AFCI Breakers Aberdeen SD
Rapid City, SD
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No-Fault Fire Protection
You may not have heard of arc fault circuit interrupter breakers, but you will. AFCI breakers are a new safety device designed to help prevent fires caused by damaged or worn electrical wiring. According to the National Fire Protection Association, problems in either a building's permanent wiring or cords feeding power to electrical equipment cause nearly 43,000 fires each year and kill some 370 people. The most common locations for these fires in a home are bedrooms, living rooms, kitchens and storage areas. Citing these safety concerns, a new version of the National Electrical Code that takes effect in January 2002 requires AFCI breakers on all circuits serving bedrooms in new homes. An arc fault is essentially a leakage of current outside a wire's insulation that jumps either to another wire or to ground. The danger isn't that a person could get zapped by this arcing - the typical arc fault is a tiny, intermittent event - but that it could cause a fire. When an arc occurs, tiny shards of metal, potentially carrying several thousand degrees of heat, fly out of the spark. Most of these dissipate in a fraction of a second, but there's always the possibility that one could land on combustible material and ignite it. The insulation breakdown that allows arcing can occur in several ways.
Overheated wires can melt the insulation, exposing the wires. This is more likely to happen in an older home in which the wiring hasn't been upgraded recently. Trying to handle the demands of a high-tech home with its many digital appliances, computers, transformers, and re-charging cell phones and laptops can easily overwhelm older wiring. Insulation can also melt where cords rest against some appliances. If the excess cord on a toaster oven is just jammed down behind the unit, chances are good that a loop of the cord is touching a surface that sometimes gets hot enough to melt the plastic insulation on the wires. Appliance cords can also get frayed after repeated bending and flexing. Unplugging appliances by yanking on the cord, rather than the plug, damages the connection between the cord and the plug, opening another possible arc danger. Lamp cords sometimes get pinched when furniture is moved, ripping the insulation. Nails driven into the wall when installing trim work or hanging pictures can pierce a wire's insulation, opening the door to arcing inside the walls. AFCI breakers protect an entire circuit against arc faults, both the wires inside the wall and the cords and extension cords running to all the electronic devices in your home. AFCI versus ground fault Most of us are familiar with GFCI technology - those outlets with "test" and "reset" buttons on the front that we find next to sinks in kitchens and bathrooms. Ground fault circuit interrupter devices protect us from getting electrical shocks from appliances and fixtures. When the device detects a leakage of current from the hot wire to ground that exceeds six milliamps, it immediately shuts off the power, generally saving someone a nasty shock.
AFCI breakers are specifically designed to stop fire, rather than prevent shocks. The various types of arc faults send unique electrical signatures down the wires, and the sensitive electronics in an AFCI breaker are on the lookout for these telltale fluctuations of power that indicate arcing. Once the breaker's electronics spot the potential fire starter, they shut down the circuit immediately. The leakage to ground that trips a GFCI outlet is technically an arc fault, too, but it's only one type. The other two most common are parallel arcs and series arcs. AFCI breakers detect all three. A parallel fault occurs when the current jumps from the hot wire in a cable or extension cord to the neutral wire in the same cable or cord. This type of fault is more common in extension cords and appliance cords with two-prong plugs because the wires in these cords only have one layer of insulation. The plastic coating that surrounds each wire also makes up the body of the cord. When the cord gets old or damaged, the breakdown of the insulation exposes the wires to the air, or to each other, and can lead to arcing. If you've ever worked with the kind of household wiring that carries electricity from the panel to the outlets and switches, you have probably noticed that the hot and neutral wires each have their own covering of insulation (except for the bare, copper ground wire).
Furthermore, all the wires are also encased in another layer of insulation for extra protection. This protection means parallel faults are rare in the permanent wiring in a home, unless they occur in a poorly wired outlet or switch. These wires can occasionally have trouble with series faults, however. Series faults happen when there is a break in a wire and the current has to jump the gap in order to continue on its way. A nail hitting a cable inside a wall can sever or nick one of the wires, setting up a potential series fault.
A damaged switch can also lead to series faults if the current has to jump from one contact to another to complete a circuit. AFCI versus standard breakers When circuit breakers replaced fuses in home electrical panels years ago, the home became a safer and more convenient place to use electricity. Breakers cost more initially, but never needed replacing - just resetting. And manufacturers designed the sensitive elements inside the breaker to detect potentially dangerous problems more quickly and with far greater accuracy than old-style fuses. The standard breaker today protects circuits from two things: overloading and short circuiting. The overload protection is in the form of a bimetal element that heats up depending on how much current is flowing through the breaker. Low flow equals low heat and the breaker stays set. But if the current flow increases to the point where the wires in the circuit start to heat up, the bimetal element heats up first and trips the breaker. A simple click to the "Off" position, a push back to the "On" position, and you're back in business, but maybe without the microwave running this time. This "thermal tripping" accounts for almost all of the breaker resets in most homes. A short circuit causes a different mechanism to cut off the power flowing through the breaker.
In a short circuit, there is solid contact between the hot and neutral wires of a cable (either they touch each other or both touch the same piece of conductive metal) and the power is flowing freely through the circuit. This intense flow trips a magnetic element in the breaker before the bimetal even has time to start heating up. Once the short-circuit condition is corrected, you can reset the breaker just as you do after a thermal trip. What a standard circuit breaker can't do, however, is sense arcing in the circuit. An arc fault is by definition a brief event, so there isn't time for the bimetal to heat up enough to cause a thermal trip, and the amount of current involved is typically small, so the magnetic element doesn't usually signal a short circuit either.
An AFCI breaker, however, performs all the functions of a standard breaker, detecting overloads and short circuits, and adds arc fault detection for another layer of safety. GFCI technology added the ability to detect one type of arc fault and shut off the power; AFCI breakers add even more. Do I need AFCI breakers? All these descriptions and statistics might leave you thinking that arc faults are quite common and that you can hear one crackling even now in the lamp cord beside you. But the odds are very good that your house will never suffer a fire caused by an arc fault. The breakers in your electrical panel right now protect you from the most common problem - overloading a circuit - and will continue to do so. Arc faults do occur in some houses, but they are relatively rare. The new NEC rules will increase the safety factor in newly built homes, but there probably won't be a stampede to the electrical aisle at Home Depot to buy AFCI breakers to replace those already installed. If you want extra assurance of safety, consider replacing a few breakers on your bedroom and kitchen circuits with the new technology. If it helps you sleep better, it's worth the price.
However, since the installation requires opening the panel and working around the exposed buss bars inside, you'll want to hire a qualified electrician to do the work. New homes built after January will have AFCI breakers installed on bedroom circuits automatically, but you can also have them retrofitted in your electrical panel to protect your home now. The new breakers are the same size and configuration as standard breakers, come in both 15- and 20-amp sizes, and cost around $30 each, though the prices do vary.
There were some reports of shortages of AFCI breakers earlier this year, but the major manufacturers plan to have plenty of the new safety devices on the shelves when the new rules take effect. It is also likely that future versions of the NEC will have AFCI requirements for additional areas of the home. No one will be required to add AFCI breakers to existing homes, but the rules for new construction and remodeling are substantial enough to require the installation of new breakers on various circuits could vary. Vermont, for instance, chose to have the new rules take effect in January 2001, a full year earlier than the NEC stipulates, and added the phrase "all living areas" to the list of rooms that require AFCI breaker protection. Because state and local electrical codes are sometimes even more stringent that the NEC, you should check with your local building officials for local rules on AFCI breakers.