Why Do you Need GFCI Outlets?
This article is an expansion on concepts covered in What is a GFCI? from November 2015.
Your home comes with lots of different safety devices. Smoke and CO alarms keep you safe from house fires. Surge protectors protect the devices in your home from being damaged during electrical storms or power surges. Your electrical panel separates different electrical circuits in your home and monitors current flow to prevent excess load from starting fires. And insulated wires prevent shocks for you or your family. Even electrical outlets and light switches are a form of safety device in some ways. By giving you easy access to connections and controls, you aren’t exposed to wiring, protecting you from problems and creating simple-to-replace points of failure for repair.
But these aren’t the only safety devices you should have in your home. While circuit panels protect against damage from excess load (using too many space heaters on the same circuit, for example), ground fault circuit interrupters (GFCIs) protect against shorts that occur in your electrical system.
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.
Ground faults are typically generated by insulation wearing away on in-home wiring but they can also be triggered by water spills, appliances that make contact with standing water, or even faulty cabling on power tools and other electrical equipment. Anywhere that an electrical contact or wire is exposed is a potential hazard. This is why you should always inspect any cords and cables before using them to ensure that there are no frayed ends or exposed segments.
Ground Fault Circuit Interrupter – GFCI
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.
Where Should GFCIs be Place?
While you don’t need a GFCI outlet installed into every socket in your home (it wouldn’t hurt but it is overkill), there are a few places you need to have them placed:
- Kitchen Counters
- Outdoor Lines
- Appliance Circuits
True, this will make some areas a little annoying to reset a tripped GFCI outlet, but if that GFCI circuit is tripping in the first place, you have bigger problems than having to reset an outlet. We should note that you should use more modern appliances (such as space heaters) which include GFCI units on their power cord. You’ll notice that current space heaters and hair driers will have a circuit reset button built into the power cord. This is because these items are at greatest risk for GFCI trips and it’s better to have an additional safeguard for when there isn’t a GFCI outlet nearby to use. It’s ideal to stay safe when working with high-wattage equipment so always look for tools and appliances with the most advanced safety features when possible.
National Electric Code (NEC) Regulations
Finally, part of the reason you’ll find these devices to be so common is that they’re 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.
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