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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