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What is a GFCI outlet?

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What is a GFCI outlet?
by: Joshua Luttmer

GFCI outlets, which are inexpensive and easy to install, are vital for safety and are required by the National Electrical Code in all new construction. We want you to know why GFCI protection should not be overlooked in areas that may become moist at times.

What is a GFCI Outlet and what does it do?

GFCI outlets are not like regular outlets or circuit breakers that protect your home's electric system. They, also known as 'ground fault circuit interrupters', and they are designed to protect people from electrical shock. GFCI outlets can be easily identified by the buttons at the outlet face which normally will read, 'test' or'reset'.

GFCI outlets protect against serious electric shock. They also reduce the danger of electrical fire by monitoring the flow of electricity and cutting off power when necessary. Supersensitive and capable of responding faster than circuit breakers and fuses, GFCIs can detect and cut off excess current flow in an unintended path. They can even be used to replace old 2 prong outlets to allow for some protection, even though the outlet itself is not grounded.

Where should GFCIs be used?

Code required for GFCI outlets in moist or damp areas of the home. This code protects people from being shocked.

  • Bathrooms (First required in 1975 NEC)
  • Kitchens - All Outlets (First required in 1996 NEC)
  • Dishwashers (First required in 2014 NEC)
  • Utility and laundry rooms - All outlets (First required in 2014 NEC)
  • Garages - All Outlets (First required in 2008 NEC)
  • Crawlspaces or unfinished basements (First required in 1990 NEC)
  • Wet bars - Within 6 feet of sink (First required in 1993 NEC)
  • Unfinished Basements - All outlets (First required in 1990 NEC)
  • Spa and pool areas - Within 6 feet (First required in 2008 NEC)
  • Outdoor areas - All Outlets (First required in 1975 NEC)

Why is GFCI a safer outlet option?

Before the GFCI, almost 800 people per year were killed by electrocutions in homes in America. Today, that number is less than 200. Electricity causes an average of more than 140,000 fires each year, 4,000 injuries and 400 deaths. These numbers would be much lower if every home had GFCI protection. Even older homes that are code-grandfathered were to change out their 2-prong outlets for GFCI protection. They are inexpensive and easy to swap for the run-of-the mill outlets. Since the 1970s, GFCIs are required in bathrooms and outdoors, so this isn't some new concept. They are designed to protect people and not wiring and are an essential safety feature that homeowners and homebuyers today look for to ensure safety.

Check your GFCI Outlets regularly

You should test the internal components on a regular basis as they can become damaged over time. You can do this by simply plugging in a device that draws power and pressing the "test” button. The outlet should emit an audible click/pop sound and then the power should be cut off to the device. The device should receive power again when the "reset” button is pressed. If the outlet doesn't trip or sounds like it is tripping but it does not turn off, or if it won't reset, it may be faulty or improperly wired. If the GFCI is not working, an electrician should inspect it and replace it if necessary.

A new product is available that will notify you when a GFCI outlet has been tripped. This is useful for items that are connected to GFCI outlets.

Inspection of GFCI Outlets

GFCI outlets are almost always a topic of conversation during a home inspection. Our inspectors will check for GFCI outlets at the appropriate locations. These locations will be pointed out to you so you are aware of where they are, in case they trip. We will also test them while we are performing your inspection ensure that they work properly.

In many cases, GFCIs fail to function properly and do not provide shock protection. Over time, GFCI components may wear down. They can also be wired incorrectly so that the outlet does not trip or shut off the power. These safety hazards will be brought to your attention by our inspectors.

GFCIs might not be required in older homes because they are not required by code as they have been grandfathered. Regardless, you should consider installing them if they are not present in your home for your own safety.

You can also find circuit breakers that have a GFCI or test button at the breaker. These circuit breakers provide the same protection for the entire circuit and are becoming more common in newer construction.  If you live in a newer home and do not see GFCI outlets in areas that you believe should have them, check your breaker panel to see if the "kitchen" or "garage" or other labeled breakers have a GFCI test button.

The InterNACHI and ASHI Inspectors at Caliber Inspections take safety concerns seriously –  and you should too.  Check to be sure that GFCI outlets are located in the areas mentioned earlier.  If not consider hiring an inspector to check out your home for safety issues.

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