AFCI and GFCI Protection Turning Off Power in your House

Despite all the gloom and doom you hear every day, the world has never been a safer place to be.  More specifically, houses have never been better at keeping the people inside of them alive.  One of the more important safety features in houses today relates to the electrical system.  Arc-Fault Circuit Interruption (AFCI) and Ground-Fault Circuit Interruption (GFCI) are standard in new houses and can be added to older houses fairly inexpensively.  These systems monitor the electricity to various places in the house and are designed to cut power if certain unsafe conditions are detected.  While the conditions that cause power to be shut off vary between GFCI and AFCI, the outcome is much the same.  As the names indicate, power can be interrupted.  The end result of this feature is a much lower risk of a fire in your house or a person in it being electrocuted.

First let’s look at AFCI protection.  This technology first came along roughly 15 years ago.  The way AFCI works is when excessive arcing is detected within the home’s wiring or something plugged in, the device will cut power.  Arcing within an electrical system is bad because it often indicates a loose connection and if allowed to continue, a fire can start.  AFCI protection is most often accomplished with a circuit breaker in your electric panel that stands out from the others by having a “test” button on it.

GFCI protection has been around for nearly 50 years and is one of the best safety enhancements ever created in residences.  You might have seen GFCI outlets before around sinks in bathrooms or kitchens.  They usually have two buttons on them between the two plug openings.  If you look closely, one button should be labeled “test” and the other “reset”.  GFCI outlets monitor the electricity passing through them and if a ground fault is detected, power will be cut immediately.  The reason a ground fault is bad is that it often means a person has become the path of electricity to the earth.  The most common example of this that we have probably all heard of is holding a toaster while standing in the bathtub.  While GFCI protection is most often accomplished with outlets, you will sometimes find a GFCI circuit breaker in your panel that has buttons similar to the AFCI breakers described above.  There are also some combination AFCI/GFCI breakers being developed but that technology has not quite trickled into houses just yet.

Aside from responding properly when a true hazard exists, AFCI and GFCI outlets or breakers have false alarms occasionally.  Having a basic understanding of AFCI and GFCI protection is good so you can do a little troubleshooting if you ever lose power to parts of your house.  Identifying how to reset power at the breakers in the panel or on the outlets throughout the house can save a lot of frustration. 

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