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What is an Arc Fault Breaker?

By Edited Nov 21, 2016 0 2
What is an Arc Fault Breaker?
Credit: Levitron.com

Do you ever think about how many things we plug into our home electrical outlets these days that did not exist 20 to 30 years ago? Everything from modems, wireless routers, cell phone chargers, digital video recorders and cable boxes to mention a few are all drawing electricity from the grid through your home.

And if you think about virtually every household in America using this much electricity, it is a wonder the entire electrical grid has not failed given that a lot of the infrastructure was put in place half a century ago or more.

As we use more and more electricity in our home, the risk of an electrical fire grows especially if the wiring in your home is over 20 years old. Homes designed decades ago could never have imagined all of the devices that you and I use every day.  

One of the ways to minimize the risk of fire in the home is to upgrade your existing electrical wiring system. A whole house rewiring can get expensive because contractors must pull out all of the existing wiring and that requires opening up walls.

For that type of major redo, you can expect to pay as much as $10,000 depending on your location and size of your home. However, if you suspect you may have major electrical issues in an older house, this is one renovation project you do not want to put off.

If you are renovating an older home, take my advice and replace all of the wiring. When I purchased my apartment in Rio de Janeiro, I gutted the entire electrical and plumbing system because I did not trust the 50 years old infrastructure in the building.

If your home is relatively new, another less expensive and less intrusive option to improve home safety is to install arc-fault circuit breaker interrupters (AFCI)  in your home. Depending on the area of the country that you live, new construction may require these AFCI outlets and breakers installed either in new construction or retrofitted. However, most municipalities still do not require them to meet code, but they are a good safety measure to consider.

You may have heard of Ground Fault Interrupter (GFCI) outlets. A GFCI outlet is installed within reach of any water source such as a sink faucet or bathtub.  GFCIs protect you from becoming part of the circuit when you come in contact with water while engaging the receptacle. Becoming part of the circuit is a bad thing if you have not guessed. It means your family would probably find you laying on the floor either seriously injured, or dead.

An AFCI breaker protects your home in a different way.

AFCIs protect your house from electrical fires caused by hot wires. AFCI technology offers home safety over traditional breakers or outlets because they are designed with internal electronics that detect arc fault hazards that traditional breakers will not. Under normal circumstances, when a hot wire comes in contact with a ground or neutral wire, it is enough to trip the breaker at the circuit box.

However, if contact occurs intermittently because of loose wires or corrosion on the connections, an arc fault may occur.

What is an Arc fault?

An arc fault is a technical way of describing the heating of the electrical wires which can become so hot, it leads to a fire in the home. Arc faults are usually caused because of older or damaged wires become overheated due to stress on the electrical system of the home. They can even occur if you pierce a wire with a nail or screw when hanging a picture on the wall.

The AFCI works by detecting the arc in the electrical flow and tripping the breaker.

Problems wire home wiring and arc fault cause more than 40,000 electrical fires each year in the United States claiming over 350 lives.[1]

What is an Arc Fault Breaker?

There are three types of AFCIs.

  • Branch AFCIs replace standard circuit breakers in the electrical service panel and provides arc-fault protection from the service panel to the outlets.
  • Outlet AFCIs are receptacles that replace ordinary receptacles and protect against arc faults from items plugged into the outlet.
  • Combination AFCIs are just what the name implies. It combines the features of  the branch and outlet AFCIs and detect faults in the complete circuit.

How Much do AFCI Breakers Cost?

Arc Fault Protection
Credit: Sgagnon via Wikimedia Commons

Safety does not come cheap. Each AFCI breaker costs around $35 - $40. That could get very expensive if you were going to replace all of the outlets in your home. As a compromise, you could replace the outlets in all of the bedrooms where you are most vulnerable during a fire.

If your city or county require AFCI breakers, it is usually only in the bedroom, but if you have the money to spare, it is a good idea to replace the outlets in the entire house.

Can AFCIs be Installed as a DIY Project?

Yes, if you know your way around the circuit box. However, if you have never replaced a normal breaker or receptacle wiring, then you probably want to skip doing this upgrade yourself. Electricity is nothing to play around with.

For ordinary DIYer’s, it is best left to a licensed electrician to give you the peace of mind that is was done right.


Although they cost about three times as much as normal breakers and receptacle, AFCI arc fault breakers can provide increased protection and safety for any homeowner. As your home ages, so do they electrical wires and that increases the risk of fire.

Housing codes in some areas now require new construction to have AFCI breakers in every bedroom, however your municipality may require them in other areas of your home.

Do not overlook replacing any outlets within reach of a water source with a GFCI receptacle. These types of receptacles have been required in bathrooms and near kitchen sinks for decades, however, some older homes may need the upgrade. Consider this home upgrade expense one of the best ones you can do in terms of you and your family’s safety.

These devices can give you the peace of mind to protect your assets and your life and should be considered for any major safety upgrade in a home.

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Feb 10, 2015 2:16pm
Being a licensed electrician, I read these types of DIY articles with a very critical eye and usually find something to criticize, but all I can say about this article is that it's accurate in every respect. I just want to add a couple of things. First, the reason an arc fault, the arcing over from a hot wire or terminal to ground doesn't trip a regular circuit breaker is because of the arc resistance which keeps the amperage below the amperage rating of the CB. Second, it's not a good idea for an inexperienced diy electrician to work inside the power panel because the main lugs are still hot even with the main breaker turned off. A good safety practice is to cover those lugs with a sheet of rubber or dry cardboard to keep from making accidentals contact with them.

Once again, congratulations on a well written and very useful article.
Feb 10, 2015 2:50pm
Thanks for your insight. Yes, I specifically did not want to make this a "how to" article because it is so dangerous for someone that doesn't know what they are doing. I tried to simply present the options and why they are important. Thanks for reading and commenting.
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  1. "Arc-Fault Circuit Interrupters ." United States Consumer Product Safety Commission. 17/07/2014 <Web >

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