What the heck is an AFCI?

It seems like just yesterday that AFCI (Arc Fault Circuit Interrupter) type circuit breakers became required on 120 volt outlets in bedrooms.  It was the year 2002, and there was incredible gnashing of teeth over them.

afcibreakerThere were many who thought they were useless, a waste of money and a burden to the consumer.

There were also complaints of nuisance tripping, after all, what is one to think if every time you plugged in your vacuum and turned it on the breaker tripped.  Certainly there were some bugs to work out and pretty soon it became clear that if the vacuum was tripping there was in fact an issue with the vacuum and not the breaker–the breaker was just doing its job.  Of course some motors were not designed to not emit the kinds of signals that indicated an arcing condition to the brain of the AFCI and adjustments to both the brain and the motors had to be done.

Another issue with the AFCI’s was that it took a couple of years to get even electricians on board as to what an “outlet” was.  Some electricians and even jurisdictional inspectors interpreted the code requirement that all “bedroom outlets” be AFCI protected to mean “receptacle outlets.”  That however, was not what was intended.  An “outlet” can be defined as any place electricity is accessed.  Like lights, smoke alarms, the fans in hydronic heaters or gas fireplaces etc.  Anything that utilizes 120 volts and is located in the bedroom is supposed to be AFCI protected.

I still routinely find some of these 2002 houses with only the receptacles on the AFCI circuit.  By the next code cycle this was clarified and we started to see “all” bedroom outlets on the AFCI circuits.

There was always some question about the efficacy of these early AFCI breakers because they did not provide protection of the wiring for both parallel arcs and series arcs.  A justifiable complaint in my opinion since series type arcs are perhaps one of the most likely causes of electrical fires (like what would occur at a loose connection) and they required relatively high levels of fault current to activate the devices.  But they did pave the way for the “combination type” AFCI that could detect both series arcs (loose connections) and parallel arcs (line to neutral–short circuits).

In 2008 (with a start date of June, 2009) the combination type became required instead of the branch feeder type and they became required in more locations in the home than in just the bedrooms.

Some States, like Washington State, in their infinite wisdom (never underestimate wacky), decided to maintain the requirement for them to only be in bedrooms and amended the NEC to that effect.  This amendment was ignored by the larger cities, like Seattle, Bellevue and Renton where the full requirement of the 2008 National Electrical Code is enforced.  In brand new construction in Seattle, it is now common to run into service panels with many of these AFCI breakers–instead of just the bedroom circuits.  Now, as of 2014, AFCI’s will be found protecting the outlets in kitchens, laundry rooms, family rooms, dining rooms, living rooms, parlors, libraries, dens, bedrooms, sunrooms, recreation rooms, closets, hallways, or similar rooms or areas.

All of this represents some problems for the home inspector—we have to be conscious of the jurisdiction we are inspecting in.  Of course inspectors have always had to take the jurisdiction they are inspecting in into account.

How does the inspector share this information with their client?

Obviously it will vary depending on the house.  A pre-2002 house is pretty simple, we can ignore the issue (not a good idea in my opinion) or we can inform our clients that the overall fire safety of the home can be improved by the installation of AFCI breakers.  This of course is going to be greatly affected by the existing condition of the wiring in the home.  For example some panels won’t have room for them and of course if the house has an old fuse panel it becomes even more complicated.  Certainly in the context of a service change they should be added and the older the wiring is, the more benefit that can be derived by their presence.

For houses built between 2002 and 2009, the inspector might want to consider recommending upgrading the older style “Branch/Feeder” type AFCI’s to the safer  “Combination Type” AFCI’s.

Obviously the client would not be “required” to upgrade, but I still consider it a good recommendation–and then let the client decide.  I also like this approach because there were some recalled breakers during this time period that will automatically be eliminated if they are upgraded.

For a much more enlightened and thorough treatise on AFCI breakers please visit Douglas Hansen’s, AFCI’s Come of Age.

 

By Charles Buell, Real Estate Inspections in Seattle

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Just one more bite?

Lately it seems I have had a run of BIG inspections.

The inspections and the writing of the reports for these big inspections is akin to eating an elephant. The only way to accomplish it, without being overwhelmed, is to go at it systematically—one bite at a time–the same way one eats an elephant.

On a recent commercial inspection, an inspection that took most of the day to inspect and another day to write the report, the eating-the-elephant analogy was useful once again.

At this inspection, in one of the several attics in the building, there was this giant wasp’s nest.

I got to thinking about the elephant and wondered if the construction of one of these nests was a bit like eating an elephant–one bite at a time. Of course wasps get LOTS of help–it is not just one mouth constructing the nest.

In a similar manner, I as the building inspector am just one “wasp” building the nest of the transaction for the whole sale. All of the different wasps have to tend to their own elephant to the best of their abilities in order for the whole nest/transaction to turn into a success.

Can you imagine trying to eat the entire transaction all in one bite? That sounds like an event more explosive than the one more bite of Monte Python’s Mr. Creosote!

Wouldn’t it to be nice if all of us involved in the transaction were as perfect as wasps? The wasp has no choice but to do a perfect job–every single time–every single bite!

Just one more bite?

By Charles Buell, Real Estate Inspections in Seattle

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What are Daisy Chained & Back-Stabbed Receptacles?

Daisy chaining is the practice of running wires from receptacle to receptacles via either back-stabbing (sticking the wires in holes in the back of the receptacle—left of picture)  or using the screws on the side of the receptacle (center of picture).

(could be switches as well but for now we will discuss receptacles)

This is a poor practice, especially the back-stabbing approach, as every connection can result in voltage drop such that by the time you get to the end of the circuit the voltage drop affects the function of whatever is plugged in. 

The side screw type daisy chain is not quite as problematic but with that method if something goes wrong with one receptacle it would affect any others downstream from the problem one.

Different ways to wire a receptacle

A better practice is to wire-nut the wires together in the box, and then run a pigtail to the receptacle (right side of picture)—doing this for the ground wire, the “white” (neutral) wire and the “black” (hot) wire (sometimes the colors vary for the hot conductor).

The pigtail method is considered “best practice” but is obviously more labor intensive and therefor more expensive to have done.

Better modern receptacles also have plates with screws where the wires insert without bending and are tightened behind plates under the screw–this should not be confused with back-stabbing. 

With back-stabbing there is a sharp upward sloping barb that prevents the wire from pulling out and this is the entire connection–the amount that sharp barb grabs onto the wire.  This type of connection is especially problematic with aluminum wiring.

By Charles Buell, Real Estate Inspections in Seattle

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