Home safety the root of most codes

Posted March 13, 2009, at 11:36 p.m.
Last modified Feb. 13, 2011, at 10:45 a.m.

A lot of people lament the fact that we are over-regulated here in the state of Maine, or for that matter, in the U.S. I have dealt over the years with many code enforcement officials, and when I was a younger man wondered if they were just cop wannabes.

The wisdom of my experiences has always been that code people want to help you do the right thing. That right thing is mostly related to safety. We do not want to do things that might hurt or kill someone.

That sounds simplistic, but it is at the root of a lot of codes — not all of them, but most.

Here is an interesting case: About five years ago, I was rebuilding the house I live in. I really enjoy doing the plumbing, heating and electrical work. I was in the process of rewiring the entire house. The new service entrance (the big wire and electric meter that is outside the house) was subbed out to a licensed electrical contractor, and I was doing all the interior wiring.

A friend of mine who is a code guy in southern Maine had to listen to my sharing of the wiring antics.

He told me that I needed to install arc-fault circuit breakers for all the bedroom outlets. This had recently become the code. I had already wired the bedrooms, and this seemed like a real hassle. Replacing the circuit breakers with arc-fault circuit breakers is a fair bit more expensive.

He explained that arc fault breakers are circuit breakers that recognize if there is a shorted wire, such as a frayed light cord or a nail going through a wire. Whenever an arc occurs in a circuit, the breaker trips. This does not always happen with a regular circuit breaker. Sometimes small arcs can occur that a 20-amp circuit breaker would not sense until after a fire started. This happens more than we want to think about.

We recently lost two souls in Searsport due to an arc fault on a computer terminal strip that was under some clothing.

So it does not come as a big surprise to me that there is a new code which requires that all new electrical installations must use arc-fault circuit breakers in all circuits other than where ground-fault circuit breakers are used. It is a life safety issue and a wise one. It will cost a little bit more, but this is prudent given the fact that small, sometimes fragile, electrical devices are pervasive in our homes.

Installation of ground-fault interrupter circuit breakers has been required in wet locations. That would be any outlet which is outside, in a kitchen or in a bathroom.

The ground-fault circuit breaker will prevent electrocution if you happen to get in a puddle of water, become grounded and get in contact with a live power source.

The ground-fault interrupter circuit breaker was invented in 1961. I was told that the inventor was having a hard time proving the concept to the world, so he demonstrated it with his young daughter in a swimming pool into which he threw a plugged-in toaster that was powered through a GFI. Fortunately, it worked and untold lives have been saved by his invention. Talk about faith!

That demonstration has set the stage for the ongoing innovation in electrical safety devices we live with.

The code enforcement thing might be a hassle at times, but the alternatives can be unthinkable.

Questions for Tom Gocze should be mailed to The Home Page, Bangor Daily News, P.O. Box 1329, Bangor 04402-1329. A library of reference material and a home-project blog are at http://www.bangordailynews.com/thehomepage.html.

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