Ground fault circuit interrupters or GFCIs are a standard, code required type of electrical outlet used to prevent severe electric shock in the home. Whether the bathroom, garage, exterior or the kitchen or anywhere else that electric appliances may come into place with water, they are designed to protect against electrocution from improper or unplanned grounding of a circuit. This is known in the trade as a
“ground fault”. They occur when an electric current in an appliance moves outsides of its normal path and the human body comes a part of the flow, electrocution results. They may be one of the best home safety findings during a home inspection as they protect the lives of occupants in a way that is often forgotten about.
To protect individuals from these faults, GFCIs monitor the differences in current between both the neutral and hot conductors. For electricity that goes to an outlet and is equal to a current that comes back to the same outlet, a GFCI remains dormant. However, if the electricity goes to the outlet at greater than 5mA, than the GFCI opens up the circuit in order to stop electricity from flowing at a dangerous rate.
While protective devices have been around for years to prevent short circuits or overloads, GFCIs are relatively new, having only been fielded in the 1980s.
The U.S. Product Safety Commission estimates that 2/3 of 300 electrocutions that occur yearly can be prevented with the installation of GFCIs in the home.
Pros of Installing Ground Fault Circuit Interrupters in Your New Home
Both the National Electrical Code and the International Residential Code require GFCIs. These codes may not specifically be used in your community; however, they serve as the model by which all codes are built. If something is in these codes it will generally become code in your area within a few years. The code for GFCI installation has not changed within the NEC/IRC since 1996. Both codes require that all general residential outlets located at the exterior of a home, in the garage, in a bath or anywhere on a kitchen counter must be GFCI protected. Any bar or laundry counters equipped with sinks must have outlets within six feet protected. Whirlpool bath tubs and spas are required to have their own dedicated GFCIs.
Please note the phrase “GFCI protected” is not the same as “GFCI Equipped”. Every outlet on a protected circuit need not be an actual GFCI type. Installation of a physical GFCI in the first position along a circuit will protect all “downstream” outlets. As an example modern kitchens frequently have 8 or more outlets, but only two are GFCIs. All of the standard outlets are downstream of the GFCIs and protected by them. You can confirm this with the use of a simple $10 GFCI and Circuit Tester from a hardware store (look in the electrical section, NOT with tools).
However, it’s important to note that only qualified electrician or home contractors should install these. You should also test them after installation and once monthly to make sure they are working properly. Some even suggest they are tested after a violent thunderstorm too. Be sure to add them to your home maintenance checklist to ensure the best safety in your home. Any defective GFCIs should be replaced immediately. This can occur as a result of electrical surges or lightning.
Ultimately, GFCIs are so beneficial because they detect the smallest amounts of electricity that may result in shock and are too small for circuit breakers or fuses to activate and shut off the circuit fast enough. They also protect you even if your wiring isn’t grounded.
Always choose GFCIs that carry the label of an independent testing laboratory for the safest use. Allow follow the manufacturer’s instructions for installation and testing too.
How Do GFCIs Work?
The outlet itself is called the ground-fault circuit interrupter and is there to protect individuals from electric shock. They are different from a fuse in that those are used to protect a home from fire. If a hot wire touches a neutral wire for any reason, it heats up faster than the wire itself and burns out before a fire can begin.
However a GFCI works more subtly. It monitors the amount of current flowing from hot to neutral in a normal 120-volt outlet. If any
imbalance occurs, it trips the circuit as it is able to sense that a mismatch is occurring. Electricity is immediately cut off. It can react quickly sometimes as fast as 1/30th of a second.
Test GFCIs by pushing the reset button on the receptacle to ensure that it is working. Next, plug in a nightlight with an on/off switch into the receptacle and turn the product on. Push the test button and make sure that the nightlight goes off. Push the reset button again to make sure the product goes back on. If the light remains on when the test button is pushed, the GFCI isn’t working properly and is miswired. Never try to replace them on your own instead hire a professional electrician or home inspector to assess the situation and to rewire the ground fault circuit interrupter if necessary.
Types of GFCIs
Standards for Safety regarding ground fault circuit interrupters remain important. These standards became effective in 2003 where requirements and safety issues are revised as seen fit. They focus on immunity to voltage surges, reverse line-loan miswiring, resistance to environmental noise and resistance to moisture and corrosion. Always look for the UL mark on CFCIs before purchasing them.
There are four main types of ground fault circuit interrupters. The first, the wall receptacle GFCI is the most popular. This type fits into a standard outlet and protects the room and those using the outlet from ground faults. They are often used in laundry rooms, kitchens, bathrooms or outside where water and electricity are often close to each other.
The next type, the circuit breaker GFCI is used in homes with circuit breakers. It is installed within a panel box to give extra protection to specific circuits. They are checked monthly. All power on the circuit needs to be disconnected before this monthly test occurs.
The portable GFCI includes an enclosure with plug blades in the back and receptacle slots up front. It is plugged into a receptacle and then the electric products or appliances are plugged directly into the GFCI. Many know this as an extension cord. They should never be used on a permanent basis and should be tested before each use for added safety.
Lastly, a cord-connected type uses an attachment plug with a GFCI module design. It will protect the cord itself and any other equipment that is attached to the cord. The plug has a unique appearance that includes reset and test buttons. Like the portable type, it uses a no-voltage release that will disconnect power if the load is open.
Cost Considerations for GFCIs
The cost to install GFCI outlets can vary from $75-$200 per receptacle, depending on region and local requirements. You can generally by the actual GFCI receptacle at a hardware store for around $15. The installation costs include material and labor. For new homes, this will be a part of the construction projects. However, for old ones who are updating their old circuits the cost may be more daunting. An electrician must determine if the panel is adequate to support these new breakers and if the wiring is in good condition. Any rewiring project will be costly, but will protect the home and those who live in it from electrical shock. Added cost will come from any outlets that are hard to access.
Installation of GFCIs
Ground fault circuit interrupters are installed at a circuit breaker panel board or into a receptacle outlet. Only a qualified individual can install a panel box GFCI. Installing a receptacle mounted GFCI is fairly easy. Turn the circuit breaker for that area off and follow the instructions on the box. Bear in mind that if you do not have the experience to change a light fixture, you should probably call a professional for this task also. This is certainly one of those times when a good home inspector can coach you on best practices. Ask him about difficulty of you repair task.