There always seems to be several sections in some home inspection reports that stir more disagreement and confusion than most. One of those is the discussions of and recommendations for Ground Fault Circuit Interrupters (GFCIs) and Arc Fault Circuit Interrupters (AFCIs) found or not found in the home. Hopefully, this article will help to relieve some of the stress and establish a basis for the discussion of those electrical devices. The best place to start is with a non-technical definition of each of these devices and then an explanation of how they operate and why they are used.
GFCI, or Ground Fault Circuit Interrupter was the first of these new electrical devices that showed up in wide spread residential applications in the 1970s and 80s. A GFCI is designed to detect an electrical leakage, or imbalance, in a circuit and open that circuit stopping current flow before someone receives a fatal shock. GFCI receptacles are not over current devices and have to be used down-stream of a circuit breaker that will interrupt the circuit if an over current situation occurs. A GFCI circuit breaker mounted in the electrical panel, however, provides both over current and GFCI protection.
GFCI Receptacle and GFCI Circuit Breaker
AFCI, or Arc Fault Circuit Interrupter was first used in new home construction in 2002. This device senses arcing in the wiring circuit and is intended to open that circuit, stopping current flow, before overheating and fire can occur. The AFCI’s used today are also over current devices. They act like a circuit breaker and an arc fault detector.
Arc fault circuit breakers with yellow test button
AFLAC, a duck that sells insurance on television and has nothing to do with the electrical system in the home.
Now that we have a better idea of what these devices are, let’s try to clarify some issues and establish some ground rules on how they should be reported in a home inspection report. The National Electrical Code is the document used to establish fire and safety standards for electrical installations in both commercial and residential construction. The Code is updated every couple of years and the revisions or additions are adopted in new construction usually the following year. It is important to understand that whatever version of the electrical code is applied to new construction it is determined by the date that the building permit for the new construction was issued.For example, if a building permit was issued on December 15, 2008, the Electrical Code that was in effect on that date would be used for that home even if the actual construction took place in 2009 when another Code may have been adopted.
To further demonstrate our problem let us look at how the various Code revisions treated the use of GFCI’s in new home construction. Below is a list of the various issues of the National Electrical Code and how the use of GFCI’s was expanded.
1987 to 1996 kitchen counters
1990 crawlspaces and unfinished basements
1993 wet bars
2005 laundry sinks
In Georgia, the State can and does amend the national building Codes, counties also can change building codes or which codes the counties choose to adopt. Adoption of any codes may be delayed to whatever time frame the State may deem appropriate. The enforcement of the building codes by the municipalities for residential construction has not been consistent statewide. Given all of the above, it becomes very difficult if not impossible to determine which codes were in effect for a particular house when the building permit was issued. This is one of several reasons that the home inspector should not quote building codes on something other than new construction. The second reason, mentioned in a previous article, is that home owners are not required to update their homes whenever the building codes are revised. Previous construction is grandfathered.
Given what we now know, let’s make it easy for what should be reported and what should not. If a GFCI is damaged or does not work, it should be reported. If some outside, kitchen or bathroom receptacles are GFCI protected and some are not, report the ones that are not. Always report on which areas are GFCI protected, kitchen counters and baths for example.
Is it a good idea to have GFCI protection installed where current standards require and they are not present? Absolutely, but it should not become part of the real estate process. Inexperience and over zealousness on the part of either the home inspector or the real estate agent can make situations like these difficult for the negotiation process when it should not.
Arc Fault Circuit Interrupters have only been required in residential construction since 2002. There have been two Code revisions. The last one in 2008 required AFCI protection in all branch circuits accept kitchen, laundry, bathroom, garage and the finished basement circuits. The same guidelines apply to AFCIs as GFCIs. Report damaged or units that do not trip and report circuits that should have arc fault protection and do not. The best example of this is an electrical panel that is supposed to have all bedroom circuits protected and the electrician missed one. All of these situations are an easy fix and should not become an issue.
Unfortunately, many times, it is the fault of the home inspector and how he/she reports items found during an inspection. Uninformed inspectors and those that do not properly understand the building codes and how they should be applied can excessively complicate things and mislead their client in the process.
The next article will discuss Radon and Volatile Organic Compounds, VOC’s. There is still much confusion about Radon and there should not be. VOC’s health issues have been around for a long time but it has only been recently that we know the health problems they can cause and how to inexpensively test for them.
This and all previous articles can be found on our website: edificeinspections.com
Edifice Inspections, Inc.