Some of the most common questions I receive from home buyers revolve around electrical safety. Whether you are planning to renovate a home or you’re buying a new home, electrical safety will inevitably come up at some point.
One of the topics that tend to confuse homeowners the most is Arc Fault Circuit Interrupter (AFCI) breakers. Here I will address the most common questions about AFCI protection and its requirements.
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Are AFCI and GFCI the Same Thing?
No, AFCIs and GFCIs may look similar but they are very different in their nature and purpose. AFCI protects against arc faults which are a contributing factor in house fires by continuously monitoring the electrical current in the circuit and shutting off the circuit when unintended arcing occurs. GFCI protects against ground faults which can cause electrocution or even death by continuously monitoring the electrical current in a circuit and shutting off the circuit when an unintended ground fault occurs.
AFCI and GFCI devices look similar and can be confused as the same device or different iterations of the same product.
Because of that, there are different requirements as to where they need to be installed. According to the National Electrical Code (NEC), certain areas of a property may require just one of these installed, while other areas may require you to have both AFCI and GFCI protection at the same time.
1. What Is the Purpose of an AFCI?
An AFCI is a device that continually monitors the electrical circuit it is installed on against unintended electrical arcing. You can find AFCI installed on many electrical receptacles and circuit breakers on the main panel.
An arc fault is the “jump” electrical current can make between two metal points using the air as a conductor. This can happen on damaged or frayed wires or wires that are not tightly secured.
Arcing is dangerous because it produces tremendous amounts of heat in the process. Arc faults are a well-known cause of numerous electrical fires each year.
2. What Is the Purpose of a GFCI?
The GFCI (or Ground Fault Circuit Interrupter) is a small device that monitors the electrical circuit that it is installed on against unintended ground faults. GFCIs too can be found in many of the modern electrical outlets and even on the electrical breakers.
GFCIs protect us from ground faults. Ground faults happen when electrical current finds a way to get in contact with the ground.
This means that the electrical current is not following its intended and safe path along the insulated wires. This can happen again with damaged or loose wiring. Ground faults are extremely dangerous because they can cause electrical shocks, burns, and electrocution.
3. What is the Purpose of Dual-Function Breakers?
Dual-Function Breakers monitor against both ground faults and arc faults. This is required where both forms of protection are needed.
And last but not least, I’d like to mention that a combination AFCI is not a dual function breaker. A combination AFCI means that the device offers protection to all kinds of arc faults. For example, the very first AFCIs were not able to detect a series arc fault. And the newer models can detect all two kinds of arc faults, making them a lot safer.
Why is AFCI Protection Required?
AFCIs were first introduced by the National Electrical Code (NEC) between 1997 and 1999.
During 1999 the NEC made AFCI protection of the electrical circuits mandatory in the bedrooms.
A lot of statistical data suggests that a great deal of the electrical fires do start from the bedrooms. (Especially during the winter season.)
We can spend a lot of time in our bedrooms, and this is usually accompanied by the use of many different electrical appliances as well. And it doesn’t take much for an arc fault to happen. Wires can get crushed behind furniture, or a nail can go through the wires in the wall.
So it all started with the bedrooms.
However, with every consecutive update of the Code, AFCIs were being required in more and more rooms and areas.
Since the revision of the NEC in 2017 every 15 and 20-amp, 125-volt, single-phase, branch circuit outlets are required to have AFCI installed on them. This includes all dwelling areas in the building.
Usually, this will include even ovens, microwaves, dishwashers, refrigerators, and furnaces that may have a dedicated electrical outlet or circuit.
The benefits of the protection that AFCI provides are well documented. And keep in mind that every year at least 30,000 fires start because of arc faults. (1)
The U.S. Fire Administration has also noted that every year about 67,800 fires in the total start because of electrical problems resulting in many deaths and property damage. (2)
AFCIs are required. On the one hand because of the Code. And on the other hand, because it is a wise thing to do. (In addition, AFCI outlets and breakers are required by the Code to be tested periodically once every month.)
Are AFCI Breakers Required for Lighting Circuits?
Lighting is another topic that leaves a lot of people wondering whether or not they need AFCI protection.
With the electrical code revision in 2014, a few notable changes and requirements were added to the National Electrical Code.
One of which affects the lighting circuits in particular.
One of the things noted in the revision is that not only receptacles need to be AFCI protected, but ALL devices in these particular rooms and areas need to have the same protection.
This applies to light circuits and electrical outlets.
This can get a bit confusing because some older homes have hardwired lighting circuits to deal with. This means, in older homes that are undergoing electrical upgrades certain circuits will need to be upgraded to include AFCI protection.
As of this writing, attics do not have to be AFCI protected provided the light switch is located inside the attic space.
However, if the light switch for the attic lighting is located in the finished interior space, say for instance in a hallway or bedroom – then you need to have it protected with an AFCI breaker.
Are AFCI Breakers Required in Bathrooms?
Although AFCI protection is required in different areas and rooms, bathrooms are not one of them.
Why exactly the NEC does not require AFCI may and has thrown a lot of confusion among many people. After all, bathrooms are not the safest places for electricity, considering all the moisture and water.
Remember how I said that GFCIs and AFCIs are different?
Bathrooms are required to have ground fault protection in place. (Provided by a GFCI.)
This is needed due to the risk of water getting in contact with the electrical wiring and other electrical appliances and equipment. Remember the old commercials where the hairdryer falls in the bathtub full of water?
This is why we need GFCI protection in the bathrooms.
However, arc fault protection is not required by the NEC in the bathrooms.
There may be several reasons for that:
- Some electrical appliances (Like the electric dryer, for example.) can have a brush motor which may cause the AFCI to trip constantly.
- Not a lot of appliances are used in the bathrooms, so the chances of arcing and sparking are less. And electrical fire is less likely to occur in a bathroom.
- People usually don’t use extension cords in the bathrooms to plug in a lot of appliances.
- Many of the electrical gadgets are actively being used. Meaning the person using the appliance is present, rather than having a space heater work while no one is there or while the person is sleeping.
- The bathroom outlets are usually maintained in good and clean condition and easily visible.
AFCI protection isn’t required in bathrooms because bathrooms are not considered to be habitable spaces.
Are AFCI Breakers Required in Kitchens?
Yes, Arc fault AFCI protection is required on all electrical circuits in the kitchen.
Our kitchens are one of the most electricity-demanding rooms in our homes.
In the kitchen, we tend to have numerous different electrical appliances and gadgets, many of which will even require their own dedicated circuits – like the dishwasher, oven, refrigerator, garbage disposal, and others.
I think it’s worth mentioning that in addition to the AFCI protection, GFCI protection is also required in the kitchen.
Usually, this is achieved in several ways, some of which are:
- By installing an AFCI electrical breaker and adding GFCI outlets down the line.
- By installing a dual-function electrical breaker on the circuits that supply the kitchen. Dual-function electrical breakers provide both AFCI and GFCI protection for places where resetting a tripped GFCI plug may be difficult, such as behind a refrigerator or washing machine.
Are AFCI Breakers Required in Basements?
Basements can be a tricky topic for many and can raise many questions. And the NEC requires some places to have AFCI but not GFCI and vice versa. (For example, GFCI is required in unfinished basements.)
So is AFCI protection required in the basement? It depends on the intended purpose of the space. Yes, provided the basement will be finished living space. Otherwise, for an unfinished basement, AFCI protection will not be required.
If we take a look at the AFCI requirements by the NEC, we will see a few things. AFCIs are required on all 120-volt, single-phase circuits that are 15 to 20 amps supplying receptacles in all dwelling rooms.
If for example, your basement is used as a finished living space, then you will need to install an AFCI protection.
However, basements (garages, attics, etc.) are usually not required to have AFCI protection.
Another thing worth noting is that local codes may vary from place to place. So I would recommend always to consult with a local electrical technician or inspector to find out what does and doesn’t apply to you.
How to Reset AFCI Breakers?
Let’s say you don’t have any power in your bedroom. But you do have power in the rest of the rooms.
One of the possible reasons may be a tripped AFCI breaker. An AFCI breaker may have tripped due to a possible arc fault that has occurred in the electrical circuit. Sometimes an AFCI may be easily tripped by some of the everyday electrical gadgets we use, too.
The first thing to do is go to the main electrical panel and look for the electrical breaker that supplies the bedroom circuit.
You should be able to recognize it on the panel pretty easily. The AFCI breaker will have a little test button on it. They are usually labeled too.
When an AFCI breaker has been tripped the switch is going to be either in the middle or in the off position.
First, make sure to unplug any electrical appliances in the room (In our example that would be the bedroom.) especially if you have any computers and laptops plugged in, or other sensitive electronics.
To reset the AFCI breaker, locate the tripped AFCI breaker and move it to the OFF position. After that simply switch it back On position by using the switch on it – as you would do with a standard circuit breaker.
If you discover that a specific electrical device is the reason for the breaker to trip every time, you need to either replace it or repair it. This way, you will avoid any potential fire hazards from occurring in the future.
This is an important thing to do, and a faulty device should never be ignored.A few things may cause AFCI breakers to trip:
- Bad wiring practices or compromised wires.
- Incompatible electrical devices. (Treadmills and fluorescent lights can cause that.)
How to Reset AFCI Outlets?
In some cases, though, you may find out that all the circuit breakers in the panel look the same and there is no AFCI label or a TEST button on any of them.
In that case, you may just have standard electrical breakers installed in the main panel. And the arc fault protection is supplied by AFCI receptacles installed down the line.
What you need to do is go to the room that has no electricity and check the outlet that is not working. An AFCI outlet is going to be very similar to a GFCI outlet.
On the outlet, you will have two buttons – a “TEST” and a “RESET” button.
- Make sure you unplug any electrical devices that are plugged in the outlet first.
- To reset an AFCI outlet after it has been once tripped is press the “RESET” button. Now there should be electricity flowing to the electrical outlet.
Just like with the breakers if the outlet trips frequently, you need to have the reason for this investigated. There could be a few reasons for the outlet to trip like:
- A faulty or malfunctioning electrical device
- The outlet has gone bad.
- Too many electrical appliances are connected to the outlet causing it to trip.
Final Thoughts on AFCI
AFCI protection and upgrades to AFCI protection are concerning to many people. The technology is still relatively new. Many homeowners don’t like the AFCI breakers because of frequent nuisance tripping. You can read our article What Causes an Arc Fault Breaker to Trip.
If your AFCI breakers are frequently tripping, it’s more likely a problem with the particular device plugged into the wall than the AFCI breaker itself.
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