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AFCI Breakers: Keeping Your Home Safe From Electrical Fires

AFCI breakers are an important safety device that can prevent electrical fires in your home. This guide will explore the role they play and the factors to consider if you're thinking about having AFCI breakers installed.

Why are AFCI breakers so important?

AFCI (Arc Fault Circuit Interrupter) breakers are important because they prevent electrical fires by cutting power to a circuit when it detects an “arc fault” (standard breakers don’t do this).

So, what exactly are “arc faults”? And why are they dangerous? Well, arcing happens when electric current strays from its intended path and travels through damaged insulation.

You see, normally, electric current in your home runs safely along wiring that is enclosed in insulation. If everything is working properly, the insulation acts like a safety “jacket” that keeps current contained and “on track” so that it only travels through the wiring and to your electronics.

But if the insulation is damaged, that live current escapes the confines of its safety jacket. This is called “arcing”. And once an electrical arc is created, it can quickly exceed 10,000°F, which poses a huge risk for an electrical fire.

Causes of electrical arcing include:

  • Loose or damaged wires
  • Damaged insulation
  • Overloaded outlets
  • Faulty appliances

The good news is that if you have an AFCI breaker installed, it will detect even very small amounts of electrical arcing and immediately cut power to the circuit to prevent electrical fires.

Am I required to install AFCI breakers in my home?

This is where things get a little tricky. You see, the NEC (National Electric Code) states that:

“...all 120-volt, single-phase, 15- and 20-ampere branch circuits supplying outlets or devices installed in dwelling unit kitchens, family rooms, dining rooms, living rooms, parlors, libraries, dens, bedrooms, sunrooms, recreation rooms, closets, hallways, laundry areas, or similar rooms or areas shall be protected by AFCIs.” - 2017 edition of the NEC, Section 210.12

But here’s the thing: NEC codes don’t require “existing systems” to be changed every time a new rule is added.

Translation? If your home was built before 2002 (when AFCIs were first required by the NEC), you’re not required to replace standard breakers with AFCI breakers—it’s just strongly suggested.

So, when are AFCI breaker installations required and when are they just suggested?

AFCI breakers are required when...

  1. You’re constructing a new home
  2. You’re adding a completely new circuit to your home

AFCI breakers are suggested (but not required) when...

  1. You’re upgrading your main electrical panel
  2. You’re planning to sell your home
  3. You’re renovating your home (but not adding new circuits)
  4. You want peace of mind knowing your home is protected from electrical fires

AFCI breaker installations: 2 cost factors to consider

Factor #1: The quality of the electrician you hire

The more skilled the professional, the more they typically charge.

When it comes to your home’s electrical system, you don’t want to skimp on the experience and skill of your electrician. Think of it this way: you’re likely to install an AFCI to protect your family and home but hiring an inexperienced electrician (who is likely to install the breaker incorrectly) would just defeat that purpose, right?

Our suggestion? Don’t say “no” to an electrician just because they provide higher quotes than others. Instead, do some extra research on the electrician to determine whether they are actually worth the higher price (in other words, follow our tips below).

Tips to find a quality electrician:

  • Weed out electrician who have bad or no reviews on sites like Google+, Better Business Bureau and Yelp
  • Verify that they are licensed and insured in the state of Colorado
  • Make sure that they are experienced in installing AFCI breakers
  • Make sure they offer at least a 1-year labor warranty

Factor #2: Difficulties of the installation

For the most part, installing AFCI breakers during the construction of a new home won’t present many difficulties. However, any number of challenges could arise if an electrician is installing an AFCI breaker in an existing home/electrical panel.

And the more challenges an electrician faces, the longer the job will take, and the more materials are required, which will increase the overall installation price.

Let’s look at some potential “difficulties” your electrician might face:

  • Having to re-run wiring (on existing circuit/panel). AFCI breakers will trip if/when wiring is damaged. So, if an electrician is replacing a standard breaker with an AFCI and notices that the wiring for that circuit currently runs through a high-risk area for damage (i.e., near a room/area that’s being renovated or near a large appliance that will need to be replaced in the future), they'll need to re-run that circuit's wiring.
  • Trying to add a new AFCI-protected circuit on an outdated panel or fuse box. Older electrical panels (such as Pushmatic) and fuse boxes are not compatible with AFCI breakers. The only solution would be to completely upgrade the panel/fuse box, which will increase the overall cost.
  • Existing electronics that were poorly installed. Poorly installed electronics (such as a ceiling fan) can cause your newly installed AFCI breaker to constantly trip. If this is the case, the electrician will need to fix the faulty wiring for the AFCI breaker to work properly and this will increase your overall cost.

Need help from a Colorado Plumbing, Heating, Cooling, or Electrical Specialist? 

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