What is an AFCI breaker is? Perhaps a home inspector or electrician recommended one, or perhaps you’ve heard about it on the news.  Simply stated, an Arc Fault Circuit Interrupter (AFCI) is a type of breaker or outlet that is designed to detect arc faults in your home’s wiring and trip before the arc faults can cause a fire.  An average of 30,000 fires are caused each year in the United States by arc faults.

Do I have AFCI protection?

How can you tell if you have AFCI breakers in your house?  Well, check your electrical panels to see if any of the breakers have ‘test’ buttons and read the label carefully to see what type of breaker it is.  (GFCI breakers also have test buttons)  The label will also tell you what type of AFCI you have.  Currently there are two types: Branch Feeder (abbreviated BRAF) and Combination type.  

Branch Feeder type AFCIs were the first generation and can detect parallel (hot to neutral or ground) arcs.  The newer Combination type are better because they can detect both parallel and series (like a loose wire connection) arcs.  The ability to detect series arcs is important, because they are the more common type of arc.  If you have a panel with older BRAF type breakers, we recommend replacing them with the newer Combination type AFCI breakers.

What if I don’t have AFCI protection?

AFCI technology first came onto the market in the mid-1990s and it is not possible to retrofit most older panels with newer AFCI breakers given their size.  Currently, only a limited number of AFCI breakers can work with a type of circuit called a multi-wire (shared neutral) circuit.  Most older homes, especially those that were built with knob and tube wiring utilized multi-wire circuits.  This means if you wanted to install AFCI protection, you may have to rewire the circuits as well as installing new panels that could accept the newer AFCI breakers.

Whether the money spent upgrading the electrical system to install AFCI protection is worthwhile will have to depend on the judgement of the home owner.  If it is as easy as swapping out breakers in a modern panel, then it’s a ‘no-brainer’.  If a major electrical upgrade would be required, then the home owner would have to weigh the costs (money, inconvenience) versus the benefits (improved safety).  

Where to Install?

As of January 1, 2020, the California Electrical Code requires AFCI protection for 120 volt outlets in the following locations kitchens, family rooms, dining rooms, living rooms, parlors, libraries, dens, bedrooms, sunrooms, recreation rooms, closets, hallways, laundry areas, or similar areas.

Further Information

Still curious about AFCI protection?  Check out this video for a more in-depth explanation of the technology.

[Post updated 3-5-2020]