New Device May Prevent Electrical Fires

BETHESDA, Md. (AP) -- An inexpensive device that detects wiring problems could prevent many of the 40,000 electrical fires that damage U.S. homes and kill 350 people each year, safety officials said Tuesday, urging homeowners to install Arc Fault Circuit Interrupters.

The device, also called an AFCI, cuts power when it detects electricity arcing from damaged wires. Homes with old wiring are especially vulnerable to this problem, which can occur when wires or cords overheat or are pinched by furniture, pierced by nails, frayed from age or gnawed by rodents.

``Without question, AFCIs are the most important safety innovation since the smoke alarm,'' said Donald Bliss, president of the National Association of State Fire Marshals. ``They should be installed in every home and installed now.''

AFCIs cost as little as $25, but the Consumer Product Safety Commission said installing one can be dangerous and should be done only by a licensed electrician.

While not officially recommending that all consumers use AFCIs, the safety commission said people should consider having them installed, particularly in the more than 50 million U.S. homes with wiring more than 40 years old.

Hal Stratton, chairman of the safety commission, said homeowners should have the wiring in their homes tested to see if an AFCI would improve safety.

``If you've got 50- or 60-year-old wiring, that's pretty old, and anything could be happening in there,'' Stratton said during an agency gathering of safety and industry officials to promote awareness of AFCIs.

With people buying bigger televisions and other large electrical appliances, older wiring can be pushed too far. Electrical arcing in damaged wiring can create temperatures high enough to ignite wood, paper and carpets.

Electrical fires cause hundreds of millions of dollars in property damage each year, according to the safety commission.

AFCIs became available in the late 1990s but are not widely known to the public.

In 1999, the voluntary national electrical code, which many local governments follow, added the recommendation that AFCIs be used to protect wiring in the bedrooms of new homes. The safety commission has proposed that the requirement apply to homes undergoing electrical renovations.

AFCIs are different from the more common GFCIs, or ground fault circuit interrupters, which are often installed in wall outlets and protect against electric shocks. AFCIs, which are intended to prevent fires, typically replace traditional circuit breakers.

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On the Net:

Consumer Product Safety Commission: http://www.cpsc.gov

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