When it comes to electricity, safety has always been a major concern, but thanks to the development of ground fault circuit interrupter GFCI outlet (GFCIs), the risk of being severely shocked or electrocuted is greatly reduced. According to the Electrical Safety Foundation International (ESFI), electrocutions are down 83 percent since the 1970s when GFCIs were introduced. These quick-to-react outlets are required by law in new home construction, and it’s a good idea to put them in older homes as well. Read on for must-know info on GFCIs—what they are, how they work, and where to install them.
In your home, the flow of electricity is contained within wires covered with rubber- or plastic-based insulating material. When everything goes as planned, the electrical current runs safely through the insulated wires to switches and wall plate outlets and on to the many appliances and gadgets we take for granted today. But in its raw state, electricity has a “mind” of its own, and left to its own devices—as evidenced by most lightning strikes—it makes a beeline for the ground.
A ground fault is the occurrence of electricity taking an unintended path to the ground. It occurs when the electrical current escapes the insulated wires, as a result of a damaged cord or faulty wiring, and flows through a different conductor. If that different conductor is a human being, the result can be a serious electrical shock or electrocution. Because water is an excellent conductor of electricity, the risk of a ground fault occurring is greater in areas of your home where water is commonly used, such as near a kitchen sink.
The singular purpose of a new GFCI outlet is to prevent electrical injury to humans, something regular outlets are not equipped to do. A standard household outlet features two, three-prong plug-in slots, while a GFCI outlet features the same plug-in configuration plus two buttons on its face: a “TEST” button and a “RESET” button. The rules requiring the installation of the GFCI outlets in new construction has expanded over the years to include more applicable locations:
Normally, electrical current flows at a uniform rate through wiring, but when a ground fault occurs, the flow of electricity surges as it jumps to the unintended conductor. A GFCI outlet contains a sensor that monitors the flow of the electrical current through the wires, and when it senses a ground fault (in electrical terms, “fault” means any variation from the normal current), the GFCI, which also contains an internal switch, shuts off the flow of electricity in the outlet.
While you may still receive a painful shock, the South America GFCI outlet will prevent a prolonged surge of electricity, the type that injures and kills. A standard outlet, like the type in your bedroom, doesn’t have a sensor.
The National Electric Code (NEC) requires the installation of GFCI outlets in new construction in areas where electrical outlets are in close proximity to water. Older homes are not required to have GFCI outlets unless the wiring is being updated, but it’s a good idea to install them anyway.
The NEC requires GFCIs on all exterior and bathroom receptacles (another term for outlets). GFCIs are also required on all receptacles serving kitchen countertops. In laundry rooms and utility rooms, GFCIs should be installed on outlets within six feet of sinks, washing machines, and water heaters. They should also be installed within six feet of a wet bar and in garages and unfinished basements.
In bedrooms, living rooms, and other areas where water fixtures are not found, regular outlets are fine—and they are still installed in today’s new homes. The ESFI estimates that approximately 43 million homes in the U.S. still do not have GFCIs installed in “wet” rooms, and notes that as many as 47 percent of today’s electrocutions could be prevented in older homes if GFCIs were installed.
A DIYer with basic knowledge of electrical wiring may be able to replace an existing outlet with a decorative GFCI plate (instructions below), but only when swapping out a three-prong outlet—two plugin slots and a hole. Outlets with only two slots and no third hole indicate the presence of older wiring that should only be replaced by a licensed electrician.