Finding the Fault
A $35 safety device could save you and your family from a deadly house fire, but most Indiana families have never even heard of it. 13 Investigates explores why Indiana is the only state in America that does not require the device in any of its building code.
Bob Segall/13 Investigates
Indianapolis - David Wachtel shakes his head as he walks through his fire-ravaged home in northwest Indianapolis.
"You're looking at a $200,000 loss," he said, passing the charred remains of a washer and dryer in his laundry room. "If this fire would have happened in the middle of the night, I wouldn't be talking to you. I'm not sure we would have survived."
Wachtel was not home when the fire started, but his wife was. She escaped injury when a neighbor pointed out flames shooting out the front of the house.
Fire investigators in Pike Township blame the fire on a faulty electrical outlet. Fire Marshal Stephen Jones says electricity from that outlet ignited a fire behind a front wall which eventually engulfed the home.
"It's scary to think we have an occupied home with a fire, and the people who live there day in and day out don't know the fire is going on," Jones said. "What's even more scary is this fire didn't have to happen. A simple device could have prevented it."
That device is called an arc fault circuit interrupter.
It is a high-tech circuit breaker that can detect dangerous electrical conditions, then shuts down the circuit before an electrical fire has a chance to ignite.
Electrical wiring or extension cords that are old, frayed or punctured are among the most common sources of electrical arcs (electricity jumping from a wire to an unintended path), and national statistics show electrical wiring problems in homes cause more than 30,000 house fires and hundreds of deaths annually in the United States.
Indiana stands alone
The National Fire Protection Association first adopted AFCIs as part of the National Electrical Code in 1999. Since then, state and local governments in 49 states have enacted rules that require them in newly-constructed homes. Some states mandate AFCIs in all home circuits while others require them only for bedroom circuits.
Indiana is the only state without any AFCI requirements, according to the National Electrical Manufacturers Association. State building officials removed an AFCI provision in state code in 2005 and have not added it to the code since.
"It's a poor decision because these will prevent a lot of fires," said David Stalf, chief electrical inspector for the city of Gary. "I've seen a lot of electrical fires and they are bad fires. Arc fault circuit interrupters are effective fire-prevention devices and that's why I'm sold on them."
He is not alone.
The Consumer Product Safety Commission estimates AFCIs could reduce by 50% the number of electrical fires in the United States, saving dozens or even hundreds of lives each year. Prominent national safety organizations including Underwriters Laboratories, the US Fire Administration, National Association of State Fire Marshals and NFPA all recommend AFCIs to prevent house fires.
"It just doesn't make sense that we are the only state in the country that has deleted or taken out the AFCI requirements," Stalf told WTHR.
Cost vs. safety
But it does make sense to Indiana's Fire Prevention and Building Safety Commission.
In recent years, the commission – dominated by officials from the building industry – has repeatedly rejected mandating AFCI protection in new homes.
"The cost was just too high to justify," explained commission chairman David Hannum. "The balance the commission has to weigh with all of our decisions is what does something like this save in terms of life and property and what is it going to cost the public."
An AFCI costs between $35 and $50 compared to $5 for a traditional circuit breaker. For a $150,000 home, a circuit box full of AFCIs would add approximately $400 to the price of a new home.
"You can mandate every safety device ever created for a new home but no one would be able to afford it, so you have to draw the line somewhere," said Rick Wajda, chief executive officer of the Indiana Builders Association. "We have to balance safety and affordability in the code. This is a product that should not be mandated in a home."
Others argue the cost is negligible.
"We're really not talking about a lot of money when we're talking about the cost of a new home," said Russ Sanders, central region manager of the National Fire Protection Association. "Three hundred or four hundred dollars does not have a big impact on the overall cost, but it does have a big impact on preventing fires and saving lives, so it's money well spent."
Both sides believe the issue comes down to money. AFCI supporters claim the home building industry is trying to protect its sales and profits by killing off AFCI regulations that would add to the cost of a new home, while opponents say AFCI manufacturers are pushing mandates that would earn the companies millions of dollars at homeowners' expense.
And the fight over AFCIs in Indiana involves more than cost.
Do they work?
Paul Terhune, a professional electrician and firefighter in Tippecanoe County, opposes AFCIs in new homes because he says the are unnecessary.
"The construction materials and methods used in a modern home are such that it's extremely difficult for the wiring to start a fire. It's extremely rare," he said. "A lot of older homes are vulnerable to those kinds of electrical fires, but you'd win the lottery before your house would catch on fire from the electrical system in a new home."
IBA regulatory affairs director Carlie Hopper also questions the need for AFCIs based on state fire data. She said in 2008, "there were 65 residential fires caused by electrical distribution equipment with 0 fatalities."
Fire investigators argue nearly half of all reported fires are listed as having an unknown cause. "There are a lot of electrical fires in Indiana but, for liability reasons, very few of them will be listed that way," said the Pike Township fire marshal. For example, the official incident report for the Wachtel house fire states "the cause of the fire is undetermined in nature" even though investigators pinpointed the cause to an electrical fault in a front electrical outlet.
The state homebuilders association has spent years fighting against an AFCI mandate by also raising questions about whether the devices work.
"We've got lots of studies showing they really aren't effective," Wajda said.
IBA provided WTHR with a 2009 survey conducted by the National Association of Home Builders which states about 80% of builders surveyed reported "some call-backs" or "significant call-backs" caused by vacuum cleaners, fans, toasters and other appliances that accidentally tripped AFCIs.
The National Electrical Manufacturers Association immediately criticized the report, claiming it contains multiple errors and unfounded conclusions that misrepresent AFCI technology. NEMA program manager Gerard Winstanley also pointed out the total number of "nuisance tripping" events reported in NAHB's survey totaled less than 0.22% of installed AFCIs.
AFCI technology has vastly improved over the past decade, according to Bob Congdon, an engineer for AFCI manufacturer Eaton. "Nuisance tripping was considered a problem years ago but that's been fixed in the devices being used today," he said.
Congdon conducted an arc fault demonstration for WTHR. It did not address the tripping issue, but it did show the effectiveness of an AFCI. When electricity flowed through a faulty circuit, creating sparks and intense heat, an AFCI detected the dangerous problem and shut off electricity to the circuit within two seconds. A traditional circuit breaker did not detect the arcing fault, allowing the sparks to continue.
"You can imagine if that's happening inside the wall in your home, you've got real problem," said Sanders, who witnesses the demonstration. "This technology stops the fire before it starts … It does work , it does prevent fires and it does save lives."
But questions and doubts raised by the home building industry have been effective in keeping AFCIs out of new homes in Indiana.
"The technology is not as developed as we'd like it to be," Hannum said. "It's a great device on paper but without the data to support real life-savings, it's difficult to say ‘thou shalt spend.'"
Asked what data the commission would like to see, Hannum responded "I'm not really sure what it would take to convince the full commission. Some sort of compelling data, but I really don't know. I haven't given that any thought."
Commissioner Ted Ogle did not give specifics, either. "I just know there's more development that needs to be done, there's further testing that needs to be done … and as further test data comes forward, I would be very interested in seeing that," Ogle said. "People can buy [AFCIs] right now and they're not -- on a voluntary basis -- so that tells us something… I think we've made a good call and that puts us ahead of 49 other states."
Sanders, the NFPA spokesman and a longtime firefighter, disagrees.
"That's a bizarre comment that 49 states and so many safety agencies have it wrong and Indiana got it right by removing life-saving technology from its electrical code," he said. "How many people even know what an arc fault circuit interrupter is? How would they know to even ask the question or understand?"
Wachtel said he had never heard of an AFCI until he was contacted by WTHR three weeks after his house fire.
"I wish I did know about them," he said. "I just replaced all my circuit breakers 18 months ago. If I would have known about it, I would have done it. Absolutely. No question."
Now that Wachtel's house must be torn down and rebuilt, he says his new home will have arc fault circuit interrupters.
"I don't want to go through this again," he said. "Why would you want to gamble with your whole life like that?"
Taking another look
Hannum says the Indiana Fire Prevention and Building Safety Commission will re-examine the issue now that every other state has adopted some form of AFCI requirement. "Will that have an impact on the discussion moving forward? It certainly should," he said.
But adoption of an AFCI requirement in Indiana's Residential Code still faces steep challenges.
Last October, an Indiana Residential Code Review Committee voted 15-7 to once again remove AFCI language recommended in national and international electrical codes from Indiana's residential building codes. That vote serves as a recommendation and will be heavily considered when the full commission votes later this year on adoption of an updated state code.
"The committee's recommendation will have the strongest impact," Hannum said. "We weigh their input most heavily but that doesn't mean we adopt every recommendation they make."
The Fire Prevention and Building Safety Commission does not frequently reject recommendations by its review committees, but that is what it did last year when a separate committee advocated inclusion of AFCIs in new apartment complexes and commercial buildings. The committee, established by the Indiana Department of Homeland Security, voted 13-4 in favor of retaining AFCI requirements included in the National Electrical Code. The commission voted unanimously not to mandate AFCIs as recommended by the committee, citing cost as its primary concern.
Hannum said the statewide fiscal impact of AFCIs exceeded $500,000 in cost to consumers, which would have required additional study and approval that might have delayed implementation of the entire commercial building code. "If we included arc fault circuit interrupters, it would have jeopardized other important changes to the code, and we felt we did not want to take that risk," he explained. "But we're open to looking at this again if there is public interest."
That interest will likely come this fall, when the commission holds a still-to-be-scheduled public hearing on drafted changes to the Indiana Residential Code.
The Indiana Builders Association says it will again oppose any attempt to mandate AFCIs in Indiana homes. "We just don't think it should be mandated in a statewide minimum code," Wajda said.
But state fire marshal James Greeson told WTHR he will advocate for AFCIs.
"Because there were problems early on with malfunctions, I think they got a bad rap, but there have been many changes and they're much more dependable now," he said. "I will meet with the commission and voice my opinion. I would hope they would adopt them and support them because I think it's long overdue in Indiana."
Wachtel said he may attend the public hearing, and Jones plans to be there, too.
"I am trying to rally the troops on the fire service side," he said. "We really need to get Indiana out of the dark ages when it comes to building codes."