A special kind of circuit breaker is now required for most circuits in your home. Arc Fault Circuit Interrupters (AFCIs) have been required for circuits in bedrooms under the National Electrical Code since 2002, but are now required on most other circuits as well. Their steep price tag will mean an increase in electrical costs for homeowners remodeling, adding onto their homes or building new homes. The NEC code is adopted differently and with varying timing depending on the jurisdiction in which you live.
The AFCI breaker is far less well known than the Ground Fault Circuit Interrupter (GFCI), which is now widely installed in kitchens, baths and other areas with running water and is recognizable by the reset button on the face of the outlet. The GFCI breaker trips when current flows unimpeded–the idea is to prevent people from being shocked.
The AFCI can also have an outlet face reset and is designed to trip if it senses an arc. Arcing wiring is a leading cause of electrical fires in homes, and many of them happen in bedrooms, so the code first required these breakers on circuits serving bedrooms. The updated code calls for AFCIs on most circuits, including some that also must be protected by a GFCI.
The increase in cost is potentially large. Standard 15- and 20-amp breakers sell for under $10. The AFCI breakers in those amperages start at $30 and up. For a full 42-slot 200-amp panel, that can mean a cost increase of $1000 or more. While the largest impact will be on new construction or complete rewires where panels are being assembled from scratch, the added costs can significantly boost the cost of remodels as well.
AFCIs can be temperamental. We’ve had vacuums set them off, and a variety of other devices can make them trip as well. Check with your electrician if you’re having trouble with a tripping AFCI. They may have suggestions about how to use your devices differently or may even try trading out the breaker for a new one.
The upside of the AFCI code is that it should reduce the risk of electrical fires in homes where the breakers are installed. The downside is that it is likely to take many many years before they become as ubiquitous as the GFIs we all know so well.