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The GFCI Outlet Explained

  • posted February 23rd, 2015
  • by James Paone

We’ve all seen these GFCI outlets in our homes, you’ll typically find them in a bathroom or kitchen, you know the ones, they have those two buttons on them that read “test” and “reset.” But what do they do, besides annoy you when they trip and need to be reset? Well, they do a lot of good actually. The GFCI (ground fault circuit interrupter) outlet, also known as a GFI (ground fault interrupter) outlet is one of the most important safety devices in your home. It’s designed to detect if any electrical current is shorting to ground and immediately trip when this happens. So, what does that mean and how does it protect you?

Let’s use the old hair dryer example. Most modern hairdryers have GFCI protection built into them, but let’s imagine that we have a very old hairdryer in a very old house with no GFCI outlets in the bathroom. If we accidentally drop the hairdryer into a sink full of water, the electricity will begin flowing through the water. Electrical current will always travel on the most efficient path to ground. That means it will take the path of least resistance to get to ground. If someone were to instinctively reach into the sink to grab the hairdryer, they are now potentially the path of least resistance for all that electrical current, which will travel through their arm and body and down to their bare feet, passing through any vital organs along the way. This type of electrical shock can be fatal.

So how does the GFCI outlet prevent this? Let’s take the same scenario, but this time the hairdryer is plugged into a GFCI protected outlet. When the hairdryer is dropped into the sink the GFCI immediately detects that current is leaking to ground and trips. All of this happens within about 25 milliseconds. This time, when our potential victim reaches into the sink for the hairdryer with his lightning reflexes, nothing happens. That is, he doesn’t get shocked. The current has already been interrupted by the fast acting GFCI outlet and our victim is alive and can go about his day.
Clearly GFCI outlets are awesome, life-saving devices and every bathroom should have one. But it’s not just bathrooms that need this protection. GFCI outlets should be installed anywhere an outlet will be used in proximity to water. This means that in addition to bathrooms, GFCI protection is needed in kitchens, garages, and any exterior electrical outlet. In fact the National Electrical Code requires that all new buildings have GFCI protection in all the places mentioned above and any outlet within 6 feet of the edge of a sink must be GFCI protected.

Even though installing GFCI outlets is common practice in today’s new construction, there are lots of older homes that were built before GFCI outlets were even invented. It’s important to make sure that you know whether or not your home or business is protected. If you don’t think your home has the proper electrical safety features to protect against electrical shock, call a licensed electrician and schedule a safety inspection as soon as possible. If you live in the Austin area and would like to schedule an inspection by one of our skilled and licensed electricians, give Ampology Electrical Services a call at 512-518-3791 or contact us here.

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