Arc fault circuit interrupters (AFCI) and ground fault circuit interrupters (GFCI) are designed to prevent hazardous wiring conditions that can cause structural fires and electric shock. According to a recent survey, the devices are working.
The Electrical Safety Foundation (ESFI) is a national nonprofit dedicated to promoting electrical safety at home and in the workplace. In July 2023, ESFI teamed up with the National Electrical Manufacturers Association’s (NEMA) Low Voltage Distribution Equipment Section (LVDE) to survey electrical contractors about the performance of these types of safety devices. AFCI-specific results were released in October. The survey reached out to electrical contractors with experience in electrical contracting, design, engineering and planning. It queried contractors in the states of Colorado, Georgia, Kentucky, Minnesota, Ohio, Texas and Washington.
The methodology included asking survey respondents specifically about responding to AFCI service calls. This produced some notable findings.
For example, 100% of the respondents saw evidence of dangerous arcing when responding to an AFCI-related service call. Slightly more than half of all calls, 58%, involved tripped breakers or fuses.
Concerning tripped fuses, the percent of calls varied depending on the type of fuse in use at the home. Standard circuit breakers made up 30% of the incidents. They were followed by fuses at 24%, AFCI at 17%, GFCI at 15% and dual-function AFCI/GFCI breakers at 14%.
Many respondents noted that the majority of circuit breaker trips were caused by the device working as intended. They also noted common mistakes encountered while checking on tripped overcurrent protection, which included inadequate circuit protection, overloaded circuits, wiring issues and surge protection.
Proper circuit protection seemed to lower the need for servicing, with only 37% of contractor service calls involving circuits with the correct type of protection installed.
States and localities have adopted different versions of the National Electrical Code, which first required AFCIs in 1999. Meanwhile, the number of home structure fires has been gradually decreasing over the last 40 years. According to the National Fire Protection Association, the 2021 estimate of 338,000 reported home fires in 2022 was 54% lower than the estimate of 734,000 in 1980 and 5% lower than the 2020 estimate of 356,500.
ESFI also notes the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) estimates that 50% of electrical fires can be prevented with proper AFCI protection.