Electrical safety is critically important in every building in the world… at least the ones that have electricity. Electrical emergencies can cause serious injury or death and can result in disastrous fires that destroy entire homes. Fortunately, there are well-known and proven ways to reduce and practically eliminate certain hazards associated with handling electronic devices and outlets.
Electrocution used to be a much more serious problem in the United States, but as a result of the mandatory and widespread implementation of GFCI outlets, the risk of electrocution in the household has been significantly reduced and only occurs under very severe circumstances in the 21st century. GFCI outlets combat the dangers associated with using electronics that draw a lot of power in environments where the power supply might be inconsistent or become unexpectedly interrupted. Let’s take a look at what GFCI outlets are for and how to use them around your own home.
What is a GFCI Outlet?
A GFCI outlet is a special type of electrical outlet that monitors and controls the flow of electricity right at the outlet even before the circuit breaker. GFCI stands for ground fault circuit interrupter.
Electricity will travel along a conductor even if another conductor is present. This means that if some conductive material is introduced to the circuit unexpectedly, electrical current will actually flow down both paths. When this happens, we call it a ground fault.
The GFCI outlet is designed to detect these ground faults and immediately cut off the power to the entire outlet box. In doing so, they have the potential to prevent fires and serious electric shocks saving lives and tons of money in property damage. A GFCI outlet is so important that they’re required in building codes all over the world.
GFCI outlets are about three times more expensive than standard electrical outlets, but they’re only required in high-risk areas, particularly those where there are water sources or lots of moisture. If your home doesn’t have GFCI outlets installed anywhere, then it’s almost definitely an older structure with wiring that isn’t designed for ground fault interruption. The safest thing to do for yourself and your family is to call a certified electrician to help you install GFCI outlets in your bathrooms and kitchen.
What Causes a Ground Fault?
A ground fault is when electricity inadvertently escapes the intended path, AKA the circuit, and follows some other path to the ground. Electricity is commonly thought to follow the path of least resistance, but this isn’t strictly true. Imagine that you’re standing at your bathroom sink using a blow dryer. The blow dryer falls into the full sink, and water rushes into the hot coils of the devices. The electricity that’s supposed to course through those coils, around the circuit, and back through the outlet now has a new path to the water in the sink, but the power continues to flow through the circuit.
It doesn’t take very much electricity or a very strong electronic device for a ground fault to have disastrous results. Ground faults caused unknowable amounts of damage and grievous loss of life before the implementation of the GFCI outlet, which now protects hundreds of millions of people just in North America.
Where to Install a GFCI Outlet
In an ideal world, GFCI outlets would be the standard for every electrical outlet in every home, business, and worksite on the planet. However, the GFCI outlet is more expensive than a standard outlet, and they are more prone to failure than a standard outlet. Don’t worry, that doesn’t mean they stop protecting you. In fact, when a GFCI outlet fails, it just means that the outlet itself stops working for the most part. However, you still have to test GFCI outlets to make sure that their electrical protection functions are still operating the way they’re intended. We’ll cover that in more detail in the next section.
According to the NEC (National Electric Code), GFCI outlets are mandatory in any and all new construction on any outlet built near a source of water. Existing structures are subject to various local building codes, but in general, every structure should have at least one GFCI outlet on each floor.
These rules mean that you’ll find GFCIs on outlets in bathrooms and on all exterior surfaces of the home. Any outlet that’s built within proximity of a kitchen countertop must also have a GFCI interface. If they must be installed near any water sources, that means that you must install a GFCI outlet in laundry rooms around the washing machine and the sink.
Other rooms in the house aren’t required to have GFCI outlets in them, but if you know that you’re going to be using a lot of water or there’s a risk of exposure to water around the outlet, then a GFCI outlet isn’t a bad idea. Especially in garages and home workshops, you’ll want to install a GFCI for when you undoubtedly run into an unexpected mess or emergency.
Using the Test Button on a GFCI Outlet
It’s important to test the GFCI interface once every few months to ensure that it’s still in good working order, otherwise it won’t protect you from ground faults. Fortunately, testing the GFCI outlet is so easy that anyone can learn how to do it (though we don’t recommend teaching your kids).
You’ll notice that the distinguishing feature of the GFCI outlet its test and reset button. These aren’t actually a part of the safety protections of your outlet, they simply exist to help you check that the outlet is still working. Don’t panic if you don’t see the buttons doing anything on their own, as they’re not supposed to.
In order to test the GFCI’s functionality, press the test button once. You should feel it click and hear a sound like a small pop or the snap of your fingers. Then, plug in a device like an electric razor or your boom box and see if it powers on. As you can guess, it’s not supposed to turn on at this point, because we’ve tested the circuit breaker function of the outlet. If you press the test button and the devices still work, then your GFCI outlet is broken and need to be replaced immediately.
If the test works and cuts off the electrical current, it’s time to make sure that the outlet can restore the power and function normally after being tripped. With your electrical device still plugged (but with the power off, to protect the device), press the reset button. Then turn the power to your electrical device back on. If it turns on normally, then, congratulations! You’ve successfully tested your GFCI outlet and it’s in good working condition.
If you test your GFCI outlet and it fails, you may be able to replace it yourself. However, wiring an outlet in the home does require some electrical know-how and outlets can be dangerous if you don’t know what you’re doing with them. Additionally, you’ll only be able to service your own GFCI electrical outlets if they’re wired for 3-way connectivity. If your outlets are older and your home has been rewired to accommodate GFCI technology, you’ll need a licensed professional to allow for a ground fault circuit interrupter.