Chapter Corner

AFCI Circuit Breaker Usage is Up. Residential Electrical Fires are Down

Posted in: Features, May/June 2014

residential.gifResidential electrical fires dropped nearly 20 percent over the seven-year span of 2002 to 2009, according to a 2012 National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) report. Instituted in the 1999 National Electrical Code® (NEC), at first, only bedroom circuits required arc fault circuit interrupter (AFCI) circuit breakers. Since then, the NEC has continued to expand for greater protection throughout the home, and the incidence of fires involving electrical distribution and lighting equipment has declined as well. Unlike a standard circuit breaker, AFCI circuit breakers identify arcs or sparking in wiring and quickly de-energize a system to prevent a fire. As contractors, no one better understands the dangers of electricity and can appreciate the importance of making our homes safer. 

What is the purpose of the AFCI Task Force and what is the group's role?

Tom Domitrovich, Eaton Corporation:

As the current chairman of the AFCI Task Force for the NEMA LVDE Section, I can tell you we are a group of like-minded national manufacturers of AFCIs who share a sincere passion for not only researching, developing, and manufacturing these quality products, but we are also committed to raising awareness about the safety, fire prevention, and life-saving technologies AFCIs bring to the public. We feel very strongly that AFCIs are changing the way the world looks at preventing electrical fires, and our group works to help communicate those successes and raise overall awareness to not only residential home buyers and consumers but to electrical contractors, homebuilders, and others.

We’ve also become an easily accessible portal for factual information on AFCIs through our website, www.AFCIsafety.org, which offers a great deal of information on the product itself, what others are saying, codes and standards information, state information, and much more. While the companies involved in the task force are all competitors, like Eaton Corporation, Siemens, GE, and Schneider Electric, we all understand the important role AFCIs are now playing in the electrical and homebuilding industries. The growing AFCI requirements in the NEC are also proof of the respect our product has garnered since its introduction. Joining together to communicate the safety impact this technology can have in homes and buildings is important to our companies and we are pleased to be doing that with one of the most respected standards development organizations in the world: NEMA.

How have electrical contractors been helpful in broadening the use of AFCIs, and where do you see this technology going in the next few years?

Ashley Haynes, Siemens:

Electrical contractors are in the field every day. They know what does and doesn’t work, and they also take great pride in what they do and want to make sure the wiring and electrical systems they install are the best that they can be. They also put safety as a top priority. That’s where AFCIs come into the picture. The men and women in these positions have to justify even the smallest of costs to people building homes and how that relates to their safety.

Like ground fault circuit interrupters, AFCIs have had an introduction period and have been results driven. Through proven use in the field, many electrical contractors have become firm advocates for AFCIs. They realize the technology’s potential, have seen it in action in warning of arcing wires, and are best at conveying its lifesaving potential to their customers. Recent statistics from NFPA also indicate a drop in the number of electrical fires with the increased use of AFCIs and other fire prevention technology and materials used in homebuilding and renovation. AFCI manufacturers will tell you that while we each have our variations of AFCIs that are successful, we also continue to do research and look for new ways to make AFCIs even better. Where that is headed, it is hard to say, but I think we all feel AFCIs are now an important part of the discussion when it comes to protecting homeowners from a potential electrical fire and successful enough to be included as a growing part of the NEC.

Since AFCIs launched, what role has the NEC played in their use and expanded use, and why is that important?

Tom Domitrovich, Eaton Corporation:

In 1999, when the NEC decided to specifically define and mandate the installation of AFCIs in dwelling unit bedrooms to protect all branch circuits that supply 125-volt, single-phase, 15 and20-ampere receptacle outlets, that was when you knew AFCI technology was clearly going to have a positive impact on safety for the electrical, homebuilding, and renovation industries. In just a few years, the NEC expanded AFCI coverage to all bedroom outlets including lighting, receptacle, smoke alarm, and others. In 2005, the NEC introduced a technology upgrade that required new combination AFCIs that extended low-level arc detection to connected cords. Since then, the NEC has gradually expanded AFCI requirements in the code moving requirements into laundry rooms and now kitchens.

Overall, I think this shows that we’ve worked very hard to make and improve upon a product based firmly in public safety and fire prevention. The NEC recognizes the importance of this technology in the fight to reduce the incidents of electrical fires. When respected organizations recognize the importance of your product for safety, it gives consumers, contractors, and builders what they need to encourage AFCI use even beyond what minimum code requires. We have seen increasing use of AFCIs, state adoptions of the expanded NEC, and have continued to improve our technology along the way. Homeowners assume a level of safety when they purchase a home, and the NEC helps facilitate the technology that works to provide that level of safety. The NEC has helped validate the need for our product and others that help prevent electrical fires.

Like many new technologies, there are occasional challenges. Have you resolved any with AFCIs, and how have you communicated that with those in the electrical community?

Ed Larsen, Schneider Electric:

AFCIs provide superior protection against arcing faults and have gone through rigorous testing at our design and manufacturing facilities, as well as additional testing and review by Underwriters Laboratories. The success of AFCIs in detecting arcing faults and preventing fires is building a reputation among those in fire prevention, consumer advocacy, and with homeowners. There has been some very scattered unwanted tripping, which has required educational outreach to electrical contractors and others to provide simple troubleshooting methods. Field reports from contractors and homeowners have helped the manufacturers improve their product designs. Many manufacturers have published troubleshooting guides, conducted training, and have introduced circuit breaker type AFCI designs that have trip indication. NEMA’s AFCI Task Force has also worked to get the word out by providing installation and troubleshooting information via our website at www.AFCISafety.org and also by developing a free online AFCI training course to help guide those installing AFCIs. The course can be found at www.ul.com/afcisafety. Development of this user-friendly course for electricians, contractors, and others working with AFCIs is a partnership between the NEMA AFCI Task Force and UL Knowledge Services.

So what’s next for the task force? We will continue to spread the word to electrical contractors, builders, and consumers that AFCIs are a proven fire prevention technology. As the NEC is reviewed and adopted by various states, the AFCI Task Force will be working to make sure AFCIs remain top of mind in that discussion with factual information based on growing safety statistics and sound data. We also will be communicating that besides being an NEC requirement, AFCIs are also an affordable safety addition to any new home and are increasingly being used in home renovation projects and installed in older homes as well. Our companies will continue to work to make AFCIs even better and research additional applications for this technology. We see NEMA’s AFCI Task Force as an ongoing resource for electrical contractors, builders, and others who seek factual information and guidance on the use of AFCIs. We are thankful to NEMA for overseeing our group and helping us to have a lasting and positive impact on protecting families from electrical fires.

Brad Parlee is the Senior Product Manager, NEMA Load Centers/Miniature Circuit Breakers and Meter Socket Load Centers for GE Industrial Solutions (www.geindustrial.com). He has been with GE for 30 years in a variety of sales, product design, and product management roles. He holds a Bachelor of Science degree in mechanical engineering from Lehigh University and an MBA from the Crummer School of Business at Rollins College. Follow him on Twitter @BEParlee.