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What are arc fault circuit breakers?

Some of the 17 arc fault breakers in my main electrical panel

Starting in 2008, the National Electrical Code included a new requirement: new homes must use arc fault circuit breakers. Like most people, I was unaware of this new requirement, nor did I know what purpose these breakers serve until my electrician explained it to me.

Many electrical fires are caused by arcs. Arcs can happen when a wire has been damaged, leaving a gap in the insulation, or when a connection has come loose. Ordinary circuit breakers don’t detect this problem. If enough current arcs for long enough, it will heat up and cause a fire. These new breakers are expensive (at least $45 each). They added more than $600 to the cost of my electrical system.

This added cost has caused many people to complain. In fact the North Carolina Building Code Council (under pressure from developers, as always) recently considered dropping this requirement. But they backed down and kept the requirement after wiser heads put some pressure on them.

If you’ve ever been around a house fire, as I have, you want all the protection you can get. There are 41,000 house fires each year, causing around 360 fire deaths each year and thousands of injuries. Children and the elderly are always at higher risk in house fires (and I’m not getting any younger). I gladly shelled out the money for these breakers. My electrician was able to negotiate a good price for me because my house has much more wiring than most houses this size (I’m a nerd). My 1250-square-foot house has more than 30 circuits.

So how does an arc fault breaker differ from a ground fault breaker? An arc fault breaker is for preventing fires. A ground fault breaker is to protect humans from electrical shock. The code still requires ground fault breakers in kitchens, bathrooms, laundry rooms, basements, etc. Typically the ground fault breakers are in the outlet boxes, so these circuits have both arc fault and ground fault protection.

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