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What Is A GFCI?

on November 13, 2015

Ground Fault Circuit Interrupters (GFCIs) have one very simple job, keeping you and your home safe from a ground fault.

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You’ll find them attached to outlets near sinks or anyplace with a nearby open water source.  They’re also located on high demand devices such as hair dryers and space heaters.  Garages and outdoor outlets have them as well.  But what’s a ground fault?  And why are those ubiquitous “test” and “reset” buttons always in the same places in your home?

National Electric
Code (NEC) Regulations

The reason these devices are so common is that they’re actually required by the NEC.  GFCIs must be used for electrical connections that power underwater pool lights, power tools, and electrically-powered lawn equipment. Outlets located outdoors, in bathrooms, garages, crawl spaces, laundry rooms, and kitchens are also required to be installed with a GFCI.  Essentially, you’ll find one on high-load
devices and anywhere with a potential for water contact.  Is there a sink or faucet nearby?  Then a GFCI is mandatory

You can get a more in-depth view of the US Electrical Code for GFCI use here.

What is a Ground Fault?

It’s all well and good to say we need to protect ourselves from ground faults, but what are they?  A ground fault occurs when electrical current suddenly gains a new, shorter, path to ground.  This is the reason that GFCIs are always installed near water. Electrical current is supposed to flow out of the outlet, to a device, and then back into the outlet to complete the home circuit.  When a conductor such as water (or yourself) creates a new circuit to a different ground problems arise.  At the very least, your breaker will trip due to an overload.

Without a GFCI, more serious problems occur.  A ground fault can cause a circuit to spark or heat up to the point that a fire occurs. Irreparable damage to whatever device was plugged into the outlet is also common.  Worst of all, if the reason for the ground fault involves you becoming the short, sever electrical shocks and burns are the end result.

GFCIs

The interrupter itself has a very simple job, monitor the amount of current flowing out of an outlet and compare it to the current flowing back in.  If the GFCI notices a discrepancy between the two, it breaks the circuit and cuts off the flow of electricity immediately.  Whenever a short develops, the GFCI opens the circuit, saving lives and preventing fires.

It’s important to test your outlets at least once a month to make sure they still work.  Simply push the button marked “test” to open the circuit. If the reset button pops out with an audible click, then the circuit works.  Simply push the rest button and you’re back to functional.  Otherwise, replace the outlet.

If the circuit continues to trip and require frequent presses of the reset button, then something is wrong somewhere on the circuit.  There may be a wiring issues or the appliance connected could be damaged. Test with a different appliance, or have the outlet inspected by a licensed electrician.


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