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What is a GFCI Outlet?

What is a GFCI outlet?

Have you ever seen one of those outlets that have two buttons in the center? Those are GFCI outlets, and they protect you from getting seriously injured. GFCI stands for ground fault circuit interrupter. They traditionally replace standard outlets in areas like bathrooms and kitchens where moisture is most prevalent. In fact, the National Modern Electrical Code now requires GFCI outlets in all kitchens and bathrooms, plus any other areas that could be exposed to moisture. This means if you are renovating an old home or buying a new home, GFCI outlets are required. 

What do they do? 

GFCI outlets are an inexpensive and effective way to protect against electrical shocks due to stray electrical currents from a damaged appliance, improper wiring, or accidental contact with water. As mentioned above, these outlets are identified by the two buttons present in between the plugs. One button is labeled “Test” while the other is labeled “Reset,” and they control the outlet. 

Their basic function involves constantly monitoring the electric current on hot, neutral, and ground lines. If anything out of the ordinary is detected, the outlet will shut down the circuit in roughly 30 milliseconds. This quick response time drastically lowers the risk of serious injury due to electrical abnormalities. For example, if you dropped your hairdryer in a sink full of water, the GFCI would shut off the power before serious injury could occur. 

In the event that other outlets are connected downstream from the GFCI, it will protect those too. Another option is adding GFCI protection directly to the service panel with a GFCI breaker. When a GFCI breaker is added, it protects the entire circuit – one that most likely involves multiple outlets. 

It is important to note that GFCI outlets should not be used to replace a fuse because they do not protect against short circuits and overloading. In addition, having them in your house does not mean you have a license to be careless. For example: if you touch the hot and natural conductors in a GFCI outlet at the same time, it can still result in electric shock or death. This is because the current transformer won’t sense an imbalance between departing and returning currents, and the switching contacts will remain closed. 

Where do I need them?

As stated above, the National Modern Electrical Code requires GFCI outlets in any location six feet or closer to a plumbing fixture or water source. This includes kitchens, bathrooms, laundry rooms, garages, crawlspaces, unfinished basements, and all exterior outlets. They can also be used in certain circumstances to replace non-grounded outlets without rewiring the home. 

modern kitchen

What is a ground fault?

In your home, electricity is contained within wires that are covered in rubber or plastic. The electrical currents run safely through these insulated wires to switches and power outlets. A ground fault occurs when the electrical current takes an unintended path to the ground. This happens when the insulated wires are damaged, or it could be the result of faulty wiring. This can unfortunately result in the electricity flowing through a different conductor. You could end up being this conductor if you don’t have GFCI outlets! In the case of an existing, but faulty GFCI outlet, these are more common in places near water, which is why GFCI outlets are required near places that come in contact with a lot of moisture. 

How do I test my GFCI outlet? 

It is important to test your GFCI outlets on a monthly basis due to the mechanical and electrical components used to operate them. Sometimes, one or more of the components can fail, which results in a loss of power to the outlet or protection from ground faults. If you would like to test your GFCI, follow these steps:

  1. Press “Test;” it which should turn off the circuit. 
  2. Plug in a radio, lamp, or other wired electrical items into the outlet. The power should be off, so if any of your items still work, your GFCI outlet has been compromised. 
  3. If the item you plugged into the outlet does not work, press “Reset” which should activate the circuit. 
  4. Check the outlet again by plugging your item back into the outlet and turning it on. 

If the item you plugged in does not work after you press the “Test” button but works again after you hit “Reset”, your GFCI is working. If this is not the outcome of your test, you will need to call an electrician to replace the outlet as soon as possible.  Sometimes, due to unknown causes, these outlets will turn off on their own. In these cases, it is best to reset the outlet and proceed with the testing process detailed above. However, if these trips are happening consistently, it is a good idea to call a certified electrician to come look at it anyway. While these steps are easy to follow, they do require a basic understanding of your home’s electrical system. It is always recommended to work with a certified electrician that can ensure your system is up to code and remains guarded against electrical fires. 
GFCI outlets have been deemed increasingly necessary throughout the years. In the 1970’s they were only required around pools, but each new revision to the National Modern Electrical Code has increased the areas that require GFCI outlets. Why the changes? Before the value of the GFCI outlet was recognized and deemed necessary for buildings and homes, roughly 800 people died annually in the United States due to electrical accidents. Now that number has dropped to around 200 deaths per year (Nickel Electric)! Functional GFCI outlets are considered a household necessity. Contact us today to learn how we can install GFCI outlets!

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