Reduce the risk of electrical fires with AFCIs

December, January, and February are the leading months for home fires in the U.S., according to the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA). One of the causes of these fires is electrical malfunctions. This month I’d like to share Safe Electricity ­program’s information on the warning signs of an electrical problem in your home and how adding arc-fault circuit interrupters (AFCIs) can help prevent electrical fires.

Overloaded circuits, electrical faults, and faulty wiring can all cause elec­trical fires. It is a good idea to get an elec­trical inspection of your home, ­especially if it is an older home or you never had an inspection. Signs of electrical problems in a home include flickering lights and warm, cracked, or sparking outlets. In addition, if ­circuits trip, fuses blow, or someone gets a shock, your home has an electrical problem.

According to the NFPA, elec­trical fires or malfunctions were factors in approximately 44,900 home fires reported to U.S. fire departments in 2013. These fires caused 410 deaths, 1,180 injuries and $1.3 billion in ­property damage.

Recently, the Chicago Tribune reported on an electrical fire that caused thousands of dollars of damage in June 2016 in Elgin, Ill. The blaze began in the home’s attic due to the incorrectly installed electrical wiring in the home and the smolder began in the insulation.

Electrical arc faults occur when an electric current flows through an unplanned path. This causes heat that can ignite wood framing or ­insulation, with temperatures that can exceed 10,000 degrees Fahrenheit, according to the National Electrical Manufacturers Association.

“Dangerous arcs are most likely to occur when wires are installed ­improperly, or when surrounding insulation has been damaged,” says Matt Eisenmenger, Safe Electricity Advisory Board member, a former lineman and now a safety instructor for the Association of Illinois Electric Cooperatives.

AFCIs, or arc fault circuit inter­rupters, can reduce the chance of electrical fires by sensing arcing ­conditions, distinguishing between normal and unintended arcing. When an abnormal or dangerous arc is detected, the AFCI de-energizes the circuit.

Research regarding safety pre­cautions and arc faults began in the late 1980s and early 1990s. AFCIs were first mentioned in the National Electrical Code (NEC) in 1999. Until 2008, AFCIs were required only in bedrooms, but the code now extends installation requirements into all ­habitable areas including dining rooms and living rooms. The 2014 NEC requires that AFCIs be installed in all areas of new residential construc­tion with the exception of bathrooms, garages, and outside areas.

There are different types of AFCIs available. For installation and in order to determine which type is best for your home’s safety, contact a professional electrician.

Branch/feeder AFCIs are designed to primarily handle parallel faults and are installed at the origin of a branch circuit, such as a panel board, and ­protect the entire circuit. When AFCIs were first introduced, this was the primary type.

Molly Hall is Director of Safe Electricity. E-mail Safe Electricity is a public awareness program of the Energy Education Council.

Combination AFCIs became required, beginning in 2008, for new residential constructions. They are designed to protect against both ­parallel and series faults. In ­addition, they are more sensitive to faults, ­tripping at 5 amps.

Outlet circuit AFCIs protect cords and equipment that are plugged into an outlet. They are installed at a branch circuit outlet and provide both parallel and series arc-fault protection. However, they do not provide arc-fault protection upstream from the device.

“Although it is difficult to determine how many fires have been prevented with AFCIs, they are important safety devices that can help keep your home safe from electrical fire,” adds Eisenmenger.

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