Installation of AFCIs in an Existing Home
by WRC Loss Control Consultant
Recently, I navigated the process of having combination arc fault circuit interrupters (CAFCIs) installed in my own home as a loss preventive measure. Admittedly, my curiosity about the ease in which this could be done along with what may be learned along the way contributed to my decision in proceeding. While few people have opted to have them installed, sharing parts of the story may heighten awareness and influence you to consider exploring them further.
Earlier in the year, I hired an electrician to replace the aging smoke detectors in my home. That step afforded greater peace of mind, but a nagging thought surfaced. If they were to sound in response to a fire, there would be little time for an escape to safety. Of course, we are all aware of this, but how do we act upon it? Is there more that we can do? At the time, an electrical safety check was performed as well and no concerns were noted by the electrician.
In our current climate, there is much attention devoted to the “internet of things” and how smart technology is increasingly being developed for the detection and monitoring of many types of possible issues. Water damage, mechanical breakdown, and other types of losses may be avoided by sensors that can gather data, detect changes or gradual problems that develop and provide alerts. Smart technology allows for appropriate action to be taken at a critical point in order to prevent a loss from occurring.
According to the NFPA, arcing causes an average of 34,300 home structure fires each year in the US, $1 billion in direct property damage, 320 deaths, and 1,150 injuries. Arcing conditions are mostly hidden and therein lays the greatest danger.
With this in mind, I began to seriously consider AFCIs as a starting point in leveraging smart technology; one that would come at a relatively low cost has been around for years and provides immeasurable peace of mind.
AFCIs were developed as a preventive measure. They are designed to detect an issue with series or parallel arcing and will de-energize a circuit before a fire can occur.
Technology continually evolves with AFCIs. Nuisance tripping was a known problem with the first generation of AFCIs. The likelihood of this issue occurring has plummeted, however, with advancements brought forth by more sophisticated built-in algorithms designed to distinguish between normal and abnormal arcing conditions.
The NEC (National Electric Code) slowly introduced AFCIs into the code, starting in 1999. From 2002-2005, the NEC required that AFCIs be installed in all bedrooms. By 2008, the NEC expanded that to also include living rooms, dining rooms, sunrooms and other gathering places within a home. Individual states vary in terms of the extent to which they adopt the NEC code requirements. In Wisconsin, for example, AFCIs are currently required to be installed in bedrooms only.
While the code applies primarily to new construction, the Electrical Safety Foundation International (ESFI), National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), and AFCI manufacturers recommend that AFCIs be installed in existing homes as well. Trying to locate electricians who have done this routinely, however, continues to be a challenge. The electrical contracting firm that I hired commented that this was the first time they had been asked to upgrade existing circuit breakers in a non-required situation for the sole purpose of increased protection.
There are those who resist increased regulation and argue to reduce the current code requirements. The National Home Builders Association has voiced concerns around increased new construction costs, (as the average amounts to an additional $500 per dwelling), insufficient data proving their benefit, and asserted concerns about nuisance tripping. Given that the technology was developed and tested by highly specialized experts and that the efforts of the AFCI manufacturers have been singularly focused on loss prevention, it seems that the safety community’s recommendation can be relied upon when making the decision to move forward.
Electricians will upgrade existing circuit breakers to AFCIs – if and when this type of work is specifically requested. Their approach is to address only what is required by code and voluntary options from an increased safety standpoint are generally not mentioned. Home inspection services follow the same approach.
In my situation, eight circuit breakers were removed and replaced with Square D Homeline15 amp single pole CAFCI breakers. The total cost was under $500 for materials and labor. Stretched out over the term of a mortgage, that is equivalent to the cost of one monthly cup of coffee. Given the increased protection against a largely hidden hazard with potentially tragic consequences, I feel it was a sound investment. As an alternative, if one were to at least have them installed for bedrooms only, consistent with the initial rollout of the NEC code, that would afford some greater protection and cost much less.
An individual’s decision around loss prevention doesn’t necessarily need to align with current requirements. Scientific advances generally precede eventual cultural and societal acceptance and regulation. Why not be ahead of the curve? It appears that AFCIs are here to stay and that technology will continually improve. We currently recommend that fused electrical systems only be allowed for a limited timeframe and that the service is upgraded. Why not also upgrade one’s existing electrical system with the latest AFCI technology while you are at it?