ARC Fault Breakers
The ARC fault breaker began to show up in our area in the 2001-2002 time frame. In the first few years they were only required in bedrooms then the requirement expanded to include several other living areas of the home as well. The ARC fault breaker is twice the size of a regular breaker in the panel box because it does 2 jobs. Its first job is the same as all the other breakers in the box, to watch for overloaded circuits and turn the power off the instant it find one. The second job is to ‘listen’ for any kind of arcing in the wires connected to it. But to ‘hear’ the arcing in the wires requires some electronics and that’s what is in the other half of an ARC fault breaker.
The SOP no longer requires the home inspector to write up ‘missing’ ARC fault breakers in homes that never had them to begin with. In other words, homes built before about 2001-2002. It also doesn’t require the home inspector to write up ‘missing’ ARC faults in those other living areas of the home if the home is too old (about 2007 or earlier) to have been required by code. We are now required to test the installed ARC fault (and regular breakers) any time it is ‘safe’ to do so – in other words under circumstances that can not possibly cause problems for the homeowners or their electronics, so pretty much a vacant home. So now we simply report: 535.229 ‘(G) deficiencies in: (vii) the operation of installed ground fault or ARC faults interrupter devices:’ if any, and no longer mention their absence.
GFCI outlets have been around for a long time now. And unlike the ARC faults which will protect only about 1 in every 5000 homes in any given year,* the GFCI outlets protect us every day. The new SOP leans toward a more ‘performance’ based inspection but it doesn’t ignore safety. GFCI outlets were first added to the electrical code for bathrooms about 1975, then for kitchens “within 6′ of water” about 1987. So does it stand to reason, under the new ‘performance’ SOP, that we can ignore the ‘missing’ GFCI outlets on the kitchen counter top of a 1984 house because they weren’t required when it was built like we do ARC faults? The answer is NO, we can’t! It is still required of us in the SOP. ‘535.229 (b) Branch circuits….. The Inspector shall: (3) report as deficient: (a) the absence of ground-fault circuit interrupter protection in all: baths .. garages .. outdoor .. (vi) kitchen countertop receptacles: and ….’ Installing ARC fault breakers into an existing panel can be very expensive. But trading out a ‘regular’ kitchen counter outlet with a GFCI outlet is fairly fast, easy and inexpensive and will fulfill the SOP requirements on older homes.
In addition to the 1987 requirement for GFCIs in the kitchen within 6’ of water the 1996 requirement upped the ante by requiring all outlets serving a kitchen countertop to be GFCI protected. This includes outlets 8’ away from water, on the other side of the stove or on the opposite wall, it includes outlets on the living room side of the ½ wall where the countertop and sink are, it includes the outlet on the wall at the end of the countertop if a 4’-6’ long appliance cord could reach the outlet from the countertop and many other places as well. Although these aren’t written up very often, specifically per 1996 homes, the safety offered by the 1987 requirement of GFCI outlets within 6’ of water should never be overlooked, especially because of the ease of providing this protection.
Electrical Outlet Safety
Regular outlets that are broken can produce a nasty shock without tripping the breaker. They can create an arc of electricity when plugging or unplugging cords. Loose outlets in the home can touch the sides of their metal boxes when using the plugs, they can touch other bare wires or can eventually work wire connections loose and create arcing inside the junction box. There are many safety reasons to write up these types of ‘defective’ outlets. But when it is explained to the client just how super simple they are to correct the client often regards them as a maintenance issue to take care of (which they are) and never as a reason not to buy the home.
Properly functioning GFCIs, breakers and outlets provide us and our clients with the daily protection needed from the single most powerful energy source of our lives, but we take it so much for granted. We take it for granted because it is safe, it is safe because of the GFCIs, breakers and outlets designed to keep it that way.
*There are approximately 360,000-400,000 residential fires in the U.S. each year according to information from the CDC (http://www.cdc.gov/homeandrecreationalsafety/fire-prevention/fires-factsheet.html) According to a couple of older FEMA statistics (http://www.usfa.fema.gov/downloads/pdf/statistics/Residential_Structure_and_Building_Fires.pdf) – page 43
about 10% of residential fires are attributed to electrical malfunction. That puts the number of electrical fires at between 28,000-40,000. In a report by the Consumer Product Safety Commission the insurance industry thinks about ⅓ of all electrical fires were ARC fault related. (http://www.cpsc.gov//PageFiles/108737/AFCIFireTechnology.pdf)
If we take the higher number of 40,000 electrical residential fires and divide it by 33% we get about 13,000-14,000 homes catching fire because of an ARC fault problem.
According to the US Census there are more than 70,000,000 single family homes in the U.S. (https://www.census.gov/hhes/www/housing/census/historic/units.html)
Dividing our 13,000-14,000 ARC fault related fires into just the 70 million single family homes we get an aprox. statistic of 1 in 5000 homes that may catch fire because of an ARC fault related problem in any given year.