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Author(s): Jeff Sargent. Published on November 2, 2015.

Safe Home Alabama

Fighting off a bid to remove arc fault circuit interrupters from the state's building code.

IN SEPTEMBER, the Alabama Energy and Residential Code Board met to consider a proposal to remove the requirement of arc fault circuit interrupters (AFCIs) from the state’s Residential Building Code. The proposal, supported by a homebuilders group, would affect new construction of one- and two-family homes. AFCIs were simply too expensive, the homebuilders argued; by their own estimate, AFCI installation in a typical home costs about $300.

The September meeting followed a hearing in August that included testimony from AFCI supporters like Charlie Donaghe and members of Alabama’s fire service. In 1971, Donaghe and his sister were seriously burned in a home fire, the result of a damaged power cord to a television—exactly the kind of problem AFCIs are designed to prevent. AFCIs respond to electrical failures that are typically beyond the functional level of most standard circuit breakers and fuses. Had the cord of their television been protected by an AFCI, it is likely that Donaghe and his sister would have slept safely through that night more than 40 years ago.

“How does spending $300 compare to the cost of being hospitalized, treated for burns for months, and the lifelong impact of these injuries?” Donaghe told the hearing, according to the Associated Press. He urged the board not to “turn the clock back to the ’70s” by approving the amendment. “Why would you end the use of something that’s proven and affordable to prevent children and families from dying in an electrical house fire?,” he said. “If you have successfully used this technology to make a difference, why would you just push that away?”

Donaghe’s testimony was supported by Edward Paulk, the state fire marshal, and Chief Gary Sparks, president of the Alabama Association of Fire Chiefs. According to the U.S. Fire Administration, Sparks said, Alabama was third in the nation in fire death rate and relative risk, behind only Mississippi and Washington D.C.; removing the AFCI requirement from the building code for new one- and two-family homes “is a step backwards,” he said. Sparks said Alabama had 94 fire fatalities in 2014 and has had 62 so far this year.

Several years ago, the Alabama Homebuilders Association successfully lobbied against residential sprinklers. At the AFCI hearing in August, the group’s spokesperson was one of two people (the other one was a homebuilder) supporting the elimination of AFCIs from the state’s residential building code. They cited cost, as well as inconsistent enforcement, as reasons to support the amendment. If the board sided with the homebuilders, Alabama would join Indiana as the only states, of the 47 with statewide building codes, to amend AFCIs out of the code.

Alabama isn’t the only state where this battle is being fought. In North Carolina, the state’s Building Code Council is considering a proposal—again supported by homebuilders, citing cost—that would prevent adoption of the 2014 edition of the National Electrical Code® (NEC®), which expands AFCI use into kitchens and laundry areas in new construction. A vote is scheduled for December.

On September 17, Alabama’s Residential Code Board met to decide the issue of AFCIs in the state building code. Instead of voting on the matter, it created a new amendment where the building code would reference the NEC, with its requirements for AFCIs. Alabama’s building code currently operates under the 2008 edition of the NEC, and local jurisdictions can adopt subsequent editions. Another public hearing on the new amendment is scheduled for November, with a vote slated for December.

The good news is that safety advocates were heard, and we won a battle. But the war continues.

JEFFREY SARGENT is a regional electrical code specialist for NFPA.