Electrical fire safety: circuit breakers
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Reduce electrical home fire risk by upgrading breaker technology

Electrician looking at circuit breaker panel

Half of U.S. homes have electrical systems that were installed before electronic devices such as drip coffee makers and garage door openers became common household items, according to The Electrical Safety Foundation International (ESFI), a nonprofit dedicated to electrical safety in the home.

These homes were built before 1973, says the safety advocacy group, citing a U.S. census report. The ESFI says that overloaded electrical systems cause more than 50,000 fires a year and account for $1.4 billion in property damage.

The most obvious stress on a home's wiring is not having enough places to plug in appliances, lights and devices. “A heavy reliance on extension cords can indicate that your home has too few electrical outlets,” says Brett Brenner, president of EFSI.

Overloaded outlets or circuits may cause fires. These fires may be caused by wires that are nicked by drywall screws or by older wires that cracked or frayed. Called arc faults, this type of problem causes more than 30,000 house fires each year, according to the EFSI.

Different options for circuit breaker technology 

Arc fault circuit interrupters (AFCIs), a special type of circuit breaker, goes a long way toward preventing fires cause by nicked or frayed wiring. An AFCI cuts off the electrical circuit (called tripping) when an electrical problem is detected. “AFCIs offer enhanced fire protection capabilities by recognizing when a hazardous arcing situation occurs in a home’s wiring and then immediately cutting power to the circuit before a fire can start,” Brennan explains.  “AFCIs save lives and property by preventing fires rather than just mitigating their damage.”

In 2002, the National Electric Code required ACFIs in bedrooms in an attempt to reduce the 70,000 house fires sparked by electrical faults. As the number of house fires declined, the code expanded the use of ACFIs to other rooms. By 2013 the number of house fires caused by electrical faults was down to about 21,000. In 2017, AFCIs will be mandated for the entire house.

In contrast, ground fault circuit interrupters (GFCIs) trip when electricity travels outside the circuit to take the shortest path to the ground, shocking or electrocuting users. These are typically seen in kitchens and baths to prevent shocks caused by water, as when wet hands conduct electricity from a hair dryer.

Recently, arc fault and ground fault interrupters have been combined into a single breaker. Called dual function circuit interrupters (DFCIs), they protect against both types of hazards. These breakers can be reset, like GFCIs, after they trip. If they trip frequently, call an electrician.

Dual function circuit interrupters are a particularly good solution for kitchens and baths, where GFCIs already are required and where national electrical codes soon will require AFCIs  for new construction. Therefore, if you’re building an addition or new home, or replacing wiring in an existing home, plan to add AFCIs even if they aren’t required yet by your local or state electrical codes. Dual function circuit interrupters cost about $45 - slightly more than GFCIs - but are less expensive than buying both AFCIs and GFCIs.

Improve home fire safety by upgrading to the latest technology

“All homes more than 40 years old should undergo an electrical inspection to ensure the home’s electrical system can handle modern demands,” Brenner says.

Replacing existing breakers with AFCIs or DFCIs is one of the simplest electrical improvements. Keep in mind, “AFCIs and DFCIs should be installed by an electrician,” Brenner emphasizes.

Electricians can swap standard breakers with AFCIs, as long as the brands remain the same. It is important to note that circuit boxes are designed for specific brands of circuit breakers.

Upgrading to DFCIs is slightly more complicated because DFCIs are larger than traditional breakers and don’t fit into existing circuit boxes. Therefore, electricians must install DFCIs in a new electrical panel designed for them.

Replacing traditional breakers with dual function or arc fault circuit interrupters is one of the simplest changes homeowners can make to reduce their risk of electrical house fires. It is a change worth considering.

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