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  • For Safety’s Sake: the great AFCI debate

AFCI (Arc Fault Circuit Interrupter) protection is essential to reducing the likelihood of electrical fires and the primary reason the National Electrical Code (NEC) first sought to provide this protection in new homes in 1999. The NEC 2020 code cycle continues the journey of AFCI protection for all 15- and 20-amp branch circuits. In my opinion, while the expanded requirements will significantly increase safety, some in the industry seek to impede this code advancement as they believe the code does little to affect fire dangers associated with arcing conductors.

The great AFCI debate: four points to consider

AFCIs were created to detect conductor arcing and sparking that can cause fires. By shutting power off to damaged circuits, the devices reduce the likelihood of electrical fires in new and existing homes, dormitory units, guest rooms and suites. As with many new technologies in our industry, debate ensues, with individuals and sometimes organizations speaking against these installation requirements. Four points are at the crux of the debate: cost, unwanted tripping, technological advancement and the impact of fire statistics.

Point 1: Cost to the housing market

Some in the industry claim that any cost increase of a dwelling will prevent potential home buyers from making purchases. Financials can be greatly exaggerated to the point of absurdity. I’ve been a part of discussions, for example, where it was claimed that AFCI devices add $4,000 to the price of a 1,500 square-foot home. In reality, the cost is around $200. Considering that a home is often the most substantial investment people make in their lifetime, the cost of an AFCI device is pennies a month when rolled into a 30-year mortgage. In short, AFCI costs pale in comparison to ensuring a safer home. 
 

Point 2: Unwanted tripping of devices

AFCI technology has been on the market for well over a decade. And, like Ground Fault Circuit Interrupter (GFCI) technology, it’s unforgiving in detecting circuit problems. Many times when an AFCI or GFCI detects a problem, we mistakenly blame the device without realizing it’s just doing its job.

In my opinion, AFCI technology took a path of acceptance similar to the GFCIs brought to market in the 1970s. GFCIs saw compatibility issues due to installation practices and because general appliances permitted high levels of leakage current that tripped GFCI-protected circuits. Over time, the industry changed by updating and communicating installation practices and, in some cases, worked with manufacturers to reduce products’ leakage current. One could argue that the introduction of GFCIs significantly improved installation practices and also appliance manufacturing and construction.

Similar to GFCIs, AFCIs saw challenges with connected loads and installation practices when first introduced, but over the past 15+ years significant improvements have been made. I believe today’s AFCI technology is highly dependable and, with that, the tripping of AFCI safety devices must not be ignored.  Contractors in the field should work to understand why a trip occurs. Today’s advancements in both AFCI and GFCI technologies are such that tripping issues, although sometimes difficult to resolve, are likely not due to incompatibilities but rather to problems that must be addressed. 

 

Point 3: Technological advancement is a constant

As more solutions enter the market featuring the level of protection the NEC seeks, manufacturers of any one technology may feel their solution use is threatened. The NEC is providing more options than ever to provide protection for both new and existing homes. These new technologies are customer options and will impact the consumer buying decision. Though new technologies may impact the sale of some products, manufacturers should refrain from impeding the progress of safety. 

GFCI receptacle manufacturers and sellers are naturally concerned about the threat to their businesses. While no one wants to see businesses struggle, I believe competition is a catalyst for better solutions. The current requirements of the NEC provide protection of the entire branch circuit. In my opinion, there’s no reason to reduce the level of protection — especially for the sake of the sale. As technology progresses, it is quite possible that new ways of providing protection could require innovation in GFCI technologies to stay competitive. I firmly believe we should not acquiesce for financial gain. 

There’s no reason to reduce the level of protection — especially for the sake of the sale.

Thomas Domitrovich, vice president, technical sales

Point 4: Fire statistics are misleading

Some call for the removal of the AFCI requirement altogether, arguing that there hasn’t been a significant impact to fire statistics since AFCIs came on the market in the early 2000s.

This claim is correct on its surface. Fire statistics haven’t changed much, but for a good reason. Most of today’s homes were built before the NEC required AFCIs in 2002, which only stipulated bedroom-circuit protection at that time. Add to that the slow expansion progress of AFCI protection: in 2001, the NEC called for an average of two circuit breakers in new homes; in 2014, only a handful more was added.  

In short, fire statistics can be misleading because we don’t have a sample size large enough to affect the numbers in either direction. It's going to take time to increase the number of AFCIs installed to impact statistical relevance. Over time, as older homes are demolished or updated to meet new code requirements, we should begin to see a change in the numbers. 

 

Contractors and homeowners should make changes now

Overall, I believe we’re heading in the right direction for new home construction. As with any electrical technology, change is a slow process. It’s up to us all to understand the safety benefits of AFCIs and do more to increase safety. That starts with fact-based, honest conversations about NEC requirements.

I encourage all contractors and homeowners to consider going above and beyond the bare minimum requirements of the NEC and to look at installing AFCI technology in existing homes. Doing so will increase safety and will positively impact the industry thanks to additional information garnered from the entire housing inventory. 

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