Courtesy Anne Arundel County Fire Dept.
Courtesy Anne Arundel County Fire Dept.

A devastating fire last month in a Maryland home serves as a grim reminder of the importance of residential electrical safety. The electrical fire that spread to a 15-foot Christmas tree in an Annapolis home led to a blaze that reduced a 16,000-square-foot riverfront mansion to ruins, killing a couple and four of their young grandchildren. The subsequent investigation found that a failure in an electrical outlet in the floor that provided power to the tree produced heat that ignited something combustible, probably a tree skirt, Capt. Russ Davies of the Anne Arundel County Fire Department told TV station WJLA.

Here, BUILDER talks with Schneider Electric's Ed Larsen, a member of the National Electrical Manufacturers Association Low-Voltage Distribution Equipment section AFCI Task Force, who discusses the importance of AFCIs in preventing electrical fires caused by arcing. 

What do AFCIs do?
The industry designed AFCIs to respond to dangerous unintentional arc faults created by damaged wiring in walls, and/or damaged extension or appliance cords. AFCIs shut down the power to the affected circuits before an electrical fire can begin. AFCI technology has helped produce successful results since they were added to the National Electrical Code (NEC) in 1999. According to a 2012 National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) report, U.S. electrical fires dropped nearly 20% from 2002 to 2009 and many believe AFCIs, along with better fire safety building materials and other technologies are helping bring the numbers down.

Where are they required?
The 2014 NEC requires AFCI use in kitchens, family rooms, dining rooms, living rooms, parlors, libraries, dens, bedrooms, sunrooms, recreation rooms, closets, hallways, laundry areas, or similar rooms. The implementation of the NEC varies with each state's residential code. Forty-nine states currently require AFCI installation in their codes. (Indiana does not.)

Unlike a standard circuit breaker detecting overloads and short circuits, an AFCI utilizes advanced electronic technology to sense arcing conditions and de-energize the circuit when an arc fault is detected.
Unlike a standard circuit breaker detecting overloads and short circuits, an AFCI utilizes advanced electronic technology to sense arcing conditions and de-energize the circuit when an arc fault is detected.

Home builders and electrical contractors have increasingly used AFCIs in new home construction and renovation. They understand the importance of building homes that are not only structurally sound, but provide the added security of materials and technologies that can help prevent electrical and other fires.

What is the future for AFCIs and electrical fire prevention?
Given the continued success of AFCIs in preventing electrical fires, it is hoped the NEC will ultimately require installation of the devices on all 15 to 20 amp circuits within a home. Ongoing research by the companies that manufacture AFCIs will only improve current devices.

According to the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), around 47,000 residential fires occur annually and involve some type of electrical failure or malfunction contributing to ignition. Builders, electrical contractors, firefighters, inspectors, manufacturers and others must remain vigilant to help reduce electrical fires that can be deadly. Embracing fire prevention technologies, continuing to develop better building materials and following aggressive fire safety practices will all help in this effort.

Reducing the number of electrical fires in homes is a national priority that requires multiple industries working together. The construction industry will continue to search for new materials and techniques to build homes and buildings in ways that are more fire resistant. Builders, electrical contractors, fire departments and fire safety groups will continue to educate the public on the latest in electrical and fire safety standards they are following and make them aware of the proper technologies that exist to help prevent these fires. Organizations like the National Fire Protection Association and Consumer Products Safety Commission will also continue researching fire statistics and providing everyone with updated information. While eliminating all fires is unlikely, greatly reducing their numbers is possible if everyone continues to work together throughout the construction, electrical, consumer, and fire safety industries.