How to Install an AFCI Circuit Breaker

An absence of AFCI (Arc-Fault Circuit Interrupter) breakers is very common in established homes and is no reason to panic. In fact, in our experience it’s more common to find homes without AFCI breakers installed. AFCI protection is not required on existing installations, but is considered a defect by the Texas Real Estate Commission. However, when a circuit is extended or updated, it should receive AFCI protection by licensed professionals.

Understanding AFCI Protection

The term “arc-fault” refers to when wiring connections create an intermittent contact that causes electrical current to spark, or arc, between metal contact points. When you hear a light switch or outlet buzzing or hissing, you are hearing arcing as it happens. This arcing translates to heat, which can break down the insulation surrounding individual conducting wires, providing the trigger for electrical fires. Hearing a switch buzz does not mean the fire is necessarily imminent, but it does mean there is a potential danger that should be addressed.

Where is AFCI Protection Needed

The Texas Real Estate Commission requires inspectors to report the absence of arc fault protection in the following locations (I) kitchens; (II) family rooms; (III) dining rooms; (IV) living rooms; (V) parlors; (VI) libraries; (VII) dens; (VIII) bedrooms; (IX) sunrooms; (X) recreations rooms; (XI) closets; (XII) hallways; and (XIII) laundry areas.

Note: inspector’s are not required to test arc fault circuit interrupter devices when the property is occupied or damage to personal property may result in the inspector’s reasonable judgment.

How to Install an AFCI Circuit Breaker

Master electrician, Heath Eastman, installed a new USB receptacle in his kitchen but he never got around to installing AFCI protection. Whenever a receptacle is replaced, its corresponding breaker in the panel needs to be upgraded to an AFCI breaker. Heath demonstrates how this is done.

What You Need to Know

Time: 15 minutes Per Breaker

Estimated Cost: $200 – $500 (Depending On Size)

Skill Level: Professional

Tools: Screwdriver []

Shopping List: AFCI circuit breaker []

Steps for Installing an AFCI Circuit Breaker

Step 1. Only licensed professionals should be touching an electrical panel. With the box open and the breakers exposed, there is a risk of extreme shock injuries and even death.

Step 2. Shut the power off to the breaker panel.

Step 3. Remove the cover plate for the panel.

Step 4. Identify the breaker that needs to be replaced and flip it to the “off” position.

Step 5. Grab the breaker by the center and carefully pivot it out of position until it snaps out. a. There could still be live voltage running through the panel, so this must be done very carefully.

Step 6. To install the new AFCI breaker, the same process is done in reverse.

Step 7. Wire the breaker by connecting the hot wire to the screw and the neutral wire to the bus bar, and the neutral pigtail to the neutral screw.

Step 8. Hook the breaker onto the bar in the panel and snap it into place.

Step 9. Reinstall the cover plate with the two screws.

Step 10. Flip the breaker on and then restore power at the electric meter. Where to find it?

Any work that is done on an electrical panel should be tackled by licensed professionals only.

AFCI Circuit Breaker Compatibility

When replacing a circuit breaker, the circuit should be compatible with the manufacturer of the panel itself. In this case, Heath’s panel is manufactured by Siemens [] and the AFCI circuit breaker [] he installed is also manufactured by Siemens.

Code History of AFCI Protection

The National Electrical Code, revised every three years, has gradually increased its requirements for arc-fault protection on branch circuits. In 1999, the Code began requiring AFCI protection in all circuits feeding bedroom outlets, and beginning 2014, nearly all circuits supplying general outlets in living spaces are required to have AFCI protection in new construction or in remodeling projects.

As of the 2017 edition of the NEC, the wording of Section 210.12 states:

All 120-volt, single-phase, 15- and 20-ampere branch circuits supplying outlets or devices installed in dwelling unit kitchens, family rooms, dining rooms, living rooms, parlors, libraries, dens, bedrooms, sunrooms, recreation rooms, closets, hallways, laundry areas, or similar rooms or areas shall be protected by AFCIs.

Normally, circuits receive AFCI protection by means of special AFCI circuit breakers that protect all outlets and devices along the circuit, but where this is not practical, there are also AFCI outlets that can be used.

AFCI protection is not required on existing installations, but where a circuit is extended or updated during remodeling, it must then receive AFCI protection. Thus, an electrician who works on your system is obligated to update the circuit with AFCI protection as part of any work he does on it. In practical terms, it means that virtually all circuit breaker replacements will now be made with AFCI breakers in any jurisdiction that follows the NEC (National Electrical Code).

Not all communities comply with the NEC, however, so check local authorities for requirements regarding AFCI protection.

A GFCI Is Not A Substitute AFCI

AFCI does not take the place of GFCI protection. GFCI (ground-fault circuit interrupters) protects against shock and AFCI protects against fire. In new or remodeled wiring, many locations will require both GFCI and AFCI protection such as a kitchen or laundry room. Install AFCI circuit breakers with GFCI receptacles at specific locations when combination AFCI/GFCI is required to achieve both types of protection to the entire circuit.

Both AFCI and GFCI protection should be updated according to modern code whenever extending or updating a wiring system.

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