Common Questions About AFCI Requirements In Homes

Matthew Mountain
by Matthew Mountain

Every homeowner understands the importance of electrical safety. Sure, this isn’t something one thinks of daily, as usually there isn’t cause to think about the electrical systems in your home. You turn your lights on, use appliances, and go about your day without considering all that’s required to reliably provide your home with electricity day in and day out.

But there are times when a home’s electrical systems should be considered, and one such time is when you’re undertaking a home renovation. And, of course, the electrical system will have to be engaged with when there’s a short circuit or another problem which causes the home to lack proper access to electricity.

Arc Fault Circuit Interrupters (AFCI) are components that are used in a lot of modern electrical systems, and such in part explains why so many homeowners have questions about them these days. The frequently asked questions are addressed in this article.

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What Are AFCI Breakers and Why Are They Used?

These days, you’ll find numerous pieces of emergency equipment in a home. Smoke alarms, fire extinguishers, and escape ladders are all examples. An AFCI isn’t an emergency device per se, but it’s designed to detect electrical faults that can occur in electrical systems and start fires.

AFCIs are different from conventional current protection devices, in that they detect low-level arcing currents, the kind that could be hazardous and the cause of an electric fire. Electrical fires cause millions of dollars in damage each year, and they take hundreds of human lives as well.

They can also be silent killers, as they often occur in areas that are hidden from view, making early detection difficult. An AFCI, if working properly, will protect the circuit and reduce the chances of an electrical fire starting.

What Is an Arc Fault?

Most individuals have seen arcing before, yet a lot of these individuals probably couldn’t put a name to what they were seeing if you asked them to. When you see a welder at work and sparks are flying everywhere, such is an example of arcing. Arcing is also visible when you drive by a downed power line, one that’s spitting sparks out everywhere.

An arc fault is an unintended arc, one that’s created when a current flows through an unintended path. High, intense heat results from the arc, and such can burn surrounding particles and even ignite surrounding material. If a spark occurs near wood, insulation, or other flammable materials, it’s quite likely a fire will start. An arc fault can cause heat in excess of 10,000°F.

How Can a Homeowner Detect Arc Faults Before They Spark Fires?

AFCI devices are better than standard circuit breakers, and that’s because these can detect arcing conditions whereas standard circuit breakers can only detect overloads and short circuits. While different technologies are utilized to manufacture AFCIs, they all serve the same purpose.

An AFCI will detect both parallel arcs—those that go line to line, line to neutral, and line to ground—as well as series arcs—arcing in series when one conductor is utilized.

So how does a system detect an arc fault? Advanced electronic technology is used to monitor the circuit, and this technology distinguishes normal arcing conditions from those that are dangerous. Vacuums, furnaces, dishwashers, and other appliances create arcs, but these are normal arcs that don’t warrant concern. Another normal arc is when a light switch is turned on.

Dangerous arcs can occur for many different reasons, but a common reason is that there’s damaged electronic insulation somewhere. When any kind of arcing occurs, and AFCI is able to analyze the characteristics of the arc to determine whether or not it is hazardous.

Testing These Systems

Manufacturers of AFSIs put their systems through hundreds of possible scenarios, and this is done so the systems are able to precisely distinguish normal arcing from dangerous arcing. AFCIs have been around for years, so a lot of work has been put into making them better.

Are AFCIs Required?

An AFCI will de-energize a circuit when an arc is detected, and this action of mitigation is something that makes an electrical system a lot more safe. But AFCIs, in order to be sold, need to meet the standards outlined by the National Electrical Code (NEC).

Holding AFCIs to a nationally recognized standard ensures reliable manufacturing, and they are also tested in special labs that are designed for this kind of testing. Requirements for AFCIs are outlined in: AFCIs (UL 1699). NEC 210.12. If you’re using a branch circuit, you should keep in mind that protection will be needed, as this is something that the NEC requires.

Are There Different Kinds of AFCIs?

There are different kinds of AFCIs. The common ones are explained below:

Branch/Feeder Breaker AFCI

These AFCIs are installed at the origins of branch circuits and feeders, and often you’ll find them near panel boards. These AFCIs can detect arcing faults when they occur line-to-line, line-to-neutral, and line-to-ground.

And just because a home has shared neutral circuits—which are common in old homes—doesn’t mean a branch feeder AFCI can’t be installed. All that’s needed to make this happen is a two-pole AFCI. This will accommodate the three wires that shared neutral systems utilize.

Combination Breaker AFCI

Then there’s the combination breaker, which delivers more security than the branch feeder. The combination breaker can detect series arc as low as five amperes. Series arc detection is very useful for those who want to detect low-level arcing, like that which occurs often in branch circuits as well as power cords. The protection these AFCIs afford has been required by the NEC since the beginning of 2020.

AFCI-GFCI Combination

One can use an AFCI with a GFCI to add another layer of arc fault protection. One can also utilize this combination to ensure 5mA ground fault protection for individuals. If one uses an AFCI breaker with a GFCI receptacle, then the protection described above can be achieved.

Some AFCIs have 5mA GFCI protection built in, and these systems are ideal for those who don’t want to do the configuring on their own. In short, individuals use the AFCI-GFCI combination when they want to have an extra layer of reliable protection.

Should One Use a GFCI Instead of an AFCI?

A Ground Fault Circuit Interrupter (GFCI) is a device that monitors an electrical circuit for unexpected ground faults. GFCIs are used these days with electrical outlets as well as breakers.

Ground faults, which GFCIs protect against, are currents that find their way to the ground. Ground faults are problematic because electrical currents are not supposed to flow this way. Currents are supposed to flow along safe paths and through insulated wires.

Ground faults can be the result of damaged or loose wiring, but other defects can cause ground faults as well. These should not be ignored once they’re noticed, as they can lead to electrical shock, burns, and even electrocution in some cases. Also, ground faults have led to fires as well.

As was discussed above, one can combine a GFSI with an AFCI to provide double protection. With this combination, there’s protection from ground faults as well as protection from general circuit overload.

The Difference Between AFCIs and GFCIs

AFCIs and GFCIs both provide protection from malfunctioning electrical systems, but there are some significant differences that should be pointed out.

To start, a GFCI is meant to protect individuals from electric shocks that occur when an appliance is improperly directing an electric current to the ground. An AFCI, on the other hand, does not provide this kind of protection, as it’s meant to protect a circuit and wiring from arcing fault that could initiate a fire.

In other words, you can think of a GFSI as a device that protects individuals, whereas an AFCI is meant to protect an electrical system alone. But in effect, they both protect individuals. After all, if a fire is started because there isn’t an AFCI present, then it’s individuals who could be at risk because of this.

As has been mentioned already, these two devices can be used in tandem to deliver dual protection. The safest electrical systems are those which utilize both devices.

Does Changing a Panel Now Require AFCI Installation?

It was in 1999 when AFCIs first appeared in the NEC, and since then AFCI requirements have expanded along with their popularity. When AFCIs became more common, some argue that this is when confusion started popping up.

These days, a lot of electricians ask themselves: “Are AFCIs required when replacing a panel in a residential home?” But the answer here is largely dependent on the situation at hand.

If you’re just replacing a panel box and keeping the same circuits, than an AFCI will not be required. However, if you’re replacing the panel box and adding new circuits then an AFC I will be needed. But if you’re adding new circuits to a bathroom, unfinished basement, garage, or outside area, then AFCIs won’t be required.

And if you want to extend an existing circuit so that it’s longer than six feet, then you’ll need an AFCI as well.

Are There Specific Installation Guidelines That One Has to Follow?

Proper installation and wiring practices are required when installing an AFCI. Other than that, there aren’t any special requirements. There are some things you should consider before going through with an installation, however.

If, for example, you have shared neutral applications, you may have to do special configuring. But in general, installing an AFCI is simple, provided you closely follow the manufacturer’s instructions.

Something else to keep in mind is that AFCIs are different than standard thermal magnetic circuit breakers. With an AFCI, both hot and neutral conductors are connected to the designated terminals on the AFCI. With a regular circuit breaker, the hot conductor is connected to the breaker and the neutral conductor is connected to the neutral bar.

Have GFCIs Been Around Longer Than AFCIs?

GFCIs were first introduced in the 1970s, and when they were first introduced a lot of professionals and experts in the home building industry wondered how useful these devices really were. It’s clear to see now that GFCIs have stood the test of time, and now they are even required in homes; this has been the case for more than 30 years.

GFCIs are mainly viewed as useful because they do a lot to prevent electrocutions. In 1983, for example, there were 900 electrocutions, 400 of which were related to consumer products. Then, 10 years later, there were only 650 electrocutions, with only 200 consumer products being the cause.

This shows how widespread GFCI implementation worked, and the technology has only gotten better over the years. With GFCIs being such a success, it’s no surprise that AFCIs were developed later on, providing a range of benefits in their own way.

What About AFCIs?

While AFCIs are rather new when compared to GFCIs, the reliability of these devices is already being demonstrated every day. As an AFCI disconnects power when an arc fault happens, one can’t report a fire to the authorities because a fire never sparked. For this reason, it’s hard to say how many arc faults have been prevented by these systems.

There’s no mechanism in the system that’s keeping log of how many incidents have been prevented. But the same, in part, can be said of smoke alarms when they indicate that smoke has been detected. If these small fires are extinguished before authorities are ever notified, there’s no record of the fire being prevented.

When home builders construct homes these days, they take every measure possible to ensure their buildings are safe. For this reason, a lot of them use AFCIs. Sure, in a lot of places these are required by local and state code, but it’s also true that these devices have been shown to work.

AFCIs are developed in accordance with strict standards set by the NEC, and this is one reason why they should be trusted as reliable fixtures, those that are worthy of modern homes.

Are AFCIs Endorsed?

AFCIs are endorsed by the Consumer Product Safety Commission, in large part because they are designed to detect and eliminate electrical hazards that often cause fires in homes; hazards that have been specifically pointed out by the agency. Other government agencies and prominent consumer-protection organizations stand by AFCIs as well.

These devices provide much-needed protection, and they do much more than standard breakers do. They remove hazardous arcing conditions before these cause a fire, and this is especially good because electrical fires often occur in areas that aren’t immediately visible.

Also, because they are easy to install and useful for many years, a lot of trusted agencies and organizations have put their stamps of approval on these devices.

What Should One Do When AFCIs Are Not Required in Their Municipality?

Just because AFCIs are not required by local codes doesn’t mean that you can’t take advantage of these useful devices. After all, you don’t avoid putting locks on your doors and windows because they aren’t required.

If you care about all aspects of home security, then installing AFCIs should be a priority. These are useful in any room, as they prevent arcing from causing a fire.

Furthermore, it’s not difficult to purchase these devices. They’re available online and in home centers and hardware stores throughout the country. But if you don’t know how to set up one of these devices, it’s best to have an expert do this for you.

What Must AFCIs Be Able to Do?

According to the most recent edition of the NEC, kitchens, family rooms, dining rooms, living rooms, libraries, bedrooms, parlors, dens, closets, recreation rooms, laundry rooms, hallways, and rooms that are similar all need to be equipped with AFCIs.

Also, one should pay attention to the NEC language which says that an “outlet” is “a point on the wiring system at which current is taken to supply utilization equipment.” With this being the case, receptacle outlets—or wall plugs as they’re commonly known—along with light fixtures, ceiling fans and really any other electrical appliance should be connected to a break that utilizes an AFCI.

AFCI breakers, panels, and receptacle outlets are widely available now, and one must keep in mind that an AFCI receptacle outlet must be accessible.

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How Did the NEC Requirements Change Over Time?

AFCIs have been on the market since 2000, and in several key ways they’re different from GFCIs. AFCIs weren’t always required, but these days they are—and not just in one room but in several kinds of rooms.

Since the 1990s, the NEC, as well as safety standards, have changed quite significantly, and this is mainly because new kinds of fires were popping up, specifically in newer homes. But for their part, older homes had their share of never-before-seen fires as well.

Eventually, the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) as well as other affordable housing advocates had enough, concluding that these fires were costly, deadly, and—most importantly—preventable!

This is why action was taken to deliver a product that could ensure an electric system is shut off before a fire has a chance to spark. In 1999, AFCIs were first mentioned in the NEC, and in later additions, the locations where these are required were enumerated and expanded.

One should keep in mind that the NEC hasn’t changed their standards since 2017, which means one can do electrical work on their home today without fear of violating established national standards.

Matthew Mountain
Matthew Mountain

Matt loves everything DIY. He has been learning and practicing different trades since he was a kid, and he's often the first one called when a friend or family member needs a helping hand at home. Matt loves to work with wood and stone, and landscaping is by far his most favorite pastime.

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