What You Need to Know About GFCI Outlets
Many years ago, about 800 people would die every year due to electric shock in the home. Today, that number has dropped to around 200. This improvement is largely due to the widespread use of GFCI outlets, a very familiar device that you probably have in your home. Initially, these life-saving devices were only used around the home's exterior.
Over time, applications for GFCI outlets grew. Today, GFCI outlets can be found almost universally in bathrooms, kitchens, and in high-moisture areas. In homes without GFCI outlets, it's common practice to swap out old outlets and install GFCI during remodels.
At Add-All Electric, we help our clients decide when a GFCI outlet is needed. Not every room in the house needs a GFCI outlet, but the pros at Add-All electric have made it their mission to educate customers and help them make smart decisions about their home's electrical system. The more you know about GFCI outlet uses, how they work, and where they need to be installed, the better.
What is a GFCI outlet?
GFCI stands for ground fault circuit interrupter. GFCI outlets are designed to prevent electrocution by shutting down the flow of electricity when the flow of electricity deviates from what is expected. To understand how a GFCI outlet protects people, you'll first have to understand how a standard outlet works.
How Standard Outlets Work
When you plug in a device and turn it on, the hot part of the outlet sends a flow of electricity into the device. This is what turns the light on. To complete the circuit, the electricity is sent back into the outlet through the neutral slot.
How GFCI Outlets Work
A ground fault circuit interrupter works by monitoring the electrical current flowing out of and back into the circuit. If the flow of electricity becomes imbalanced (which could be due to someone receiving an electrical shock), the circuit shuts down and all electricity stops flowing into the device.
Where are GFCI outlets required?
The list of areas of the house where GFCI outlets are required keeps expanding.
- Crawl spaces
- Any outlet within six feet of the kitchen sink, and any outlet that serves a countertop
- Wet bars
- Electrically heated floors
- At least one basement outlet
If you buy a house with an FHA loan or another loan that requires the house to be in "turn-key" condition, the seller may be required to replace some outlets before the loan can fund. If you're remodeling your home, your residential electrician will take note if a GFCI outlet was required and never installed, and may recommend that you replace the outlet.
Where are GFCI outlets a bad idea?
GFCI outlets are useful devices in some parts of the house, but can almost be a hazard in other parts of the house. Years ago, we heard from a client who told us that their garage freezer had been plugged into a GFCI outlet. When the outlet was inadvertently (and unknowingly) triggered to shut down, the freezer slowly defrosted. Our clients were able to reset GFCI outlet when they realized what had happened, but they lost hundreds of dollars of food before the problem was brought to their attention.
GFCI outlets aren't appropriate for all uses, and this is why they are not found in all rooms of the house. In fact, an outlet that can turn off at any time under the right triggering circumstances can be a real problem, in the case of a refrigerator or freezer!
When you're plugging a device into a GFCI outlet, take note of the outlet type and think to yourself whether the automatic shutoff feature on the GFCI outlet could be a potential problem.
What should you do if your GFCI outlet isn't working?
Sometimes the GFCI sensor is tripped for reasons that aren't very clear, and when this happens, it may seem like your outlet is no longer working. Likely, the outlet just needs to be reset. Find the button that says "reset", then push it.
What does the "test" button do?
The "test" button allows you to test the GFCI sensor in the outlet to determine if it's still working. Here's how to use it:
- Push the "reset" button on your GFCI outlet.
- Plug in a lamp and turn it on.
- Push the "test" button on your outlet.
If the lamp shuts off when the "test" button is pushed, then the GFCI sensor is still working and the outlet is functional. If the lamp continues to glow after the "test" button is pushed, then the GFCI function is no longer working and the outlet should be replaced by a residential electrician.
Is there a difference between GFCI outlets with red buttons and GFCI outlets with cream-colored buttons?
There is no difference between a GFCI outlet with red buttons and one without. The red buttons are useful because they make it easier to identify a GFCI outlet from far away. If you're installing your outlet in a section of the house where you might want to be aware of which outlets are GFCI and which are not, then the red buttons make GFCI outlets immediately identifiable.
Do I have to hire an electrician to replace a GFCI outlet?
Some homeowners are savvy enough with their home's electrical system that they can replace their GFCI outlets themselves... under the right circumstances. Some outlets require a more in-depth knowledge of electricity and should be replaced by a qualified electrician.
Always turn off the electricity to the outlet before attempting to make any repairs or make any changes to your home's electrical system. If you don't know how to replace an outlet, contact an electrician. Even if you do know how to replace an outlet, you should leave it to the professionals under the following circumstances:
- Two-prong outlets. Modern outlets have two slots for prongs and a third hole for a round prong. Older outlets have only two slots and no holes. If you're trying to replace an outlet that has only two slots, without a hole, call an electrician. These outlets are older and should be handled by a pro.
- Five wires attached to the outlet. Most outlets are attached to only three wires, but some are attached to five. These outlets are at the end of an electrical circuit, which means that replacing the outlet will be more complicated. Contact an electrician to do this work for you.
My GFCI outlet keeps tripping when I'm not using it. What am I doing wrong?
If your GFCI outlet keeps tripping (once a week or more), this could be because your outlet is going bad and needs to be replaced. Remember that water can cause your outlet to stop functioning, so droplets sprayed on the outlet could be causing a problem.
I'd like to bring my house up to code with GFCI outlets. What should I do?
If you'd like to replace your old outlets with GFCI, contact an electrician you can trust. A good electrician will be able to identify which outlets in your home need to be replaced.
At Add-All Electric, we've been in business for over fifty years. We've been in the business long enough to see the transition to GFCI outlets happen over time, and we know exactly where GFCI outlets are supposed to be installed in the home. To learn more about replacing your outlets at home, contact us today.