Why Arc-Fault Breakers?

To keep your house from burning down, but...

The answer is of course is to keep your house from burning down, but there’s more to that story than anyone expected when Arc-fault breakers were required in the U.S. beginning back in 2014. This is a good thing, but for some homeowners and their remodelers it can also be a nuisance.

Arc-fault breakers detect the unique electronic signature of a sparking or arcing connection and trip the breaker before it starts a fire. The arcing can be caused by a nail through a wire, a rodent, a frayed electrical cord, corrosion, or a miss-wired or failing product.

Arc caused fire inside a wall cavity.

We are not talking about simple clumsiness here. The “more” to the story is that while these new sensitive AFCI breakers can detect unsafe electrical signatures in wiring they sometimes trip the circuit on older smaller appliances or even new appliances that operate at frequencies, usually around 100 kHz.

“Following some remodels, we have found coffee makers, toasters, small microwaves and even printers that previously worked are now tripping AFCI circuits.It could be the appliance, it could be a small short in a loose wire that was never detected before.We just don’t know until we look into it. Sometimes clients have to upgrade their appliances. It’s unfortunate, unintended, but sometimes unavoidable,” explains John Murphy, owner Murphy Bros. Design | Build | Remodel.”

Most Common Appliances Affected:

                • Fans
                • Coffee makers
                • Hair dryers
                • Irons
                • Microwaves
                • Older model refrigerators
                • Extension cords
                • I-phone charging units

Can't imagine if my "Caffinator" coffee maker kept tripping my circuit—at 6 am everyday!

No pun intended here, but you could say it’s the appliance manufacturers fault for not keeping up with safety developments in their product design. They would disagree, saying they can’t make products that don’t have some electrical surge when they start up.

You could blame the electrical industry for rolling out a new product too soon or that’s too sensitive. They would say, talk to the 420 people who lost their lives last year to house fires. Or you could blame your legislature for making it code before all the kinks were worked out. Good luck with that.

The arc-fault devices are doing what they are designed to do. Be that as it may, that doesn’t mean solutions for nuisance tripping are obvious or easy to solve. There's plenty of "fault" to go around it seems...

"An appliance maker, an electrician, an arc-fault breaker manufacturer, a code inspector and a contractor walk into a bar...the AFCI breaker trips and the lights go out. Who wouldn't get blamed? Probably the bartender," jokes Murphy.

Will manufacturers add "AFCI Compliant" labels to their devices someday? We can only hope!

"We want our homeowners to know that in any remodel that involves electrical, the potential problem for nuisance arc-fault circuit interrupts exists. And, to a certain degree, we can work with our clients to try and isolate the problem appliance, or, in some cases identify and correct faulty wiring in existing circuitry that could be causing the circuit to trip," explains Murphy.

Cute eh? Not so much. Thing is you'll never see them doing it!

There is some good news on the horizon, along with manufacturers working to keep improving the performance of these products, there is also talk of appliances and other electrical equipment being certified as “arc-fault compliant” or something that would help consumers make there buying decisions with better information.

Concludes Murphy, "I get it. No one wants to spend thousands of dollars on a remodel only to find out later that they have to buy a new microwave because the current one won't work with the new breaker. All I can say is I'd rather have you a little annoyed for a while than experience a house fire."

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