Ground Fault Circuit Interrupters (GFCIs) are critical safety devices in modern homes, designed to prevent electric shock and electrocution. They are easily recognizable by their ‘TEST’ and ‘RESET’ buttons and come in two forms: receptacle and circuit breaker types.
Initially introduced in residential construction in the early 1970s, their use and application have significantly expanded over the years. The adoption of GFCI standards began in the 1970s, initially focusing on exterior receptacle locations. With the advancement of the International Residential Code (IRC) and National Electric Code (NEC), the requirement for GFCI protection has expanded to include areas like bathrooms, garages, kitchens, and more.
Understanding the distinctions between GFCI and regular receptacles, as well as their importance in specific home areas like kitchens and garages, is vital for homeowners. Adding GFCI protection in older homes is a highly recommended safety upgrade. GFCIs are especially useful in older homes with two-wire systems, offering an added layer of safety. Regular testing of GFCIs is crucial to ensure they function correctly - issues with GFCIs often require attention from qualified electricians.
Before we get into the nitty gritty of GFCI installation and testing, let’s explore their functionality. Ground Fault Circuit Interrupters (GFCIs) monitor the electrical current flowing through the hot (black or ungrounded) and neutral (white or grounded) wires. They check for any difference in current between these two wires and are designed to trip with minimal current imbalance. For example, if the neutral wire has 5 Amps and the hot wire has 4.5 Amps, the GFCI detects the 0.5 Amps difference, assuming it might be electricity leaking somewhere unsafe, like shocking someone, and it trips to cut off the power. These devices are quite sensitive, designed to react to imbalances as small as 5 milliamperes (mA), which is a very small amount of current. They can trip incredibly quickly, in about 1/40th of a second.
One of the great things about GFCIs is that they don't need a grounding wire (which is usually bare or green insulated) to work. This makes them ideal for older homes with two-wire systems, such as knob and tube wiring or two-wire Romex/NM cable. When installing GFCIs in these older systems, it's important to use the "No Equipment Ground" stickers that come with the GFCIs. These stickers should be placed on receptacles that are protected by the GFCI but not actually grounded, so people in the home are aware of the setup.
Installation and Placement of GFCIs
The electrical code outlines which outlets inside or outside a home need GFCI (Ground Fault Circuit Interrupter) protection, but it doesn't specify that the actual GFCI devices (the ones with 'reset' buttons) must be located in the same areas. This means that the location where GFCI protection is necessary and where the GFCI devices are installed can be different. In many houses built in the 1980s and 1990s, it was common to find a single GFCI device, perhaps in a bathroom or the main breaker panel, safeguarding all the exterior and bathroom outlets. This setup allows one GFCI device to protect multiple outlets across different areas of the home.
Nowadays, electricians often install individual GFCI outlets in each bathroom and at each exterior outlet for added convenience. In modern kitchens, you'll typically find two or more GFCI outlets. Garage outlets, including those on the ceiling, are usually connected to a single GFCI located on a garage wall. This arrangement is more user-friendly because if the GFCI trips, you can reset it right there in the bathroom, kitchen, or garage, instead of having to go to another part of the house.
The National Electrical Code (NEC) does have one specific requirement regarding the placement of GFCI devices: they must be "readily accessible." This means they should be easy to reach without needing a tool or ladder, and not hidden behind permanent fixtures or appliances. Basically, you should be able to see and physically touch the device by just standing on the floor next to it.
Precautionary measures don’t stop at installation. Regular testing of GFCIs is crucial to ensure they function correctly - issues with GFCIs often require attention from qualified electricians. We recommend using the built-in test buttons for at-home testing.
To test a GFCI breaker, first press the TEST button. This should trip the breaker. When you trip a breaker, its handle should move to a middle position, indicating it's tripped, and you'll likely hear a distinct 'click.' To reset it, you first need to switch the breaker fully off (from this middle position to 'off') and then flip it back to 'on.' If a GFCI breaker or outlet keeps tripping or won't reset, this is a sign of a problem that needs immediate attention from a professional electrician.
A common challenge for home inspectors arises when testing outlets to see if they're GFCI-protected, where they might accidentally trip a GFCI device in another part of the home. Locating the exact GFCI that tripped can be really tough, especially if it's in a different room and the 'click' of the trip isn't audible. Sometimes, the tripped GFCI might be hidden behind furniture, boxes, or other items, making it virtually impossible for the inspector to find and reset it.
It's important not to confuse GFCIs with AFCIs (Arc Fault Circuit Interrupters). They look very similar, both having TEST’ and ‘RESET’ buttons. The main difference is that while GFCIs protect against electric shock, AFCIs are designed to prevent electrical fires by detecting arcing. To help eliminate confusion, both should be clearly labeled so that consumers can tell them apart.
Ground Fault Circuit Interrupters are indispensable for modern home safety, offering protection against electric shock and electrocution. Understanding their purpose and how to test them is essential for homeowners and professionals alike. Regular testing and proper installation, as recommended by professionals like WIN Home Inspection, ensure these devices continue to protect homes and their residents effectively.
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