I am sure you’ve heard the saying “water and electricity don’t mix!” Ground Fault Circuit Interrupters (GFCI) help make sure that doesn’t happen. They also protect in other situations as well. In houses built after 1980 and older remodeled homes, you may have noticed some electrical receptacles with buttons between the two outlets, the buttons can be red and black or the same color as the rest of the outlet. These are GFCI protected outlets and are designed to protect you from electrical shock.
If someone drops an electrical appliance, like a hairdryer, into a water filled bathtub or a kitchen mixer/blender falls into the sink, the water will provide a path for electricity to leak out of the appliance into your body. Using a power tool in the rain or sticking a knife in a toaster could also produce the same hazard.
A GFCI shuts off the flow of electricity when it detects electric current leaking out of a circuit. This leakage could be the result of electricity flowing through a person instead of its intended route of electric appliance and wires. When the level of electrical current across your heart reaches .05-.1 amps, it will likely stop beating. For comparison, a 60-watt light bulb uses .5 amps of electricity. The GFCI circuitry will turn off the power when it detects .05 amps of imbalance. The circuit breakers in the main panel will not trip until they detect 15-20 amps, which is way beyond any tolerable amount of electrical current through your body, especially across your heart!
Current electrical codes (for new construction) require GFCI protection for all outlets over kitchen counter tops, all bathroom outlets, all exterior outlets, all garage outlets and all other outlets that could get damp or where the user could be in direct contact with the earth. Many older homes especially those built before 1993 may not have this level of GFCI protection installed. Although there is no requirement that older homes be updated to the new electrical code levels, I believe that every homeowner should consider upgrading their GFCI protection since it is very inexpensive and reasonably easy to do.
GFCI protected outlets will have a test and a reset button on the front of them. Locating one or more of these outlets means that at least some outlets in the home have GFCI protection. However, it may be difficult to determine if all of the proper outlets are GFCI protected without a GFCI tester. It would be well worth your money to have an electrician inspect your home and upgrade the GFCI protection if necessary. A GFCI outlet will cost about $15 plus labor to install. One GFCI outlet has the ability to give protection to more than one location. Therefore, depending on the electrical configuration in your home, you may not need to install a GFCI outlet at each location that should have protection.
I should point out that three prong outlets are not the same as GFCI. While three prong outlets protect electrical equipment, may help prevent short circuits and may prevent electrical fires, they are no substitute for GFCI protection.
If your home already has GFCI protection, be sure to test the outlets monthly with the test buttons on the outlet. Pressing the “TEST” button should cause the power at the outlet to shut off. Then press the “RESET” button and the power should come back on. If either of these does not happen, call an electrician to repair/replace the outlet.
In my opinion, all Inspectors should recommend that proper GFCI protection to be added to all required outlets as part of their inspection, even if the home being inspected is older. It makes perfect sense from a safety point of view, especially considering the reasonably low cost.
Submitted by Scott Wagar, Scott Wagar Inspections 503-956-3515