New Wiring Device Saves Lives and Property

June 2003

State Fire Marshals Reaffirm AFCI Technology

Perhaps the most promising fire-protection technology since the introduction of residential smoke detectors is a small, inexpensive device that most homeowners have not even heard of-yet. It's called an arc fault circuit interrupter, or AFCI, and it can prevent household fires caused by arcing in electrical wiring.

An arc occurs when electricity jumps across a gap between two conductors, such as between two electrical wires or from a wire to a nearby, grounded object. The arc can be extremely hot and can ignite flammable materials in its vicinity. Despite the high temperatures, safeguards such as conventional circuit breakers or fuses may not prevent fires because not enough electrical current is flowing in the circuit to activate them. However, AFCIs, which replace conventional circuit breakers in the electrical panel box, are designed to shut down the circuit as soon as an arcing condition occurs.

Because records show that a significant number of fires start in the bedroom, the National Electrical Code now requires AFCIs for electrical circuits serving bedrooms of new homes. Many fire-protection experts argue that this protection also should be required for other rooms, and should extend to all homes regardless of their age.

Saving Lives

The National Association of State Fire Marshals (NASFM), an organization that includes the most senior fire official of each of the 50 states plus the District of Columbia, endorsed AFCI technology several years ago. A recent study conducted by this organization confirms that AFCI technology effectively prevents most types of fires that originate in electrical wiring-saving lives and property. Details of the study, including conclusions and recommendations, can be found on the NASFM Web site.

Surveys of fire records estimate that on average 73,500 residential electrical fires occur annually. The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission estimates that 50 to 75 percent of these fires could be prevented with AFCI technology. Based on this, each year as many as 55,000 fires could be prevented, and approximately $785 million in property damage could be avoided. Even more important is the possibility that some 1,685 injuries and 440 lives could be saved.

Effective and Available

Unfortunately, because AFCIs are not required at this time for older homes-where arc faults are more likely to occur-installing this higher level of fire protection is still up to the homeowner. Ask your electrician about installing AFCIs at the circuit-breaker panel in your home. The device itself is inexpensive and can be quickly installed, and the investment will be well worth the peace of mind it brings.

You can also visit our Building Wire section for more information about residential electrical wiring.