Denver's Home Inspector Coach | GFCI Protection
A Simple Electrical Safety Device Right at your Fingertips
by Rick DeBolt 1/21/2014
As a professional home inspector we are always concerned about our client's safety. Electrical safety is usually high on our list and we do our best to check all outlets in a home if they are accessible. You will notice that your inspectors will usually recommend upgrading to GFCI outlets in certain areas if they are not present.
So what is a GFCI outlet and why do we endorse its use? We will start with a photo on the right ---->
It is a standard looking receptacle with two outlets but with an additional set of buttons in the center. A test button and a reset button.
Okay what does it do?
A ground fault circuit interrupter (GFCI) is a safety device that monitors the flow of current to and from an appliance. If there's more current flowing to an appliance than coming back, it means that some is traveling to the ground...perhaps through you...and the GFCI will quickly cut power. You can still get a shock in the time it takes the GFCI to interrupt the ground fault, but you are less likely to be seriously injured. It works by comparing the input current on the hot side to the output current on the neutral side. If there's the slightest difference in current, we are talking only a few milliamps difference you can expect, the device very quickly to cut off the power supply to the leaking device. This greatly reduces any possible human tissue damage from errant current. It is a silent hero in your Home's electrical system.
Where GFCIs should be placed?
GFCIs have been around since the 60s. They have been greatly improved but not a new technology. The newest standards suggest GFCIs should be provided anywhere there is a receptacle installed in an area subject to moisture. They were initially only required near swimming pools in the early 70s.
The National Electric Code specifies many such areas in residential homes, the newest standards find these areas of need of GFCI protection : Kitchens; Butlers with sinks; Bathrooms; Garages and outcrop buildings; All exterior receptacles; Crawl spaces; Unfinished basements; Laundry, Rooms, Wet Bar Sink Areas; and Boathouses. Local building authorities may have additional requirements.
Therefore, it is important to test your GFCIs regularly to ensure you and your family is protected. The National Electrical Safety Foundations (NESF) recommends testing your GFCIs monthly, as well as any time your home experiences a power outage.
Understand why our inspector recommends upgrading
As Home Inspectors we continually refer to the International Residential codes and National Electrical codes. I can assure you the number of GFCI requirement increase with every revision. You must understand that electrical systems deteriorate and get old just like the rest of the materials in a home. That concerns all Home Inspectors to the nth degree. We know that many older homes do not require GFCIs! BUT, we also know that GFCIs play a very important role in the safety of your home and may save your life from dangerous electrical shock. So when the Home Inspector “recommends” upgrading to these devices we do it out of concern as we know the older receptacles just do not have the safety protection of today’s devices. Many newer homes will have GFCIs all throughout the home.
How to properly test GFCI receptacles in your home:
Yeah, anyone can do it! The National Safety Foundation (NSF) recommends you perform this test monthly.
- Push the "Reset" button located on the GFCI receptacle, first to assure normal GFCI operation.
- Plug a nightlight (with an "ON/OFF" switch) or other product (such as a lamp) into the GFCI receptacle and turn the product "ON."
- Push the "Test" button located on the GFCI receptacle. The nightlight or other product should go "OFF."
- Push the "Reset" button, again. The light or other product should go "ON" again.
If the light or other product remains "ON" when the "Test" button is pushed, the GFCI is not working properly or has been incorrectly installed (miswired). If your GFCI is not working properly, call a qualified, certified electrician who can assess the situation, rewire the GFCI if necessary or replace the device. So do not pass up that little device up tonight. Stop, take a look at it and TEST IT!
There are a few types of GFCIs; The wall unit as we just discussed. There are main breaker panel GFCIs that may protect and entire circuit. And there are portable extension cord type of GFCIs that are great for handyman and their power tool usage. GFCIs are not the only safety outlet device we are now confronted with. We can discuss AFCIs in a later Home Coach article!
Be safe out there!
Rick DeBolt | Your Denver Home Coach
R&L Home Inspections
Colorado Home Inspections | Denver Home Inspector