Our industry has made numerous technological advances designed to protect homeowners, businesses and electrical workers. That makes every fatal electrocution in the home all the more distressing. Between 2010 and 2013, the U.S. saw an estimated average of 48 electrocution fatalities associated with consumer products per year, with large and small electric appliances chief among them1. Tragedies like these can be avoided, especially when the ground fault circuit interrupter (GFCI) technologies needed to prevent dangerous events are readily available.
As the principle NEMA representative at the National Electrical Code (NEC) Code-Making Panel Two, I saw public input asking for increased GFCI protection for the home during the 2017 code cycle. The code panel expanded the GFCI requirement for facilities other than dwelling units as part of section NEC 210.8(B). However, residential standards improvements were sidelined.GFCI challenges and misconceptions
The rationale behind forgoing residential standards improvements was cost and convenience. One could argue, for example, that if GFCI requirements in a kitchen were to expand beyond sink and water areas and be specified for an appliance like a refrigerator, a potential nuisance trip could result in mass amounts of spoiled food. This inconvenience translates into real dollars for homeowners. Another barrier to code change is cost impacts for builders as increasing the number of GFCIs in a home raises electrical infrastructure expenses that must then be passed on to homebuyers.
As both an industry expert and a homeowner, I completely understand code update consequences. The change could likely put builders in an uncomfortable position of explaining why their costs have gone up seemingly overnight. Speaking as a VP of sales, justifying a price increase is always a challenge, and I take great pains to make sure my customers understand how the technology is worth the investment and can result in safer environments. The reality is that a residential requirement won't put much of a financial burden on contractors and homeowners. For instance, expanding GFCI requirements throughout a home in the $200k price range would increase the cost of a 30-year mortgage by mere pennies a month. By highlighting the features and benefits of GFCIs, homeowners are more likely to accept minimally higher costs to protect their loved ones.
Nuisance tripping is a valid concern from a convenience perspective. For the most part, however, the greater majority of unwarranted trips are behind us. When GFCIs first hit the market in the early 1970's, appliances inherently had leakage currents that flowed over the equipment grounding conductors, causing false trips. The development of appliances and their standards have come a long way as standards now place a cap on how much leakage current any single appliance is permitted to have. It would be bullish to say homeowners will never experience a false trip with a GFCI, especially if there's an un-listed product that generates nuisance currents on the circuit. But when we compare the small number of nuisance trips against markedly increased safety, there's simply no way to justify leaving the residential code as is. Installing more residential GFCIs can help the industry
I understand how the wheels of progress spin; affecting change takes time. While I'm hopeful we can collectively approve GFCI changes for the whole home, realistically I'd be pleased with any positive strides. Something as simple as including 30-amp GFCI receptacles on clothes dryer circuits, for instance, would greatly enhance safety since dryers are often within proximity of a water source. If we demonstrate to homeowners how installing the additional GFCI on this circuit makes for a safer home, the hope is the industry will acclimate to slight cost increases and, over time, routinely install GFCIs throughout entire households.
The challenge ahead of us is to generate more dialogue during the 2020 code-review cycle, and we need new data to spawn conversation. Collecting data starts with one small step, one change in the way we do business. I ask that we as an industry consider going above and beyond NEC 210.8 guidelines and install additional GFCI protection in homes to increase safety and acquire the information needed to make change possible.
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