Does A Home Need AFCI Breakers?

I won’t leave you hanging…the answer is no. A home’s electrical system will be safer with AFCI protection installed, but can still operate safely without it. Now that we’ve cleared that up, let’s add some context.

AFCI means Arc Fault Circuit Interrupter, and the interrupters usually come in the form of circuit breakers with test buttons on them. They are a modern safety device designed to shut off electricity in a circuit when arcing is detected. Arcing can lead to a house fire. Arcing means an electric charge jumping from its source (in this case, a home’s wiring) to another conductor or to the ground. Think lightning or static electricity.

The small, white rectangular buttons on these breakers are the test buttons for the AFCI protection.

If you aren’t a home inspector, a realtor, or an electrician, you probably haven’t heard of AFCI protection. However, if you’ve bought or sold a home in Texas over the past few years, a lack of AFCI protection was probably mentioned as a deficiency in the home inspection report. So why was it mentioned in the report if it’s not a requirement? 

Excellent question. It’s because the home inspector was directed to put it in the report. Texas home inspectors are licensed by Texas Real Estate Commission (TREC) and must follow TREC’s Standards of Practice (SoP). According to the SoP, Texas home inspectors “Shall report as deficient…the absence of arc-fault protection in the following locations: kitchens, family rooms, dining rooms, living rooms, parlors, libraries, dens, bedrooms, sunrooms, recreation rooms, closets, hallways and laundry areas.” That’s a lot of rooms! 

Further complicating matters, the areas listed above were gradually implemented in the electrical code over several years. Bedrooms were the first and only required area in the 2002 National Electric Code (NEC). The rest of those areas were added to the NEC requirements in 2008 or 2011. After the NEC gets updated every three years, it’s up to each local jurisdiction (City of Houston, Montgomery County, etc) to decide which version to use. So even today, it’s likely that some Texas jurisdictions are still adhering to a pre-2011 electrical code with minimal AFCI requirements.

You can begin to see why the vast majority of home inspections in the Houston area should have some level of AFCI “deficiency” mentioned in the inspection report . Most of those homes were built at a time when AFCI protection was not a requirement. Furthermore, replacement breakers in older homes are not required to meet the new construction code, unless it is a substantial remodel or addition. 

My 1969 home’s main electrical panel was replaced in 2019 and no new AFCI breakers were installed. That was a homeowner decision, but it’s possible that the electrical contractor may not even present the choice for an AFCI installation. It’s not a requirement and most homeowners won’t have the background knowledge to make an informed decision about it.

These new breakers were an update for an older home and have no AFCI function.

In defense of the TREC Standards of Practice, it’s an impossible task to write a list of home inspection parameters that’s perfect for houses built in 1922, 2022, and every year in between. The home inspection process is meant to inform homeowners how their potential home purchase compares to modern safety features and building code requirements. A home inspection is not a demand that every system and sub-structure of an existing home is due for an expensive upgrade.

It should be expected that any existing home will have deficiencies, since the building codes are continually updated as technology and building practices advance. Older homes will almost always have more deficiencies than a newer home. This trend can make the inspection report overwhelming for older homes, but an increased awareness of what to expect in your report can make inspection day much less of a surprise. Remember, you can’t pass or fail a home inspection.

AFCI protection is just one example of a modern technology that may not be present in older homes. It can be added to an existing home by a qualified electrician if desired, but it’s up to each homeowner to decide how to best maintain and improve their home. Your inspection report should be a great resource to identify future home maintenance and upgrades. Improving the electrical system by adding AFCI protection should be prioritized against the many other items identified during the home inspection.

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