IN FEBRUARY, MY WIFE AND I escaped Boston’s record-breaking winter and traveled to Florida, where my in-laws have a 45-year-old seasonal home in a 55–plus residential community. We were there to do some upkeep, and it didn’t take us long to recognize some of the risks faced by our nation’s aging population—people who live in aging homes and are dependent on aging electrical wiring systems.
The home had been vacant for several months, so when we arrived I spent some time checking for typical problems like water leaks and insects. I didn’t expect to encounter electrical outlets that were turning on and off by themselves. I called a licensed electrician, who discovered a serious arcing condition in a branch circuit that was on the verge of starting a fire. We also learned that, just a few weeks before our arrival, neighbors had lost their home to a fire that was caused by an electrical arc fault.
Aging adults and aging wiring are a dangerous mix. Arcing causes an estimated 34,300 home structure fires each year in the U.S., according to NFPA data. These fires result in an annual average of 320 civilian deaths, 1,150 civilian injuries, and $1 billion in direct property damage. Older Americans are often the victims of these fires because they are likely to live in older homes with aging wiring, and people on fixed incomes may not have the ability to upgrade or make repairs to their electrical systems. Even worse, they may try do-it-yourself fixes that can be even more dangerous. According to NFPA statistics, adults 65 and older face the highest risk of fire death, along with children under age five.
We know, based on work conducted by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission and others, that the frequency of fires in residential electrical systems is disproportionately higher in homes that are more than 40 years old. A study by the Fire Protection Research Foundation attributed this phenomenon to a number of critical factors, including inadequate and overburdened electrical systems, misuse of extension cords and makeshift circuit extensions, thermally reinsulated walls and ceilings that bury wiring, and poorly done electrical repairs. The homes of today will not be immune to these conditions as they become the older homes of tomorrow.
Fortunately, the 2014 edition of NFPA 70®, National Electrical Code®, specifies a simple, cost-effective solution to the problem of arc-fault fires by requiring the installation of arc-fault circuit interrupters, or AFCIs, in new dwelling units. Opponents of the requirement continue to lobby for its removal at the state and local levels, claiming that AFCIs unnecessarily increase the cost of new homes beyond the means of prospective buyers. They also claim that new electrical systems are not prone to arc-faults.
What they fail to acknowledge is that new electrical systems soon become aging electrical systems, which could result in fires caused by arc faults. The reality is that the installation of AFCIs in new homes, in accordance with the 2014 NEC®, costs about the same as a cup of coffee per month over the life of a 30-year mortgage.
We know what the problem is. We know what the solution is. Let’s stop pretending that new homes are immune from electrical fires and that they will never become old homes. Let’s ensure that every new dwelling in the country is protected by AFCIs—a technology that is proven to save lives and prevent the destruction of our homes.