So, what are GFCI outlets, why are they needed, and how do they work?
GFCIs are designed to protect electrical wiring by causing the circuit to close or break whenever an imbalance occurs between outgoing and incoming circuitry. GFCIs are particularly important in areas of your home that are near water…bathrooms, kitchens, etc.
A GFCI looks like any standard outlet. However, it includes a “test” button and a “reset” button and unlike a standard outlet it continually measures the flow of electricity through it. I think most of us know about the effects of electrocution on the body that once a shock occurs the current can be so strong that we simple humans are unable to pry our hands away. So, the GFCI is here to help. They are incredibly sensitive to any change in electrical current and if it senses an issue the GFCI will immediately (like within 1/10th of a second) shut the power off without us having to do anything. For example, if you accidentally drop your plugged-in hair dryer in a sink full of water the GFCI would sense the power variance (as small as 4 to 5 milliamps) and immediately cut the power.
Being the amazing contractor that I am I bet you’re asking yourself what the difference is between a breaker inside your electrical panel and a GFCI. A breaker and a GFCI are both helpful in preventing terrible things from happening, but they are vastly different. A breaker is generally associated with the protection of your home from electrical fires. Really important stuff obviously but little to do with the prevention of electrical shocks produced by outlets. That’s where GFCIs come in by directly detecting interruptions in electrical current and cutting power right then and there possibly saving your life.
How can you tell when a GFCI is going bad or is bad?
Just like most everything else in our world nothing lasts forever (my knees are a great example). GFCIs do wear out with age so it’s important to know how to test them. It’s pretty easy. All you have to do is grab some sort of electrical appliance and plug it into the GFCI and make sure the appliance is on and receiving power. Then while the appliance is on push the “test” button on the GFCI and the appliance should lose power and turn off. If that happens, you’re halfway there. Finally, push the “reset” button and your appliance of choice should regain power. That’s it. If the appliance lost power after pushing the “test” button and then regained power after pushing the “reset” button you’re good.
If your appliance didn’t lose power after pushing the “test” button or regain power after pushing the “reset” button then you need to immediately, without delay, either fix the issue yourself or call an expert. It could be that the GFCI is bad (just like my knees things we use all the time don’t last forever) or it could be that there’s a larger issue with how the GFCI is wired. Seriously, if you think you have an issue or one of your GFCIs fails the test procedure get it taken care of.
Finally, there are certain instances when a GFCI can trip repeatedly when there isn’t really an issue. This type of nuisance tripping tends to be caused by slight variations in the electrical current running through them. Here are some ways to avoid this issue…
- Maintain all your power tools in good condition…no frayed wires, no sticky buttons, etc.
- Use GFCIs only for circuits that are 100’ long or less
- Do not connect stationary motors to a GFCI outlet
This is so important that I’ll say it one last time…if you suspect (even just a tiny bit) that you have an issue with one of your GFCIs replace it. They’re pretty inexpensive for something that can literally save your life.