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All You Need to Know About GFCI Outlets

When it comes to electricity, safety has always been a major concern, but thanks to the development of ground fault circuit interrupter GFCI outlet (GFCIs), the risk of being severely shocked or electrocuted is greatly reduced. According to the Electrical Safety Foundation International (ESFI), electrocutions are down 83 percent since the 1970s when GFCIs were introduced. These quick-to-react outlets are required by law in new home construction, and it’s a good idea to put them in older homes as well. Read on for must-know info on GFCIs—what they are, how they work, and where to install them.

In your home, the flow of electricity is contained within wires covered with rubber- or plastic-based insulating material. When everything goes as planned, the electrical current runs safely through the insulated wires to switches and wall plate outlets and on to the many appliances and gadgets we take for granted today. But in its raw state, electricity has a “mind” of its own, and left to its own devices—as evidenced by most lightning strikes—it makes a beeline for the ground.

A ground fault is the occurrence of electricity taking an unintended path to the ground. It occurs when the electrical current escapes the insulated wires, as a result of a damaged cord or faulty wiring, and flows through a different conductor. If that different conductor is a human being, the result can be a serious electrical shock or electrocution. Because water is an excellent conductor of electricity, the risk of a ground fault occurring is greater in areas of your home where water is commonly used, such as near a kitchen sink.

The singular purpose of a new GFCI outlet is to prevent electrical injury to humans, something regular outlets are not equipped to do. A standard household outlet features two, three-prong plug-in slots, while a GFCI outlet features the same plug-in configuration plus two buttons on its face: a “TEST” button and a “RESET” button. The rules requiring the installation of the GFCI outlets in new construction has expanded over the years to include more applicable locations:

Normally, electrical current flows at a uniform rate through wiring, but when a ground fault occurs, the flow of electricity surges as it jumps to the unintended conductor. A GFCI outlet contains a sensor that monitors the flow of the electrical current through the wires, and when it senses a ground fault (in electrical terms, “fault” means any variation from the normal current), the GFCI, which also contains an internal switch, shuts off the flow of electricity in the outlet.

While you may still receive a painful shock, the South America GFCI outlet will prevent a prolonged surge of electricity, the type that injures and kills. A standard outlet, like the type in your bedroom, doesn’t have a sensor.

The National Electric Code (NEC) requires the installation of GFCI outlets in new construction in areas where electrical outlets are in close proximity to water. Older homes are not required to have GFCI outlets unless the wiring is being updated, but it’s a good idea to install them anyway.

The NEC requires GFCIs on all exterior and bathroom receptacles (another term for outlets). GFCIs are also required on all receptacles serving kitchen countertops. In laundry rooms and utility rooms, GFCIs should be installed on outlets within six feet of sinks, washing machines, and water heaters. They should also be installed within six feet of a wet bar and in garages and unfinished basements.

In bedrooms, living rooms, and other areas where water fixtures are not found, regular outlets are fine—and they are still installed in today’s new homes. The ESFI estimates that approximately 43 million homes in the U.S. still do not have GFCIs installed in “wet” rooms, and notes that as many as 47 percent of today’s electrocutions could be prevented in older homes if GFCIs were installed.

A DIYer with basic knowledge of electrical wiring may be able to replace an existing outlet with a decorative GFCI plate (instructions below), but only when swapping out a three-prong outlet—two plugin slots and a hole. Outlets with only two slots and no third hole indicate the presence of older wiring that should only be replaced by a licensed electrician.

The other caveat is that only outlets connected to three wires are suitable for DIY replacement. Outlets with three attached wires (remove the outlet plate to determine the number of attached wires) indicate that the outlet is located at the end of an electrical circuit (a wiring loop that starts and finishes at the breaker panel). An outlet with five attached wires is located in the middle of an electric circuit, and the wiring process is more complicated—only a licensed electrician should replace those outlets.

Replacing an existing outlet at the end of a circuit (as explained above) is not particularly difficult, but the task requires some experience. You should understand how outlets are wired and how electrical current travels from the breaker panel through each electrical circuit (wiring loop) in your home. Some communities prohibit homeowners from doing their own wiring, so check with your local building authority before you start.

During the recent 2020 code review, panel members of the National Electrical Code (NEC) approved changes to ground fault circuit interrupter (GFCI) protection. Those changes dramatically reduce the dangers associated with electrical hazard and shock. The most significant change is the increase of amp protection ratings across all receptacle outlets, both indoor and outdoor, wherever GFCI protection is required. 

The 2020 change

Code-making panel 2 (CMP 2) updated text to read, “All 125-volt through 250-volt receptacles installed in the locations specified in 210.8(A) (1) through (11) and supplied by single-phase branch circuits rated 150 volts or less to ground shall have ground fault circuit interrupter protection for personnel.” In layman’s terms, the NEC removed amp values across all amp-rated receptacle outlets requiring GFCI protection in the areas listed in this section. 

The rationale for change

NEC 2017 language only accounts for 15- and 20-amp receptacle outlets for dwelling units. During 2020 code review meetings, panel members agreed that hazards always exist; if 15- and 20-amp receptacle outlets present a hazard, that hazard also exists on 30-amp and higher receptacle outlets. However, it was difficult to understand the likelihood of a hazardous occurrence when weighed against expanded requirements. Recent home-based electrocution accidents – a 10-year-old girl behind an energized appliance, a child in Oklahoma retrieving a pet behind a clothes dryer, a 10-year-old Houston boy playing hide and seek — helped panel members realize the need for change. In light of these tragic events, we now have a requirement that sets a higher standard across more areas of the Code, though there are some exceptions discussed later in this blog.

What might the future hold?

The NEC mandates GFCI protection in many areas of the home: bathrooms, garages, outdoor receptacles, crawl spaces, basements, kitchens and anything within six feet of a sink or water source. While that may seem like a lot, the entirety of a home is not covered. The reality is when people have a problem with a tripped circuit, it's entirely possible they’ll use an extension cord to plug into a receptacle outlet that's not GFCI protected. Doing so does nothing to eliminate the original hazard potentially caused by the device in use. I hope that NEC members account for the human factor and require GFCI coverage throughout the home during the next code review.

The 2020 change

The NEC expanded GFCI protection for dwelling units with basements both finished and unfinished. 

The rationale for change

Often afterthoughts that present unique hazards, basements are typically not as well maintained as other areas of the home. Further, environments are often wet and damp, and moisture is a great conductor. These code updates help ensure that accidents due to factors such as leakage current and contact with water are considerably lessened or eliminated. 

What might the future hold?

Many rooms in a home are already required to have GFCI protection. While it feels like the most logical code progression, others in the industry still pushback on requiring GFCIs throughout a home claiming financial concerns or installation problems. As with the parental language update, I believe this code change can inspire discussions to include GFCIs throughout the home. 

The NEC expanded GFCI protection under Article 210.63(A) for HVAC equipment and Article 210.63(B) for indoor service equipment and indoor equipment requiring dedicated space.

The rationale for change

Equipment location is at the crux of this update. While HVAC equipment in the basement is covered now that all basement circuits are GFCI protected, HVAC equipment located in attics and other areas would likely not have GFCI protection. CMP 2 recognized that many HVAC areas are typically tight working spaces where technicians perform justified energized work (they can’t troubleshoot a de-energized circuit). In essence, the update assures equipment requiring service has a GFCI-protected receptacle outlet for ready access.  

What might the future hold?

Because this is the NEC’s first venture into expanding 210.63, I expect some inspectors and contractors may not see eye to eye on code language. Industry discussions across the country and during future review cycles will help the NEC make future improvements. 

The NEC updated the Code for outdoor electrical outlet plates supplied by single-phase branch circuits rated 150 volts to ground or less, 50 amps or less. Key to this update: it extends beyond receptacle outlets to include all outlets. Now all hard-wired equipment falls under the Code’s purview. 

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