Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Coming changes to electrical code boost cost, safety

New technology will save lives by preventing many home fires

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JUNE 1 changes to the City of Winnipeg Electrical Code will add to the cost of a new home or home renovation involving a bedroom.

But the potential of newly required technology to prevent electrical fires, and thus save both property and lives far outweighs the cost, expected to be about $200 for an average two- or three- bedroom house or addition, says city building inspector Lloyd Mah.

Changes to the code, which were adopted nationally last year, include new requirements for all building permits issued for homes or additions with bedrooms after this month:

Use of a recently-developed technology, Arc Fault Circuit Interrupters (AFCI) able to recognize the current and voltage signatures of an arcing fault and trip the breaker before that happens, immediately shutting down the circuit and preventing an electrical fire. In Manitoba, AFCI will be required for bedroom circuits only.

Also, smoke alarms must now be hard-wired in the sleeping areas of the home, and not be merely be an add-on to other home systems. In addition, there must be smoke alarms on each floor level of a home.

There are changes to lighting wiring and where, in the home, that wiring is located.

Ground rods must be copper-clad, because copper deteriorates less rapidly in local soil conditions.

Of these new rules, Mah says, the AFCI circuit-breakers are the change drawing the most concern, and questions, from homeowners, builders and electricians. That was also true, he adds, "when the last breakthrough in circuit technology came along 15 or 20 years ago or so. That was ground fault circuit interrupters" now seen as standard.

The AFCI technology, developed by American electrical suppliers, has already been widely adopted in many parts of the U.S. and in most of Canada and was included in Canada's National Electrical Code changes last year. In some other jurisdictions, AFCI is now required for all circuits in new homes, but here, says Mah, it is limited to bedrooms because that is where people sleep and are most vulnerable if a fire starts.

At this time, AFCI technology is not required of receptacles and does not apply to sleeping rooms in hotels or motels, nursing homes or hospitals. The National Electrical Code is changed every four years, so any, or all of these could be included in the next code change of 2006 and then subsequently adopted in the local code, says Manitoba Hydro electrical inspector Doug Wilson.

By then, he adds, "I expect AFCI will have proven itself."

According to data from Canadian Association of Fire Commissioners, there are about 26,000 fires in Canadian homes each year. Of that number, about 10 per cent are thought to be caused by electrical problems -- the second leading cause of house fires, after careless smoking.

During the past five years (1998 to 2002) there were 532 electrical-related fires in Manitoba, according to statistics provided by the provincial Office of the Fire Commissioner. The direct result of these fires: four deaths, 55 injuries and over $15.3 million in property damage.

Circuit breakers are designed to protect the wiring by tripping, or opening automatically, before damage is caused, usually due to heat caused by a faulty connection or current conditions on damaged wire. Conventional circuit-breakers, however, aren't always tripped by arcs, which can produce sparks but not necessarily draw enough current for a long enough period of time to trip conventional breakers.

Ground fault breakers, designed to protect from getting a shock, also cannot detect this damage.

The damage can be in the wall-enclosed wiring, or in the wiring of a plug or wire of a device (such as a toaster or iron) or in the receptacle itself. Damage to the electrical wire in your walls can occur on installation, or when a nail nicks a wire (for example, when hanging pictures on the wall). In older homes, it can also result from the house settling or from rodent damage.

With building costs rising in general (Statistics Canada found there has been a four per cent rise in Winnipeg new home prices between March of last year to March 2003) cost is definitely an issue, says Wayne Bollman, president of Manitoba Home Builders Association.

"In the grand scheme, about $200 added cost on a $150,000 new home doesn't seem like much. But the problem is cumulative," he says. "Certainly, home builders are interested in owner/occupier safety. But every time we turn around, there are additional costs that have to be passed along to the consumer.

"We care about safety. But we know buyers are sensitive to the overall price of a new home."

But electrician Mike Madsen, co-owner of Madsen Electric, believes the new code is fair: "It's new, so that's $100 per breaker, versus maybe $10 each for the ones we have been using. But it is just the bedrooms," or, depending on how it is wired, two breakers for an average home, "and not every breaker. I'd call that a reasonable compromise."

Homeowners can opt to have AFCI throughout their home, or to retrofit an older home, though this could be more expensive because older electrical panels may not be able to accommodate the new AFCI breakers.

A number of manufacturers make the new AFCI breakers and are starting to offer options, such as AFCI breakers that are also ground-fault-protected.

"What I've been telling builders is that yes, there is a cost," says Mah, who is also a spokesman for the Manitoba Building Officials Association, a professional group promoting building and safety awareness. "But I also tell builders that with AFCI, their product has added value. This is the leading circuit technology, making it a safer home."

"Spend $200 or so and maybe save your life?" says Mike Waite, executive director of Manitoba Safety Council. "Seems like a good deal."

For more information, see the City of Winnipeg Web site, city.winnipeg.ca. Or call Mah at 986-5261.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 25, 2003 $sourceSection$sourcePage

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