Ground Fault Circuit Interrupters

Some Shocking Information.

If you live in the modern era, you have probably noticed the special electrical receptacle (or outlet, socket, or whatever you want to call it) near a potentially wet location with a little test and reset button on its face. These are known as Ground Fault Circuit Interrupters.

Commonly abbreviated as GFIs or GFCIs, they are safety devices that can prevent electrocution.  GFCIs cut off the electricity almost instantaneously in an unsafe situation.  

For instance, a (properly functioning) GFCI will instantly trip if you were to grab a your toaster out of a water-filled kitchen sink…. or if your kitty “accidentally” kicks a plugged in hairdryer into your bubble bath (bad kitty).  Before GFCIs came into existence, these situations could result in instant electrocution. Sorry, Chairman Meow, you’ll need to try to collect that life insurance money some other way!

How do they work? GFCIs detect an unbalanced current between the hot and neutral portions of the electrical circuit.  All of the electrical current runs through the hot wires and ends at the neutral wires and these little devices (again, when they are working correctly) detect this unnatural imbalance between the current. The imbalance happens when you are being shocked. GFCIs trip like a circuit breaker and save your life, when called upon.

GFCIs need to be tested monthly. One of the top findings at our home inspections are inoperable GFCIs. Older GFCIs seem to be temperamental creatures and we test them at our inspections. Some research seems to indicate that GFCIs can get fried by errant voltage, destroying the circuitry, and thus rendering it unsafe.  You need to test your GFCIs, if you are a homeowner.  It takes about two seconds to press the “Test” button and then to press the “Reset” button.   If the GFCI doesn’t trip, you need to call an electrician to replace it.  Unfortunately, many people do not test their GFCIs regularly and are unaware that they are unsafe because the device you plug in will still work.

GFCIs belong in many parts of the home. The use and placement of GFCIs has been phased in over the years starting in the 1960s. Its not at all uncommon to not find them where they need to be due to the age of our real estate here in Northern New England.  We didn’t have GFCI’s in the 1800s, but then again people from this era and part of the world had bigger problems (such as widespread dysentery, the medical reliance on leeches, infertile livestock, and those pesky Salem witches causing traffic jams on I-93).  We find homes all the time in New Hampshire and Vermont that have had no electrical updates in years, and as a result, are completely lacking in these safety devices. In a nutshell, GFCIs belong in these locations:

  • Near Pools and Spas (rare as they may be here)
  • Building Exteriors
  • Garages and Carports
  • Unfinished Basements, Workshops, & Crawlspaces
  • Bathrooms
  • Kitchens (All Counters & Islands)
  • Laundry Rooms
  • Within six (6) feet of a wet location

We write up missing or non-functional GFCIs as a major safety problem.  Although they may not have been required when the home was wired (or rewired, or built), they are very inexpensive to install and could save a life.