National Electrical Safety Month comes once a year. Building-code authorities or others involved in setting regulations within a municipal, county or state jurisdiction weigh in on local adoption of the National Electrical Code (NEC) shortly after each new edition is published, once every three years. The decision to adopt, modify or reject the Code usually is rendered in spring or summer.

Right now, in localities across the country, the annual safety campaign is coinciding with the triennial deliberations on Code adoption. It has happened before, of course, but the tie-in is critically important this time around.

Electrical Safety Foundation International, which orchestrates National Electrical Safety Month with support from sponsors such as NECA, is focusing on three major issues this year: electrical fire prevention with arc-fault circuit interrupters (AFCIs), child safety with tamper-resistant outlets, and eliminating electrocutions and burns with ground-fault circuit interrupters (GFCIs). All three are addressed with expanded requirements in the 2008 NEC, but the new rules for AFCIs are primarily sparking controversy in some jurisdictions.

In the late 1980s, after the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission called attention to the high number of residential fires that originated in branch-circuit wiring systems, the Electronic Industries Association launched a serious investigation into arc faults—unintended, self-sustaining discharges of electricity in the air that cause extremely high heat—and determined that additional electrical protection was needed.

Thus, the AFCI was developed, and by 1999, it had earned the approval of Underwriters Laboratories and other safety watchdogs. Though the AFCI has been called a “next-generation GFCI,” there really are important differences. The GFCI is designed to protect people from severe or fatal electrical shocks, while the AFCI protects against fires caused by arcing faults. The GFCI can protect against some electrical fires by detecting arcing and other faults to ground but cannot detect hazardous across-the-line arcing faults that can cause fires.

AFCIs were introduced first in the 2002 NEC with a requirement that all branch circuits that supplied 125V, 15A and 20A receptacle outlets installed in dwelling unit bedrooms be protected by one of these devices. The 2005 edition further endorsed them by requiring the use of the latest in AFCI technology. The 2008 NEC expands AFCI requirements to all 15A and 20A branch circuits throughout new houses, apartments and condos.

The expanded requirement doesn’t sit well with some folks, particularly members of homebuilders’ associations who are concerned about the $35 to $45 per-unit price adding to the cost of construction. As the National Electrical Manufacturers Association reports on its Web site devoted to promoting AFCI use (www.afcisafety.org): “Questions have been raised regarding their application and even the need for them. Various technical ‘opinions,’ organizational ‘marketing pitches,’ and misinformation are being distributed about AFCIs that further mislead the public about the purpose of the device as a part of overall electrical safety.”

In other words, jurisdictions considering adopting the 2008 NEC are being pressured to reject the new requirements. And, if you want to know more about how selective adoption of the Code compromises safety, be sure to check out this month’s Focus article by Michael Johnston, NECA’s executive director for standards and safety, on page 32.

His article also mentions the Electrical Code Coalition. On an organizational level, NECA will continue to work with this group and through additional means to uphold and promote the integrity of the NEC, but I want to encourage all electrical contractors to jump on board this issue as well.

Arm yourself with thorough knowledge of electrical protection, find out who is responsible for Code adoption in your jurisdiction, and join the process. Lives may depend on it.

Milner Irvin, President, NECA