In an everyday home inspection, it is quite common that we find electrical concerns that should be addressed for safety. One common occurrence that we often find is a faulty or missing ground fault circuit interrupter (GFCI). Many people may be shocked to learn why they need one in the first place and why this device is essential for the safety of their family.
What is GFCI?
A ground fault circuit interrupter is a type of outlet that safeguards against electrical shocks. Many people may refer to a GFCI as a GFI. According to electrical inspectors and electrical professionals, “The term ‘GFI,’ is merely short for GFCI.” Nonetheless, this specific type of outlet is constantly monitoring electricity that is flowing into or out of a circuit. A GFCI is designed to shut-down the receptacle and any other receptacles located on the line downstream, if it detects variations in the current stream.
A GFCI can easily be distinguished from a standard 120 – volt outlet receptacle. A standard outlet has two slots and a ground hole located on the device. On the other hand, the GFCI outlet is commonly rectangle in shape, and has two buttons located in the center of the outlet. These switches are known as the reset and test controls. These buttons are utilized when testing the outlet (recommended each month). By conducting this test, you are testing for an imbalance of current flowing, causing the GFCI to ‘trip,’ as quickly as 1/30 of a second.
Understanding GFCI Protection
A GFCI is an inexpensive electrical device that, if installed in household branch circuits, could prevent almost 300 electrocutions each year in and around the home. Installation of the device could also prevent thousands of burns and electric shock injuries each year.
A GFCI is equipped with a very special feature known as a ‘ground fault.’ A ground fault is essentially an unintentional electrical path between a power source and a grounded surface. Ground faults most often occur when equipment is damaged or so severely defective that the live electrical components are no longer protected from unplanned contact or grounding. If your body provides a track to the ground for this current, you could wind up being burned, shocked, or even electrocuted.
The GFCI is designed to protect people from severe or fatal electric shocks. Since a GFCI detects ground faults, it can also prevent electrical fires and reduce the severity of shocks by interrupting the flow of electric current.
Placement of these life-saving devices is instrumental for correct use of GFCI’s. They are to be placed anywhere in which water may come into contact with an outlet. This includes unfinished basements, spas, pools, utility rooms, garages, and outdoors. Another special feature of GFCI’s is that one ground fault circuit interrupter can protect up to five standard 120 – volt receptacles on the same line (downstream).
Outlet vs. Circuit Breaker
A GFCI outlet is a replacement for a standard, 120 – volt electrical outlet. The main concept of the GFCI outlet is that it measures the current difference between the hot and neutral wires, it does not measure shorts to the ground. Keep in mind, there may be some nuisance tripping in highly inductive loads, such as large motors, fluorescent lamps, or fixtures on the same circuit. More recently, there have been newer GFCI models found on the market that will reduce such occurrences, creating unnecessary tripping.
A GFCI circuit breaker controls an entire circuit and is installed as a replacement for a circuit breaker at your home’s electrical panel. This option avoids installing multiple GFCI outlets on a line, and allows you to install one GFCI circuit breaker instead. Similarly to the GFCI outlet, GFCI circuit breakers also have a test button.
Installation of Circuit Breakers and Receptacles
Circuit breaker and receptacle-type GFCI’s may be installed in your home by a qualified electrician. Receptacle type GFCI’s may be installed by homeowners with sufficient knowledge and skills to conform to proper electrical wiring practices, as well as understanding the instructions that are attached with these electrical devices. It is always best to consult a qualified electrician if the consumer is experiencing uncertainty of proper installation.
According to Uniform Dwelling Codes, GFCI locations have changed significantly since the early 1970’s. Many people may be shocked to learn that in 1971, GFCI’s were only required near swimming pools and in exterior locations. It wasn’t until 1975 that GFCI’s were required in bathrooms. Finally, in 1987, GFCI’s were then required in kitchens, as well as exterior locations, bathrooms, and swimming pools. It is always best to consult with a certified electrician for proper code requirements and procedures. It is strongly recommended that outlets from older homes be upgraded to current standards to avoid injuries or fatal shocks.