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What is an AFCI & How They Prevent Electrical Fires?

What is an AFCI & How They Prevent Electrical Fires?

Our homes provide shelter and security. We rely on our homes to keep us safe. Part of home security is protection against accidents, such as electrical fires. Although not sexy, arc fault circuit interrupters (or AFCI) helps prevent electrical fires. For safety, install AFCIs in your home!

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Why is AFCI information important?

In 2011, the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) reported 47,700 home fires involved some type of electrical failure or malfunction. These fires result in over 350 deaths and around 1,400 injuries annually.

Fortunately, the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) estimates that more than 50% of electrical fires remain preventable by Arc-Fault Circuit Interrupters (AFCIs).

An AFCI helps prevent home fires

AFCI 101

To help understand the what and why behind AFCIs, it is important to learn about the root problem – arc faults.

What is an arc-fault?

An arc-fault creates a dangerous electrical problem caused by damaged, overheated, or stressed electrical wiring or devices. Typically, arc-faults occur when older wires become frayed or cracked.

In technical terms:

“An arc fault is an unintended arc created by current flowing through an unplanned path. Arcing creates high intensity heating at the point of the arc resulting in burning particles that may easily ignite surrounding material, such as wood framing or insulation. The temperatures of these arcs can exceed 10,000 degrees Fahrenheit.”

For example, arc-faults may emerge when a nail or screw damages a wire behind a wall. Also, compromised outlets or circuits may cause an arc-fault.

What is an AFCI?

An AFCI is a product that breaks the circuit when it detects a dangerous electrical arc. AFCIs (such as a duplex receptacle or circuit breaker) help prevent electrical fires. An AFCI distinguishes between a harmless arc that occurs incidentally to normal operation of switches, plugs and brushed motors and an undesirable arc. For example, an undesirable arc occurs in a lamp cord which has a broken conductor.

An AFCI protects the circuit in a manner that reduces its chance of being a source of an electrical fire.

How does an AFCI work?

AFCIs mitigate the effects of arcing faults by functioning to de-energize the circuit when an arc fault is detected.

In essence, the detection is accomplished by the use of advanced electronic technology to monitor the circuit for the presence of “normal” and “dangerous” arcing conditions. Some equipment in the home, such as a motor driven vacuum cleaner or furnace motor, naturally create arcs. This is considered to be a normal arcing condition. Another normal arcing condition that occurs when a light switch is turned off and the opening of the contacts creates an arc.

Types of AFCIs?

The National Electric Code (NEC) requires official listing of AFCI products. This means a nationally recognized testing laboratory must evaluated AFCIs and they must adhere to the national standard for AFCIs (and NEC 210.12 establishes the use of AFCIs as a requirement).

Homeowners looking to add AFCIs to aid in electrical fire prevention and protection should note that AFCIs are available as various products.

Originally, the 1999 National Electrical Code required AFCI protection. The first generation AFCI provides moderate fire prevention and detects when a parallel arc between hot and neutral conductors trip.

Alternatively, the combination AFCI breaker provides enhanced fire protection.

The AFCI receptacle provides protection from arc faults beyond branch circuit wiring extending to appliances and cords plugged into the receptacle. This device provides enhanced fire protection and protects all downstream wire and appliances from both parallel and series arcs, and also protects from series arcs upstream in the wiring between the source of the circuit and the first outlet of the circuit.


Homeowners should know that there are multiple ways to protect your home and family from electrical fires. GFCIs are also important to help prevent surges and should be used in conjunction with AFCIs.

What is a ground fault circuit interrupter?

A ground fault circuit interrupter (GFCI) is a device that shuts off an electric power circuit when it detects that current is flowing along an unintended path, such as through water or a person.

Ground fault protection integrates into GFCI receptacles and GFCI circuit breakers for installation into an electrical system. Ground fault protection remains particularly important for circuit outlets in areas where electrical equipment is near water. For example, GFCIs work for places such as bathrooms or kitchen sinks.

What is the difference between AFCIs and GFCIs?

AFCI and GFCI technologies can co-exist with each other and are a great complement for the most complete protection that can be provided on a circuit.

The major difference between an AFCI and GFCI is that the primary function of the GFCI is to protect people from the deadly effects of electric shock that could occur if parts of an electrical appliance or tool become energized due to a ground fault.

The primary function of the AFCI is to protect the branch circuit wiring from dangerous arcing faults that could initiate an electrical fire.

If this is confusing, than pictures can help show the difference between an AFCI vs. GFCI and how both can be used in your home.


AFCI News and Other Electrical Notes

There are many part of home maintenance and home improvement that homeowners can take a DIY approach. Electrical safety should not be one of them.

Keep in mind that AFCI protection means updating circuit breakers. The protection updates standard breakers to breakers designed to detect arcing and sparking that may cause electrical fires.

  • Test AFCI breakers and receptacles monthly.
  • Ensure a qualified electrician installs AFCIs.
  • Series Arc: Arc along the same conductor at connections.
  • Parallel Arc: Arc between hot and neutral conductor or between the hot and ground conductor.
  • All electrical systems need an electrical inspection. In particular, if the home is older than 40 years or recently added a major addition, renovation or large appliance.

For more information about preventing electrical fires, then here are a few more tips, which are part of the Homeowner’s Guide to Preventing Electrical Fires.

At SolvIt, we tend to think we provide excellent electrical services and peace of mind for our customers that the job will be done right. We stand behind our techs and work, but understand we might not be the best fit for everyone.

However, it is always best to hire an electrical contractor to help you perform a safety check in your home. Hiring a professional trained on the electrical safety equipment provides reassurances for protecting your families safety.

SolvIt offers homeowners with experienced and insured electricians, so if you experience any electrical emergencies or would like a routine electrical inspection, then contact us today!