.  Unfortunately in this case it is important to touch on the history of the GTE-Sylvania electrical breaker panel line, at least some what, to understand how this issue came to be.  If you Google search “GTE-Sylvania & Defect” you will encounter page after page of bulletin board postings, blogs, articles, etc., regarding the the problems associated with this line of electrical panel.  Many of those WEB references will also make mention of the Zinsco line of electrical panel.  This is where the GTE-Sylvania brand name became associated with problems.

Zinsco was a company that GTE-Sylvania purchased approximately in 1973.  Over the years though the companies, and brand lines, were sold off multiple times.  As a result the amount of specific information was buried in these transactions.  The specific dates of the transactions, who bought what, etc., is not really available in one place.  The order though went something like this:

  • GTE-Sylvania bought the Zinsco company in 1973.
  • From 1973 to about the early 1980′s was a very sketchy time for the GTE-Sylvania/Zinsco history.  During that time GTE-Sylvania continued to sell the Zinsco line under the Zinsco name.  They also were reported to have worked on the flawed Zinsco design (to be talked about shortly) and started manufacturing the panels and breakers under their own name.  It was also rumored that at one point they might also have tested and checked the existing Zinsco stock of equipment, pulled labels and re-branded them with their own labels.  Remember that is only a rumor, but their own line of equipment did suffer many of the Zinsco design problems as well.
  • At this point the line was then sold on from GTE-Sylvania to Challenger Electrical Equipment Corp., to Westinghouse, to Cutler-Hammer, and the last I can find to Eaton Corp.

From the time of its inception at Zinsco, to the Eaton ownership, the line has been modified, re-branded, and eventually discontinued.  During that progression the details are buried and lost.  After all who really wants to be associated with such a stigma of a product that was once thought to be ground breaking but instead has turned into such an issue?

The Problem

The problem originated with the Zinsco design defect.  If you Google search “Zinsco & defect” you will find many, many pages of horrific stories regarding the Zinsco electrical panel failures.  The Zinsco line of panels were considered groundbreaking equipment when it was first introduced.  Unfortunately its design was flawed and became problematic for many of the panels as the panel aged.  The most significant flaw was the method that the breakers attached to the electrical bus bar behind them.  The breakers did not have a positive mechanical fastener, such as a screw, holding the breaker in place against the buss bar.  Instead the design used a metal clip fastener that would spread apart and grip the buss bar behind it.  The clips would spread apart, loosing their tension grip on the buss bar.  This would allow the breakers themselves to become loose and literally cause gaps between the clip and buss bar.  When this happened there could be arcing between the breaker clips and the buss bar behind it.  The arcing caused a multitude of problems and fire potentials to include:

  • Arcing on the buss bar could cause flickering lights as the connections were temporarily lost.
  • Clips and breakers that welded themselves to the buss bar.
  • Overheating of the breakers to the point the internal metallic contacts welded themselves together permanently.  When this happened the breaker obviously would not shut down power if a high current condition occurred on the circuit wiring down line from the breaker.  This could allow wiring to overheat causing fires or devices to overheat causing fires.
  • Damage to the breaker to the point where it appeared alright but would not fully open leaving the contacts together still.
  • On double breakers with tie handles between them to cause both sides to trip when one leg experienced a trip condition would not trip as the other side was damaged and would not open.  Essentially the damaged side prevented the other side from tripping.
  • Excessive heat from a failing breaker could affect breakers around it damaging them as well.

In all of that Zinsco reading you will see references to the GTE-Sylvania company that purchased Zinsco many years ago.  Yet there seems to be little direct reference to the GTE-Sylvania line of equipment, not directly marked with the Zinsco markings, as being a problem as well.  In these readings identifying a problem Zinsco panel is explained as looking for the following:

  • The “Zinsco” name on the the panel exterior label(s).
  • If panel labels were missing the circuit breaker labeling had “Zinsco” on it.  But to see this you had to remove the panel cover.
  • On the metal panel cover the Zinsco product line name “Magnetrip” was embossed directly in the metal panel cover.
  • The Zinsco panel was noted as having the multi-colored breaker handles with greens, blue, red, white, etc., colors.
  • With the panels protective dead-front cover off there were other signs inside such as the buss rails perpendicular to the back plane allowing clip in breakers to be inserted, as well as other signs.
GTE-Sylvania electrical panel

This is the picture of a GTE-Sylvania electrical panel encountered on a recent inspection. There were no outward markings with the Zinsco name.

GTE-Sylvania electrical panel blue foil label.

This is a close-up shot of the GTE-Sylvania blue foil label on the electrical panel pictured above. Notice that there is no mention of "Zinsco" on the label.

However, twice this year I have encountered a GTE-Sylvania panel that was most likely either a relabeled Zinsco panel, or it was one of the early GTE-Sylvania redesigned panels that had the same engineering flaw as the Zinsco line of panels.  During a recent home inspection I was greeted with this electrical panel that was not marked with any of the Zinsco markings.  The picture at left shows the panel before the protective dead-front cover was removed.  It was instead clearly marked with the GTE-Sylvania label, and no wording of Zinsco on it, or Zinsco embossed in the metal cover.  Another reported sign of a Zinsco panel, or a GTE-Sylvania redesign and flawed panel, was this blue foil label and the additional signs noted above.  But this one certainly had the appearance of a Zinsco electrical panel with the many Zinsco features.   Another panel earlier this year was also of the same panel design, and GTE-Sylvania markings but without the Zinsco labels or markings on anything but one breaker inside.

Both of these panels bore all of the signs that they may well be either a re-branded Zinsco panel or a first generation GTE-Sylvania panel using the same flawed design as the Zinsco problem panels.  The final tell-tale signs came by opening the panels and seeing the buss arrangements, clip style breaker attachments, and other conditions.

These panels are now old and most, along with the original Zinsco line, have been called obsolete by various people, agencies, and businesses who are familiar with them and their issues.  The panels themselves are no longer made, and have not been for quite some time, as far as I can find.  The breakers for them are no longer manufactured by any or the original companies who owned the lines and brands.  There is at least one reputable company that is manufacturing replacement breakers for them.

However greed has reared its ugly head in two ways to add yet another level of significant hazards to these panels!  Recently the US Immigrations and Customs Enforcement office raided and shut down an Austin, TX company that was selling counterfeit breakers that did include the Zinsco line which can fit in these suspect re-branded Zinsco panels.  You can read the story HERE.  Counterfeit breakers have no expectation of any quality control during their production.  They also are generally not tested by any accredited agency to ensure they will properly function and are not a hazard themselves.  This is just one incident of counterfeit breakers in a string of them and it is not expected to be the last as long as money can be made from doing it.

The second group taking the greed route are Electricians and Handymen that through greed, or even ignorance, obtain old breakers from previously removed panels and use them to perform repairs on existing panels.  The greedy ones obtain these for free and charge dearly for them.  The ignorant ones think they are helping you save money by practically giving you the old, used breakers and only charging you labor for them.  Either way they have no real idea of the true condition of the breakers and are most likely only installing a faulty, or potentially faulty, breaker in your panel.  No electrical equipment should be re-used without proper testing, and no electrical equipment with a history of defective operation such as this should even be used with or without testing.

So what can you do?  What should you do?  Read on for more.

The Solutions

First off whether you are buying or own a home with one of these panels do not freak out!  Not all of these panels are a problem even with their defective design and history of issues.  But the only way to know for sure is to have it checked out!  The only proper way to check these panels is by a licensed Electrician who is familiar with this brand line.  The Electrician will have to shut the panel down and remove every breaker to check it for damage as well as damage to the buss behind it.

If you are purchasing a home with one of these panels YOU MUST have the panel checked before the end of your option period!  Listen to the recommendations of the Electrician and obtain a written report of its condition along with a written estimate for the repairs or replacement.  These panels are old and just their age, operating conditions, and equipment conditions alone might be cause for concern by the Electrician.  Many times the Electrician will recommend replacement instead of repairs.  Depending on the work required, and other electrical conditions in the home, replacing a panel can be costly.  You need to know this before your option period ends as you can still back out of the purchase if it is well beyond your expectations and ability to pay for corrections.

Your family’s safety can not be measured in dollars!  You should not take a chance with it just to save a few bucks!

Links and References

PS Inspection & Property Services LLC is a full service home inspection and light commercial inspection company servicing the entire Dallas/Fort Worth metroplex.  We strive to for the satisfaction of our customers in everything we do.  Our services offerings include:

Buyer home inspections
New Home Warranty Inspections
New Home Draw Inspections
Home Maintenance Inspections
Home Remodeling Inspections
Investor Inspections
Rental And Renter Inspections
Infrared Thermal Imaging Inspections
Energy Audit Inspections
Whole Inspections Or Inspections Customized To Your Needs

If you have an inspection need we can customize an inspection for it.  Please visit our main site at PS Inspection & Property Service LLC.

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