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Arc Fault Current Interrupters

Arc-Fault Circuit Interrupter Breakers

Arc-Fault Circuit Interrupter Breakers, or AFCIs are now required in new construction by the National Electric Code (NEC). (Your town/city may not require them). What are they? Do you need them?

The AFCI breaker performs a different job entirely from GFIs, Ground Fault Interrupter (GFCI) breakers and outlets. A GFI protects you from becoming part of the circtuit and getting a shock. The AFCI breaker protects you and your house from a fire.

How? Well, when a Hot wire makes a solid contact with a ground or a neutral, the current draw will be high enough to trip the breaker. But if the contact is intermittent and not a solid contact due to loose or corroded connections or failing insulation, what develops is an arc. The arc causes heat, which left uncorrected could eventually wind up causing a fire. The AFCI breaker detects an arc by the characteristic wave an arc causes in the electrical flow. When it sees an arc fault of large enough magnitude, it will trip the breaker.

Do you need them? They are expensive ($45 to $55 and up vs. $10 for a conventional breaker). Presently the code only requires them in circuits serving bedrooms. That doesn't mean other circuits can't benefit from their protection, but that is all that is required at this time. (Again, required by the NEC, your town/city may or may not require this)

But what are the hazards they are protecting you from? Well, problems in home wiring, like arcing and sparking, are associated with more than 40,000 home fires each year. These fires claim over 350 lives and injure 1,400 victims annually. These are the very fires the AFCI breaker is intended to prevent.

Can you install one in your home? Well, if you never installed a breaker, this isn't necessarily the time to start. Even with the main breaker in your box open, there is live current to the panel, and areas that if you came in contact with would certainly injure or kill you. So, installation should be left to licensed electricians or capable experienced individuals.

Presently they do not protect against all faults in older wiring where there is no ground. However they will still provide protection against some arcing in these homes. To get into which they do protect against and what they don't would involve a long discussion of series and parallel arc faults. Suffice it to say that in all homes they would add to the level of protection against fires caused by arcs, and in modern wired homes, they would add a significant level of protection. They cannot be used where there is a shared neutral (as is often the case in kitchen wiring).

The breaker is wired to the hot and the neutral of the branch circuit, with a pigtail from the breaker to connect to the neutral bus, similar to the wiring of a GFI breaker.

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