Technology is constantly making our homes smarter, and a big part of that is making our homes safer. One of the most inherently dangerous parts of any house’s safety is the presence of electricity. The power of the electrical grid is so high, and potentially so deadly, that the fact we must fill our home with tiny holes to allow it in is a natural weak point in terms of safety. Check out our page on electrical safety basics for more information on this topic.
Those of us with small children know the necessity of using special outlet covers to prevent young children from coming into contact with the electricity (see our home safety for kids and babyproofing guide for more safety tips). However, relatively few people know about GFCI outlets, which are a genuine lifesaver.
According to Electrical Safety Foundation International (ESFI), 43 million homes in the United States don’t have GFCIs installed.
WHAT IS A GFCI OUTLET?
GFCI stands for Ground Fault Circuit Interrupter. These devices replace standard electrical outlets and work by comparing the input current on the ‘hot’ side of the outlet to the output current on the neutral side. Any difference in these two numbers means that current is ‘leaking’ somewhere – potentially into a person – and the power supply to the device is cut off immediately. This, therefore, protects you while using any device plugged into a GFCI socket.
ESFI states that GFCIs could prevent
of electrocutions in the United States
Given how big of a safety feature GFCI sockets are, they are likely to become ever-more common in the United States in the next decade. The good news is that installing them is relatively straightforward, and something you can do at home yourself without too much difficulty.
This guide will discuss everything you need to know about GFCIs – how they work, where you should install them, and how to install and test them.
HOW DO GFCI OUTLETS WORK?
At their core, GFCIs are specifically designed with two purposes:
WHAT DO GFCI OUTLETS LOOK LIKE?
The standard US outlet system features two three-pronged slots mounted on your wall. A GFCI has the same plug-in configuration (meaning you don’t need to upgrade any of your devices or use an adaptor), although it also has two buttons between the two outlets. One of these buttons is marked ‘Test’ and the other is marked ‘Reset.’
WHAT IS THE INTERNAL MECHANISM?
Within a GFCI outlet, there is an internal sensor that constantly monitors the flow of electrical current through the wires. In all outlets, there is an output and an input (because of the nature of electricity functioning as a circuit).
When a human gets an electric shock, they are effectively acting as a conductor for an electrical circuit. This causes a surge of electricity and a difference between the input and output through the outlet.
The sensor registers if there is a divergence between input and output and cuts the flow of electricity to the device in use after 20 or 30 milliseconds. It does this via an internal switch, effectively a circuit breaker. Once this circuit has been broken, it needs to be manually reset.
If you are using a GFCI device, you may still get a painful electric shock, although the circuit will be shut off extremely quickly, preventing a prolonged surge of electricity through your body. It doesn’t prevent 100% of electric shocks, but it does prevent the deadliest ones.
WHERE SHOULD YOU INSTALL A GFCI OUTLET?
Although GFCIs work throughout your home, the National Electric Code recommends that you install GFCIs in ‘wet’ environments. Because wet environments are more conducive to conducting electricity, those rooms are the most dangerous when it comes to electricity. That is to say, GFCIs should be installed in places where water and moisture in the air are common.
This includes the following rooms in your house:
In all new construction, it’s actually legally mandated for GFCI outlets to be installed in the above locations. However, for older homes, it’s recommended, but not compulsory. Moreover, in locations not listed above, regular outlets are regarded as being acceptable.
If you decide to upgrade your home to a GFCI system, the above locations are the best place to start. However, that doesn’t mean that you should stop there – there is no reason why every outlet in your home can’t be a GFCI outlet.
If you have decided to install a GFCI outlet, then the most important point to mention is that you must be safe at all points throughout this process. Although it is a simple set of steps to follow for someone with rudimentary wiring experience, if you are a total amateur then it may be too advanced.
Obviously, attempting to wire an electrical outlet with no experience can be extremely dangerous, so you should not attempt this process unless you are absolutely confident in your ability to complete it safely.
Hiring a contractor may cost some money, but it’s a relatively quick task for a professional (most likely 1-3 hours work for all of the ‘wet rooms’ in your home). This is a cost worth paying if it means the projects get completed safely.
Any needed electric panel upgrades or other electrical repairs should be handled before you attempt any electrical work yourself.
STEPS TO FOLLOW
The following four steps will walk you through the installation process.
Check for existing GFCI protection
Although it may sound obvious, the first step to take is to check that you don’t already have GFCI protection in your home. If your home is less than 10 years old, or you have had renovation work, you may already have the outlets in your home. The best way to check is to look at the outlets. Regular outlets don’t have the ‘Test’ and ‘Reset’ buttons in the middle of the two sockets. If you don’t have those, you have regular sockets.
Turn off the power
In order to change an outlet, you will need to cut the power. The best way to do this is to use the circuit breaker in your home. Alternatively, you can use the emergency power cutoff. Test the power in the space you’re using by flicking the lights on and off – if you have cut the power, the lights should not work.
Remove the old outlets
Remove the old outlet by removing the cover. Unscrew the hot, neutral, and ground wires from the outlet. Bend the wires around so that they don’t touch one another and remain in place without getting tangled. If in doubt, take a picture of the wires before you disconnect them so that you have a reference in case something goes wrong.
Add the GFCI outlet
A GFCI outlet has two sets of wires, which are labeled ‘line’ and ‘load.’ The ‘line’ refers to the wires that bring in the incoming power. The ‘load’ lines distribute the power among the outlets, as well as provide shock production.
Connect the black power wire in the outlet to the ‘line’ set; then connect the white wire to the ‘load’ set. Use a wire nut to connect the wires and keep them secure. Use electrical tape to hold everything in place. Finally, connect the ground wire to the green screw on the GFCI plug.
After you’ve added the GFCI cover, turn the power back on and test the outlet. If it provides power, then it’s working. The next section will tell you how you can safely test the outlet.
TEST A GFCI
GFCI OUTLETS ARE BUILT TO BE TESTED EASILY:
Plug a lamp into your GFCI outlet
Make sure the lamp is switched on.
Press Test button
On the face of the outlet are two buttons – Test and Reset. Press the Test button and you will hear a ‘click.’ When you click this, it means that the outlet has been tripped and the lamp should turn off.
Press Reset button
Then, press the Reset button to turn on the circuit interrupter. If your GFCI is working correctly, then the lamp will turn back on and you’re good to go.
You should test your GFCI outlets monthly to make sure they are in working order. You can use a voltmeter to check the efficiency of the outlet.
Installing GFCIs, therefore, is neither a complex nor an expensive task. On top of that, it can literally save the lives of people in your family. Since it’s likely that GFCIs will soon become standard, it’s likely you’ll have to make the conversion at some point anyway.
If you are one of the 43 million older homes in the United States that doesn’t have a GFCI system, then you’re one of an ever-dwindling number. Homes without GFCIs will increasingly be seen as relics.