Electric Shock or Electrocution due to Ground Fault - This is when an electrical current "leaks" out of a line to the ground. Anytime electricity makes contact with water (in a kitchen or bathroom, near a pool or spa), the current "leaks" into the water. The current leak could be enough to kill someone in contact with that water but still not be large enough to trip a circuit breaker. Standard circuit breakers guard against overloads and short circuits. They're not designed to protect people from electrical shocks. Hundreds of preventable electrocutions happen in and around homes every year. Electrical outlets in wet areas (kitchens, bathrooms, outside near pools, etc) pose the greatest hazard.
Electrical Fire due to Arcing - This is when a current "jumps" through the air from one place to another, causing a free and uncontrollable flow of electricity. That uncontrolled electricity can start a fire inside your walls that can literally burn your house down from the inside out. Our segment featured a "Jacob's Ladder" - it looks like a contraption from Dr. Frankenstein's laboratory - to illustrate arcing from one wire to another. Arcing can occur with damaged or frayed extension cords. It can happen if an electrical outlet is improperly installed or gets damaged. It can happen if you drive a nail into a wall to hang a picture and you pierce a wire hidden in the walls. There are more than 43,000 electrical residential fires every year in the US, killing over 300 people and causing over $500 million in damage.
Damaged or destroyed electronics due to Surges - This is when the voltage in an electrical system "spikes" or "swells" as it travels through wiring into everything plugged into that wiring. Lightning storms cause major surges (up to 6000 Volts or more). Utility companies cause controlled surges as they alter systems to meet demand. Motors on appliances like the fridge or the AC cause mini-surges (1000 volts or less) when they turn on & off. That can slowly break down wiring insulation, leading to faulty operation or failure of appliances. The average home experiences hundreds of these small surges every day. All these problems can be solved at the Breaker Box - electricians call it the "Load Center". GE provided us with a system of breakers that arrest Ground Fault, Surges, & Arcs (these arc-resistant breakers are brand new).
Let's first take a look at a standard circuit breaker:
A Circuit Breaker is a safety feature that interrupts the flow of electricity ("breaks the circuit") whenever it senses trouble within your home's electrical system. Most circuit breakers have a thermo-magnetic function. The thermal part of the breaker senses any overloads that can heat up an electrical line. If you plug too many appliances into a single circuit, that overload will heat up the wires in that circuit and that buildup of heat will trip the breaker. The magnetic part of the breaker senses a short circuit and trips the breaker to cut power to that circuit. A short circuit means that the power has found its way to ground in an unintended manner (if two wires in a wall switch accidentally touch for example). The power has been short-circuited and will trip the breaker, interrupting the flow of electrical current.
Surge Arresters plug into the breaker box just like a standard circuit breaker. It works like the surge protector you plug your computer into, but it senses and stops surges throughout the house. It not only protects the electronics you'd protect with a plug-in surge protector, but it will protect the hard-to-reach appliances (like a wall-mounted microwave) that you might not be able to reach with a plug-in surge protector.
Ground Fault Circuit Interrupters (GFCI) also plug into the breaker box just like a standard circuit breaker. Your house should already have GFCI receptacles anywhere in the house where water is present (bathrooms, kitchens, outside near the pool, etc.). GE's GFCI breakers work better than GFCI's on individual receptacles because one GFCI breaker will protect all the receptacles connected to that circuit. For example, if you have 7 outlets connected to a single circuit in a bathroom and one of those outlets experiences a ground fault, the GFCI breaker in the breaker box will shut power to all 7 outlets.
Arc Fault Circuit Interrupters (AFCI) - These are brand new. They'll be required by code by 2002, but they're available now and compatible with today's breaker boxes. Because arcing occurs at levels lower than conventional circuit breakers or fuses are designed to detect, sporadic arcs can go undetected for extended periods. As heat from arcs climbs to 5,000 degrees Celsius and higher, wire insulation and other nearby materials grow more susceptible to fire. You cannot prevent an arc fault from occurring inside your walls, but you can stop that arc.
An AFCI breaker electronically detects any arc faults and stops the flow of electricity to that circuit in a fraction of a second. No electricity means no heat, and no heat means no fire. By tripping a breaker on a specific circuit, that AFCI breaker helps you identify the source and location of your arcing problem right from the load center (the breaker box). You don't need a new house to protect yourself with these safety features. All the breakers we featured in our segment will retrofit into an existing house (you may need to replace the breaker box).
For a minimal investment, you can protect your loved ones and your property from electric shock, electrical fires, and power surges in your new house or in your existing house.
Consumer Tip - At the present time, you cannot buy breakers with GFCI & AFCI (ground fault protection & arc fault protection) in the same breaker. To protect against arcs in areas of the house where code requires GFCI now, Michael recommends your best protection is to install GFCI receptacles in the appropriate outlets, & control those circuits with an AFCI Breaker in the breaker box.
Other electrical safety tips before the walls go up in your new house: Check for proper power distribution from the breaker box to all rooms. Make sure your breaker box sends enough power to each room. For example, in the Project House, we have a media room that needs (2) dedicated 20Amp circuits - 1 for the rear-screen ceiling-mounted projector system, and 1 for the rack that holds all the audio and video components. Look for GFCI receptacles where code requires them. They're absolutely necessary (and usually required by code) anyplace where water might come into contact with electricity - bathrooms, kitchens, outdoors (near pools or spas or garden hoses), even in the garage (where you might wash your car or have an outdoor sink).
Check for proper placement of Hard-Wired Smoke detectors. Michael recommends you build a house with hard-wired smoke detectors for two main reasons. First, they're more reliable than the battery-operated detectors, which could malfunction if you forget to change the batteries. Second, they're usually all connected to one another, so if one detector senses smoke, all the detectors in your house will send an alarm signal. That means everybody in the house will know there's smoke located somewhere inside.
Check with your professional alarm installer to make sure you have enough of them to detect smoke wherever it could build up (under every ceiling on every level of your house, especially at the highest point inside your house). Check for sufficient number & proper placement of all electrical outlets This issue deals with convenience more than safety. Now's the time to make sure you have a sufficient number of outlets to suit your needs in every room. Make sure they're located where you want them.
We had help from a team of designers in the Project House. They use a set of magnetized room diagrams with small furniture-shaped magnets that helped us visualize the look & layout of every room long before we built the house. Those little magnetized diagrams helped us decide where to place furniture (and the outlets we wanted nearby) long before the drywall goes up and hides al the electrical wiring.
Wherever you place outlets, make sure your entire electrical system is protected at the source (the load center or breaker box) against arcing, surging and ground fault, so you a nd your loved ones can enjoy years of comfort and safety in your new house.