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Snuffing electrical fires in older homes: Expert Q&A

Electrical fires and older homes

House fires --including electrical fires in older homes -- yield chilling statistics.

An estimated 47,700 home-structure fires in 2011 resulted in 418 deaths, 1,570 injuries and $1.4 billion in property damage, according to the most recent statistics available from the National Fire Protection Association.

An NFPA report on electrical fires in homes 40 years old or more identified the main culprits: overburdened electrical systems, misused extension cords and worn-out wiring devices. The catalyst for destruction? Something called an arc fault.

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An arc fault can occur when a wiring connection is loose, broken or shorted. The electrical charge "jumps," creating sparks that can fly and ignite other material. An arc produces heat at about 35,000 degrees Fahrenheit, meaning an electrical fire can result in no time. 

What if you live in an older home? What should you do? We talked to Donald Bliss, the NFPA's vice president of field operations, for the answers. Bliss is a former state fire marshall for New Hampshire whose firefighting career dates back to 1970.

Donald Bliss

Q. Are there any signs for a homeowner when an arc fault occurs or before it occurs?

A. Often the spark occurs where you can't see it -- electrical wiring behind a wall, or an extension cord behind a piece of furniture or under a rug. The first thing to catch fire might be a buildup of lint, dust or old insulation.  

Unless you're there when it happens and you see it or hear it, you won't know. You could hear a zapping noise, but because it's likely to happen intermittently, you won't necessarily detect it.

Q. What's the solution?

A. The NFPA and the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission recommend the use of arc fault circuit interrupters (AFCIs). A qualified electrician can do the installation. You need one for each circuit in your home. One AFCI costs $25 or more retail. I live in a 60-year-old home, and I've had AFCIs installed. I sleep great at night.

Q. How difficult is the installation?

A. It's not difficult if it's done by someone who's qualified and licensed. Inside a circuit breaker panel you're exposed to live parts, which can result in a shock or even an arc flash. In some locations, you may need a permit and inspection.

Q. What if I have a newer home?

A. Well, newer homes eventually become older homes. It's not a bad idea to have them installed if they're not already.

If you're building a home, that's a great time to have them installed. They have been phased in to new construction since the 1999 edition of the National Electrical Code. Other than the cost of the AFCI, there's no difference in the labor involved with installing an AFCI versus a standard circuit breaker.

Q. What if I'd like to encourage my elderly parents to install AFCIs, but they live on a fixed income?

A. Replacing standard circuit breakers with AFCIs can be done incrementally. Upgrading to AFCIs is a one-time cost -- there's no maintenance or replacement cost.

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