The Texas Real Estate Commission recently approved changes to the standards of practice that home inspectors are required to follow. As of February 1, 2022, the standards strengthen the consumer protection role that inspections play in real estate transactions. The new standards include changes to inspections of GFCI and AFCI devices. As a REALTOR®, you should not attempt to answer questions outside of your expertise, but you may find it helpful to understand the new requirements.
Ground Fault Circuit Interrupters
GFCI, or ground fault circuit interrupters, protect people from being shocked. GFCIs are also called ground fault interrupters, and in some parts of the world, they are called residual current devices or RCDs. The other names are useful for when working with international clients.
According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, as little as 50 to 150 milliamps (mA) of current can cause a person to stop breathing, resulting in death. For reference, an LED light bulb with a 60-watt equivalent output can use 80 mA of power—enough to potentially kill someone.
When someone is shocked, an electrical leak is occurring in the circuit. The leaking energy is going through the person’s body. GFCIs look for leaking energy in a circuit and cut off the power when they detect it above a certain level, typically 4 to 6 mA. By cutting the power very quickly, a GFCI can greatly reduce the danger of injury or death from shock.
GFCI devices are typically found in the home in three forms: a circuit in the breaker panel, as a wall outlet, and as a portable type commonly seen on pressure washers. GFCIs also have two common classes, Class A and Class C. Class C will interrupt current or trip at 15 to 20 mA of current. Class A units trip between 4 and 6 mA of current. Current GFCI outlets and breakers provide Class A protection.
GFCI devices were first required under building codes in 1971 for areas around pools and outdoor locations. In 1975, this was expanded to bathrooms. Garages were added in 1978. Between 1987 and 1993, the requirement was expanded to most of what we know today. In 2005, it was expanded again to include laundry rooms.
TREC adopted the requirements found in the current International Residential Code, or IRC. This is the model building code that all Texas counties and most cities use. Under Texas law, the minimum building code is the 2006 edition. However, each county and city typically adopts a specific edition of the code. Most cities are using the 2012, 2015, or 2018 edition of the code with local amendments or changes. The building code is updated every three years. These requirements are also found in the National Electrical Code, or NEC. In Texas, all electricians are required to follow the 2020 NEC regardless of where they are working in the state. This provides electricians with a consistent standard anywhere within Texas.
The required locations for GFCI devices are receptacles in bathrooms, garages and accessory buildings, outdoor areas, crawlspaces and lights in them, basements, kitchen countertops, laundry areas, indoor damp or wet locations, kitchen receptacles for dishwashers, electrically heated floors, and any receptacle within 6 feet of the edge of a sink, shower, or bathtub. A receptacle is any device that uses power, including outlets, but not including switches. Any receptacle not meeting these requirements is a deficiency on a TREC inspection, regardless of when the home was built.
As part of the inspection, inspectors will test the GFCI devices using a combination of the test button and handheld testers. It’s not uncommon to see a failed GFCI where the unit either fails to reset or the test button stops working. Fortunately, adding or replacing GFCI protection to existing circuits is an easy project for a qualified electrician.
Arc Fault Circuit Interrupters
TREC also expanded the standards of practice to include arc fault circuit interrupters, or AFCIs.
It’s common to confuse AFCI and GFCI devices. Broadly, GFCIs protect people, and AFCIs protect property. AFCI devices look for arcs. When they sense an arc fault on a circuit, an AFCI trips the circuit off, helping to prevent arcs, which can lead to fires.
Like GFCI devices, AFCI devices can be found as circuit breakers, special outlets, or portable cord-type devices. The circuit-breaker style is the most prevalent. There is some confusion around naming. AFCI devices are sometimes called CAFCI, for combination arc fault circuit interrupters. The combination being referred to is both parallel and series types of arcs. All AFCI devices are required to be combination arc fault circuit interrupters. While a CAFCI unit will detect a ground fault, it does so at a much higher current than a GFCI unit. A CAFCI does not provide an adequate level of GFCI protection to prevent injury. Adding to the confusion, there are breakers that offer the protection of an AFCI and GFCI. These are called dual-function breakers and should not be confused with combination breakers.
Under the new TREC inspection standards, it is considered a deficiency if AFCI protection is not in kitchens, family rooms, dining rooms, living rooms, parlors, libraries, dens, bedrooms, sunrooms, recreation rooms, closets, hallways, and laundry areas. You may be asking yourself, what’s left? The answer? Not much. The takeaway is that homes need to have AFCI protection in all living areas. This includes existing homes. Now that this requirement went into effect, you are going to see many homes with deficiencies on the inspection report because of a lack of AFCI protection.
It’s important to note that arc faults are a leading cause of residential house fires in the U.S. Each year, over 40,000 fires are attributed to faulty electrical wiring. This results in over 350 deaths and 1,400 injuries each year. AFCI devices can substantially reduce the number of fires by cutting off the circuit when electronic monitoring senses the type of spark likely to cause a fire.
AFCIs are a relatively recent development. They were invented in the late 1980s, and Underwriters Laboratories (UL) began working on a safety standard for them in 1998. The National Electrical Code (NEC) called for them in bedrooms as early as 1999. Electricians are required to follow the most recent NEC that has been adopted by the state. It’s currently the 2020 NEC. The reason bedrooms were first is because statistics showed that the most deaths could be prevented by using them there. In 2008, the NEC was expanded to include all other locations except kitchens and laundry areas. Those were added in 2014.
One notable difference from GFCIs is that it can sometimes be complicated to add AFCI protection to older homes. AFCIs are prone to something called nuisance tripping. Nuisance tripping is where the AFCI trips, detecting what appears to be a hazardous condition when one does not actually exist. One example of a nuisance trip would be in a home where the wires were stapled too tightly to the wall studs. AFCI manufacturers have worked to reduce nuisance tripping, but it is still a factor. Some houses may need to have wiring replaced if the owner wants to upgrade to having AFCI protection on a given circuit. When considering adding AFCI protection, a qualified electrician can determine how complicated the upgrade will be as well as the estimated cost. As a REALTOR®, it is best that you stay away from discussing the particulars and let the qualified electrician determine what it takes to add AFCI protection to a home.