GFCI stands for ground fault circuit interrupter, which is what this device does. You might also hear this same object referred to as a residual current device or a residual current circuit breaker. All three names describe the same piece of electrical equipment, which is made to cut the power to an individual outlet if it detects an electrical current that’s too strong.
Even if you’re unfamiliar with the electrical device acronym, you’re likely very familiar with seeing them around your home. If you’ve ever noticed an electrical outlet with two small buttons between each plug-in that say test and reset, you’ve been looking at a GFCI outlet. GFCIs are important safety mechanisms, and part of a home inspector‘s review of your electrical system.
What does a GFCI do?
GFCI devices prevent lethal electrical shocks by disconnecting circuits when they detect energy imbalance. Basically, a GFCI outlet has a similar function as your breaker box, but it turns the outlet off much more quickly, and just that one, not everything connected to the breaker. It monitors the level of power going to that outlet and will trip if the power exceeds a certain level.
Different GFCIs react to certain power levels and are used in varying applications. For example, by US law, all boats with power outlets must have GFCI outlets due to their proximity to water, but they aren’t as sensitive as those installed in homes, so there are fewer nuisance trips to the breaker to reset an outlet.
What is a ground fault, and why is it a problem?
If you remember back to junior high science, you’ll recall that electricity always tries to find the quickest way to the earth. When electricity strays outside of the planned wiring system of a home, we call this a ground fault. Ground faults are dangerous because if you touch the electrical current, it will surge through your body to get to the ground, causing electrocutions.
How do GFCIs protect you?
A GFCI outlet comes in when there is an electricity ‘leak,’ literally interrupting the ground fault, as per its name. It physically cuts off power to the outlet so that you can’t receive an electrical shock. Each GFCI outlet is made to trip once it senses too much power for too long of a period. This amount of time is extremely short, so the electricity can’t travel through your body and end up causing harm.
Unlike a typical breaker you’ve likely seen in a breaker box, where you can overload a circuit by plugging in too many electrical items or appliances, and it can take several seconds or even minutes for the breaker to trip, a GFCI outlet power load is measured in microseconds.
Where are GFCI outlets required?
According to the electrical code in the US, there are certain places where GFCIs must be used. Electrical standards in the US are governed by the National Electrical Code (NEC) and are updated as construction practices evolve and new materials enter the market.
The list of places where GFCI outlets are needed is lengthy, but what it boils down to is that anywhere close to water must have a GFCI outlet. This is why they’re such a familiar sight in the bathrooms and kitchens of most homes, for example.
It’s worth noting that GFCI outlets are not made to last forever, and they will wear out. Generally, this takes many years, so it’s worth having them tested if you have an older home. But if you’re in a newer build, you’re likely safe to wait a while before having an electrician come in to test the quality of your GFCI sockets.
Are GFCI outlets required in older homes?
If you own or are considering buying an older home that hasn’t been updated with GFCI outlets, you should make that switch. It’s something that any home inspector will point out, not to mention an electrician, should you have one to make changes. You’re not required to, but your home will not pass a home inspection without them because they are part of the NEC code regulations.
The NEC instated the requirement for GFCI outlets near water sources in 1978, and since then, most homes will have been built to that code. If you own or are considering purchasing a home built before 1978, make sure that it has either been updated with GFCI outlets in all places that they should be or consider making this safety upgrade yourself. Replacing standard outlets with GFCI sockets is a very simple and fast task for an electrician to complete. While it will depend on how many outlets you have and the rate electricians in your area charge, this upgrade should not come with any major sticker shock.
All in all, GFCI outlets are an easy and simple update to make to keep your home safe and prevent any electricity-related accidents.