AFCI Controversy


<H1>Expanded AFCI Requirements Spark Controversy**

In June, the National Fire Protection Association — which publishes the National Electric Code — voted to greatly expand requirements in the 2008 code for residential use of arc-fault current interrupters (AFCIs). These devices prevent fires caused by faulty wiring; unlike conventional circuit breakers (which trip on gross faults) or ground-fault circuit interrupters (which cut off power to a circuit if they detect an imbalance between the hot and neutral conductors), AFCIs trip in response to unintentional arcs in household wiring. Already, the more stringent rules are provoking debate within the industry — even though they won’t take effect until January.

Back story. Requirements for AFCIs aren’t new: The devices have been cropping up in the NEC for several years, ever since an amendment to the 1999 code mandated their use in all bedroom receptacles. The 2002 code extended that requirement to all bedroom outlets, including light fixtures, receptacles, and smoke alarms. And the 2005 code reduced current levels and required for the first time that the devices detect both series and parallel arcs. (Series arcs occur when the current jumps a gap, as when a wire is cracked; parallel arcs form when damaged insulation allows the current to jump between conductors, or from a conductor to ground.)

Now the pending 2008 code has gone even further, specifying combination-type AFCIs — the type capable of detecting both kinds of arc — in all 120-volt 15- and 20-amp circuits that supply “dwelling-unit family rooms, dining rooms, living rooms, parlors, libraries, dens, bedrooms, sunrooms, recreation rooms, closets, hallways, or similar rooms or areas.”

Advocates tout fire prevention. Gerard Winstanley of the National Electrical Manufacturers Association (NEMA) contends that the new AFCI requirement will prevent numerous fatal fires. “I expect them to have a similar effect to smoke alarms on reducing fire deaths,” he says. “That data will be collected 10 or 20 years down the line.” He refers to figures on NEMA’s consumer-information Web site ( that ascribe 67,800 fires, 458 deaths, and $868 million in property losses to home electrical problems each year. (It should be noted, however, that estimates of losses from fires of electrical origin vary widely according to source; the Underwriters Laboratory Web site, for example, puts the figures at 32,000 fires, 220 deaths, and $674 million in damages, while a 2006 NFPA report cites 19,100 fires, 140 deaths, and $349 million in damages.)

According to Winstanley, the difference in cost between a conventional circuit breaker and a combination-type AFCI is typically about $15, meaning it should cost $200 or less to install a full complement of AFCI breakers in a typical new home. “That’s a fairly small outlay,” he says. “Once it’s explained, consumers will accept them.”

Opponents predict glitches. Other industry observers, however, are skeptical; they question not only NEMA’s numbers but also its motivation, noting that the electrical manufacturers themselves are in the business of selling the mandated products. Independent NEC expert Mike Holt, for example, contends that AFCI technology is “not even close” to being ready for general use. Few electrical contractors, he says, have experience with the new combination AFCIs, making it impossible to know whether normal arc-producing events like distant flashes of lightning or the operation of motorized devices will lead to widespread nuisance tripping. “I’m totally convinced there will be a huge problem,” he says.

The pending 2008 NEC will require AFCI circuit breakers — like the ones shown here from four manufacturers — to protect 15- and 20-amp circuits in most rooms of the house. Opponents claim the devices are not ready for general use, and that nuisance tripping will be a problem.

Moreover, Holt scoffs at NEMA’s cost figures. “Look,” he says, “if they’re smart, electrical contractors are going to figure out their real costs and add some money for service calls to the job.” He figures that the AFCI provision will cause most subs to up their bids by $500 to $1,000 per home. “Electrical contractors will be okay,” he says, “but they don’t have to sell that increase to the buyer. I still can’t believe home builders didn’t fight this more than they did.” — Jon Vara ** **

I agree it is going to be interesting, expecially when many AHJ probably won’t adopt the new code in its entirety on Jan. 1 anyway. Then, if there is any hint of problems with nuisance tripping, they will probably exclude the AFCIs until the industry proves it is ready. I know that is what happened around here when GFI first showed up in the code.

As for homeowners, I suspect few, if any, have any idea about the situation. Based on houses I see being built, the total sum of a homeowner’s involvement in the electrical work is to write on the studs where they think they want switches and receptacles and maybe to discuss the panel location. Then, if is it s a ‘spec’ house, all the general contractor wants to hear is which electrical bid is the lowest. The introduction of higher-priced devices will likely make it even more difficult to compare bids. Sad, but true.

As an electrician I am not worried about selling the added cost to the consumer, consumers will pay for safety just as they pay for Home Inspections for safety…in the end it is all about being safe and while I fully understand the concerns of some electricians…in my mind and with the technology I have witnessed I feel fine with the NEC’s stance in regards to the 2008 NEC®

Remember…the NEC changes/updates and evolved every 3 years so if we see wide spread problems ( which I dont forcast to happen ) then the NEC will evolve with it…but again I will use my house for example…I have had AFCI on all my 15A and 20A circuits for over a year now…not a false trip to date…just my experience but I er on all sides of safety.

I would love to install some in my house as well, but alas, my 15 year old panels (Square D Trilliant) are obsolete so I doubt that will ever be possible.

The real question is whether these actually detect the things that cause all those fires. If you have an arcing line to neutral fault this has value but if this is a line to ground (or even neutral ground) the old GFCI will do the trick.
In fact it really takes a rare parallel fault that doesn’t “tack” and operate the breaker. The real question is if it will find that loose connection that heats up and burns up the kids, like the story we had yesterday. … or will it find the loose connections that plague aluminum wire … or that loose plug.
Sadly the answer to all those questions is no.
That is why Mike Holt says these are not ready for the public yet.
In fact the typical loose connection may never really arc, it may just sit there and cook.
They talk about “fires” but I don’t hear much about the real cause. I doubt the investigator does much more than check the “electrical” box on his form if the point of origin is near electrical equipment. The idea that these are parallel, line to neutral, arcing faults (that the AFCI can detect) is pure conjecture.
The original proposal in the 99 code was written by
… wait for it
… CUTLER HAMMER, the inventor of the <not then working> AFCI. They tricked NFPA into mandating a device that DID NOT EVEN EXIST in the market!
The same was true of the 2005 proposal for the “combination” (meaning parallel fault in OR out of the wall) AFCI. They didn’t exist in the market yet and are really just getting universal availibility, two years after the code hit mandating them. They were rushed into production to meet the 2008 deadline in the 05 code.
These AFCIs have been sold with a generous amount of false assurances of safety and more than a little snake oil.
If you want to beta test electrical devices your customer’s home, that is fine but it should NOT be law than makes your customer participate in this test.

BTW there is still a question I have not been able to get a good answer on.
“How many recalled SqD AFCIs ever actually got replaced?”
Nobody has been able (or wants to) answer that.
Just another reason to stay off the “bleeding edge” of technology.


Are you quoteing from OLD statements from Mike Holt back a few years ago because he has changed his option on AFCI’s after witnessing the same tests I have witnessed. The newer AFCI’s that are due out Jan 1 are going to be AFCI and GFI as well…the GCI will be enough to aid in those few things you mentioned as well as many are expanding on the AFCI/GFCI breakers as well to cover other issues.

I just really think many will be surprised that you wont see many issues with the NEWER AFCI’s on the market…and if you do it usually means something else is wrong in the circuit…

AFCI’s are not a 100% science…just like GFCI’s are not…you can still be killed with a GFCI receptacle in if you grab between the ungrounded and the grounded…so it is not foolproof…neither is the AFCI…or smoke detectors or sprinkler systems or…I just happen to think consumers can and should pay for the advancements being made…someone has to fit the bill.

If they save (1) life…which I am sure they have done already then it is worth the investment as I can’t put a value on LIFE…and the ones on Jan 1 will without a doubt detect Ser. and Par with no problems…and have the built in AFCI/GFI which most all do now anyway…

Mike holt has come around to understand them I think the concept of them on nearly all 15 and 20 A circuits is the drawback…even I think it may be going too far on that but I can see their stance on it…eventually I am sure everything in the panel will be AFCI before too many years so we can’t fight it…we have to embrace it and hope the powers that be know more than we do on this issue.

Remember GREG…as long as AFCI’s are " Hold Your Nose Legal " we gotta use em…:wink:

That is BS, we put a price on life every day. Look at the decisions they make in car design … based on cost.
The current AFCIs seem to be pegging the price of that one life in the billions of dollars.

BTW you still haven’t answered the question about all those people who get rushed into buying the inferior product because it was jammed in the code before they had a working model. Do you as the contractor update it for them? Does SquareD or CH? … or is that the customer’s problem adding a little more cost onto that “one life”.
Case in point, everyone who was forced to buy the single mode AFCI we were using for the last 3 years.

I agree with your statement as well. I would think that more testing should have been performed. The way the manufacturers got around that though was through the NFPA_NEC. Now instead of the manufacturer bearing the cost of testing, the consumer is. It is pretty sad that this has happened right under our noses when there has been so much opposition. It makes me wonder how much back room wrangling went on during the '08 NEC code process???

2008 isn’t the pending ‘doom’ (many jurisdictions are 3+ years behind NEC changes, except Pa, it’ll be in effect by june.) I’m hearing about. It’s the 2005 NEC use requirement of combination afci jan 1, 2008.

Has anyone seen them on the shelves of any suppliers yet?


Not to change the topic, but the 2008 NEC also requires the use of tamper resistant receptacles essentially everywhere in the home (406.11). Another NEMA proposal…