Some of the most common questions I receive from home buyers revolve around electrical safety. Whether you are planning to renovate a home or buying a new home, electrical safety will inevitably come up at some point.
One of the topics that 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.
Are AFCI and GFCI the Same Thing?
No, AFCIs and GFCIs may look similar, but they differ in nature and purpose. AFCI protects against arc faults that contribute to 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 rooms may require just one of these installed, while other rooms 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. AFCI is a safety device that helps protect against personal injury and house fires. You can find AFCI installed on many electrical circuits in homes since 2000.
An arc fault is the “jump” electrical current that can make between two metal points using the air as a conductor. Arc faults 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 installed 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.
Ground faults mean that the electrical current does not follow its intended and safe path along the insulated wires. Ground faults can also happen with damaged or loose wiring. Ground faults are hazardous 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. Dual-function, also known as a combination breaker, is used 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. The newer models can detect both arc and ground 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.
In 1999 the NEC made AFCI protection of the electrical circuits mandatory in the bedrooms.
A lot of statistical data suggests that many electrical fires do start from the bedrooms. (Especially during the winter season.)
We can spend a lot of time in our bedrooms, usually accompanied by many different electrical appliances. 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 required in more rooms and areas.
Since the revision of the NEC in 2017, every 15 and 20-amp, 120-volt, single-phase branch circuit outlets for dwelling areas are required to have AFCI installed on them.
Usually, this will include bedrooms, living rooms, dining rooms, etc. Some areas do not require AFCI protection provided GFCI protection is present. These include clothes washers, dishwashers, refrigerators, and bathrooms with a dedicated GFCI 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)
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.
In 2014, NEC added some notable changes and requirements to the National Electrical Code with the electrical code revision.
One of which affects the lighting circuits in particular.
One of the things noted in the revision is that not only do tamper-resistant receptacles need to be AFCI protected, but ALL devices in these particular rooms and areas need to have the same protection.
AFCI protection applies to light circuits and electrical outlets.
AFCI can get confusing because some older homes didn’t have these exact requirements. After all, AFCI technology didn’t exist then. Older homes undergoing electrical upgrades will need specific circuits upgraded to include AFCI protection.
As of this writing, attics do not have to be AFCI protected, provided the light switch is inside the attic space.
However, if the light switch for the attic lighting is in the finished interior space, say, you must have it protected with an AFCI breaker in a hallway or bedroom.
Are AFCI Breakers Required in Bathrooms?
Although AFCI protection is needed in different areas and rooms, bathrooms are not one of them.
The NEC does not require AFCI 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)
GFCI is essential due to the risk of moisture 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?
Well, 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 was expanded into the NEC code in 2014 and required all electrical circuits in the kitchen.
Our kitchens are one of the most electricity-demanding rooms in our homes.
We tend to have numerous electrical appliances and gadgets in the kitchen, many of which will require their dedicated circuits – like the dishwasher, oven, refrigerator, garbage disposal, and others.
I think it’s worth mentioning that in addition to the AFCI protection, GFI protection is also required in the kitchen.
Usually, you can do this 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.
Do Refrigerators Need an AFCI Breaker
Traditionally refrigerators did not require AFCI or GFCI protection. However, in 2014 AFCI requirements expanded to kitchens and laundry rooms. Now, refrigerators require a dedicated 20-amp breaker, and the circuit needs both AFCI and GFCI protection. The best method to do this is with a Combination AFCI/GFCI breaker in the panel box.
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 is living space. Otherwise, for an unfinished basement, AFCI protection will not be required.
If we look at the AFCI requirements by the NEC, we will see a few things. AFCIs are required on all 120-volt, single-phase circuits with 15 to 20 amps supplying receptacles in all dwelling rooms.
If, for example, if you use your basement as a living room, playroom, or recreational room, 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 consulting with a local electrical technician or inspector to find out what does and doesn’t apply to you.
Does AFCI Replace GFCI
AFCI protects against arc faults, while GFCI protects against ground faults. These are two different fault types, and therefore no, AFCI is not a replacement for GFCI. In circuits requiring AFCI and GFCI protection, a combination AFCI breaker protects against all fault types.
Therefore, a CAFCI can serve as a GFCI replacement because it will protect against all fault types.
You can identify a combo breaker by the CAFCI on the label. In areas where AFCI and GFCI are required, installing one CAFCI breaker with standard 3-prong receptacles is cheaper than installing an AFCI breaker and a GFCI receptacle on the same circuit.
How to Reset AFCI Breakers?
Let’s say you don’t have any power in your bedroom but have power in other rooms.
One of the possible reasons may be a tripped AFCI breaker. An AFCI breaker may have tripped due to a possible arc fault 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 will be in the middle or 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.
If you discover that a specific electrical device is a reason for the breaker to trip every time, you need to replace or repair it. This way, you will avoid any potential fire hazards from occurring in the future.
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 have standard electrical breakers installed in the main panel. And the arc fault protection is supplied by AFCI receptacles installed down the line.
You need to go to the room with no electricity and check the outlet that is not working. An AFCI outlet is going to be very similar to a GFCI outlet.
You will have two buttons on the outlet – 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.
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 concern 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. There are rare cases where arcing has damaged the bus bar, meaning you may need an electrical panel replacement.