Electric Bugaboo

Last weekend, I shut off power to the entire house to install two breakers. I also ended up removing four unused breakers, and realized how mind-bogglingly terrible the wiring in my house really is. You don't really get a good feel for that until you've seen that someone put a (bare) ground wire over the two voltage rails (240 V between them), instead of wiring it into the block an inch from where it entered the box. Interesting times, indeed. Once I've finished the existing rooms, I'm going to rewire the entire house. There are just too many things wrong with it to let the existing wiring stand.

The electrical work was frustrating, though not because it was hard work (though it was), bad wiring (though it really was). No, it's frustrating because of rules... and cost.

Before 2008, the National Electrical Code required the installation of GFCI outlets within 6 feet of sinks in bathrooms or kitchens. That makes perfect sense; GFCI (Ground Fault Circuit Interrupt) outlets are designed to turn off if it notices that electrical current isn't coming in on one wire and leaving on the other. Usually what is happening is that the current is coming in from the "hot" wire, then travelling through something else to the physical earth. Often, that something else is water. So, it makes perfect sense for a GFCI outlet to be required in kitchens and bathrooms. It also didn't require AFCI outlets at all; AFCI (Arc-Fault Circuit Interrupt) circuits are designed to shut off if there is an arc (aka spark) between two wires - that's usually how electrical fires start. Of course, AFCI also trip if your fridge, microwave, or other appliance (or tool) starts up with a high burst of energy...

In 2008, the NEX changed, now requiring GFCI outlets in all outdoor locations, as well as expanding the requirement for GFCI near any sinks, even if they weren't in the kitchen or bathroom. It also added the requirement that all circuits had to be protected by AFCI, except those already protected by GFCI.

In 2014, the NEC changed again, now requiring GFCI in laundry rooms and for dishwashers, and AFCI to be installed for every circuit, lights and outlets, even those protected by GFCI.

Now, the GFCI changes aren't terrible, and I can understand the desire for AFCI. The trouble is... it's really, really expensive, and really, really annoying. AFCI devices are known to switch off at momentary power surges, something that normal circuit breakers are perfectly fine with, as well they should. Microwaves use a sudden burst of energy when they start; protecting a microwave is a pain. Dishwashers are often on their own circuit, and the plug they are wired to is either hard to reach or nonexistent, as they are wired directly to power. That means either a GFCI breaker, or adding an outlet to the dishwasher circuit.

Oh, and did I mention cost? The average outlet costs about $1. The average 20A breaker costs between $5 and $10. A GFCI outlet, however, costs $30; an AFCI breaker costs nearly $50! Before 2007, a dishwasher circuit would cost about $5, not counting wire. Today, that same circuit needs AFCI and GFCI, which costs a total of $80. And what does GFCI do for a hard-wired dishwasher? Nothing. As long as the dishwasher is wired correctly, it could be submerged in three feet of water and still not short out. Which means that most of the new rules only add significant cost to installing new circuits, without actually making things any much safer.

Worse, unscrupulous electricians (and savvy homeowners) can simply buy the right breakers, get the inspection, then swap out the expensive AFCI breakers for cheap ones and get their money back. Having now replaced and moved several breakers myself, I can vouch for how easy it would be - half an hour of work to replace a whole box. Less, if you're skilled. Not bad for saving hundreds of dollars...

Still, rules is rules, as they say; today, I have two AFCI breakers installed for the closet and the bathroom. That was the last big thing to do for the electrical work, at least until my current project is finished. Then it's going to get interesting, because I plan on rewiring the house, or at least most of it.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.