AFCIs Tell a Life-Saving Story Worth Listening to About Home Electrical Safety
Arc fault circuit interrupters (AFCIs) are electrical devices that are designed to sense an abnormal arcing condition within electrical wiring. Normal arcing conditions, such as a light switch being turned off or a plug being pulled from a receptacle, are permitted by the AFCI and will not open the device. In 1992, the United States Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), an independent federal regulatory agency charged with protecting the public from unreasonable injury or death from consumer products, engaged Underwriters Laboratories (UL) in a study to help evaluate products and technology that would help reduce residential fires. During their research, UL identified “arcing faults” as a potential source of ignition that could lead to residential fires, therefore calling for development of a product that would be able to help reduce this potential in homes. In turn, manufacturers began research and development of a product that would meet this need. Many argue that AFCIs are just a means for manufacturers to increase profits. While the reality is that the cost for an AFCI is substantially higher than that of a standard breaker or device, it seems to be logical that could be attributed to AFCIs offering more protection and undertaking considerable research to develop and update the product. It is also important to keep in mind that the derivation of the need for manufacturers to create AFCIs came from a problem determined by UL research findings at the request of the CPSC trying to make homes safer for consumers, being less prone to fires.
After rigorous product testing by the UL, AFCIs were first introduced into the 1999 National Electrical Code® (NEC®) at which time they were initially only required in bedrooms. In the seven, three-year cycles that the NEC has underwent since 1999, AFCI requirements have been expanded to other areas of homes, such as kitchens, family rooms, dining rooms, living rooms, hallways, closets, laundry areas, and similar areas. AFCI requirements within the NEC have even been expanded beyond the home to dormitories, hotel and motel guest rooms and suites, and patient sleeping rooms in nursing homes and limited-care facilities. As AFCI requirements continued to grow within the NEC, each change took place through the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) consensus-based standards development process. Through this public process, proposed changes are accepted and reviewed by Code Making Panels (CMP’s) that are made up of individuals that represent inspectors, installers, testing laboratories, manufacturers, labor groups, and users – all with years of experience in the electrical industry. So, we now have a product that has been researched and developed to meet a CPSC request to reduce home fires. This product has been introduced into, and expanded throughout, the National Electrical Code by a consensus-based standards development process that accepts proposed changes (twice during the full process), which then gets thoroughly reviewed by a balanced group of industry experts, before any new code requirements are created. It doesn’t seem too far-fetched to think that a product that has been fully vetted and implemented like AFCIs have would be well accepted. However, depending on who you are talking to, you may be wrong.
“AFCIs are such a nuisance!” If I only had a dollar for every time that I heard that phrase spoken to me by an installer or homeowner, I might be giving Jeff Bezos some competition. Being in the electrical industry for nearly 30 years, I have been there B.A. (before AFCIs) and D.A. (during AFCIs). As a master electrician, electrical contractor, apprenticeship instructor, and member of a state electrical board, I have many unique views that have led me to becoming a supporter of AFCI protection. Without question, in the early 2000’s, I remember how difficult it was to troubleshoot tripping AFCIs and learning to adapt my wiring methods, such as not sharing neutrals between circuits, to accommodate this change in the NEC. Let’s face it, change is hard to accept, as well as implement, and there was a lot of painstaking trial-and-error. But my mindset was always, if there was any chance that this new device would save someone’s life - it would be well worth the effort.
Through the years, between modifying the way that I wired homes and manufacturers continuously researching and improving the products, I found that I was spending less and less time troubleshooting what had become known in the industry as AFCI “nuisance tripping.” Merriam-Webster defines the word “nuisance” as a person, thing, or situation that is annoying or that causes trouble or problems. I won’t argue that taking the additional time to have to troubleshoot a tripping AFCI was annoying. But AFCIs were not causing problems – they were telling me there was a problem. Maybe it was my wiring, or an old vacuum that was plugged in with a frayed cord, but at the end of every troubleshooting session that I performed, it always concluded with the same result - I found a problem that needed to be addressed. A problem that left unattended to, could have caused a fire that may result in the loss of property or occupants within the home.
Some claim that AFCIs have not been proven to work and are therefore an unnecessary cost. What is unique to AFCIs, is that they tell you a problem exists that you may not be able to see. Maybe a nail from a picture that was recently hung penetrated a wire behind the wall that now causes the AFCI to trip. Some may get frustrated and blame the pesky AFCI that will not reset as the problem but clearer minds might label the new nail holding up the picture as the culprit. The AFCI is telling you something. Once the nail is found, all necessary repairs are made, the AFCI is reset, and the electrician drives off. Therein lies the problem as I see it for proving that AFCIs indeed work – how do you capture the data when they do their job? Smoke alarms are required to be installed in every home in the nation. But contrary to AFCIs, I have never heard one argument made that smoke alarms do not work. Unlike hidden arcing behind walls that trips an AFCI, smoke alarms detect something that is visual and can been seen. It is much easier to document data from a homeowner story of narrowly escaping a fire in their home because their smoke alarms woke them up and allowed them to get themselves out of harm’s way. For those who would argue the cost is too high for AFCIs to be installed, I would ask the question - what is the value of human life? If two hundred homes in a brand-new subdivision installed AFCI devices, and one life was saved, would it be worth it? What if it was your family member whose life was saved…worth it then?
From my perspective, there is no end game here. This is just the opinion of a master electrician with years of experience dealing with AFCIs from their introduction in the late 1990’s to present day. I have spent hours troubleshooting AFCI installations and have found that every AFCI that trips is telling you something. But are you willing to listen? While the initial task of troubleshooting may mean more work to determine the problem, the end result could be saving someone’s life. Even though the NEC requires AFCI protection, there are several states that have chosen to remove this requirement at the state level often due to special interest groups opposed to AFCIs, for the aforementioned reasons, lobbying the state legislature against them. The good news is that, although some states have chosen not to require AFCI protection, I am not aware of any states that do not permit AFCI installation. Meaning, even if your state does not require it, you still have the choice to install AFCI protection in homes. Data or no data, as an electrician, husband, father, and homeowner - that choice is easy for me to make. The choice is yours and much is at stake, please choose wisely.
This blog gives some of the history of AFCIs from their inception to present day but the AFCI story is still being written. The 2023 NEC cycle is in progress and proposed changes to AFCIs can be viewed by the public at the NEC next edition page.
For more information on arc fault circuit interrupters (AFCI’s) and their impact on helping to eliminate residential fires, please utilize our free download of “Residential Electrical Fire Problem: The Data Landscape”, a study performed by the Fire Protection Research Foundation.
Important Notice: Any opinion expressed in this blog is the personal opinion of the author and does not necessarily represent the official position of the NFPA or its Technical Committees. In addition, this blog is neither intended, nor should be relied upon, to provide professional consultation or services.