GFCIs keep you safe, but they don’t last indefinitely!
It’s always a little scary to discover that something designed to make your life safer has a devastating dark side. GFCI protected outlets are today’s surprise villains… and they’re everywhere. These outlets are required as part of your home’s electrical system and are intended to protect you from electrical shock. They do an excellent job as well, as long as they are employed. Unfortunately, GFCIs can fail silently, putting your life in danger. Although GFCIs are required, proper maintenance is not. Most homeowners will never know because, while GFCIs are required, proper maintenance is not.
Ground Fault Circuit Interrupter (GFCI) is a device that detects a fault in a circuit. These are unique electrical outlets in your home that will interrupt the flow of electricity if there is an irregular current flow. They’re there to protect you against an electric shock.
Since 1971, electrical standards have required that GFCI outlets be installed in your kitchen, around backsplashes, and in each bathroom in your home. They’re essential in any location that might become wet. Additionally, any outside outlets must be linked to a GFCI-protected circuit around your home.
GFCIs are divided into two categories. GFCI “circuit breakers” and GFCI “receptacles” are two types of GFCI devices. GFCI receptacles are often utilized inside the home, where they are protected from the elements and are easier to reset. Because circuit breakers may be better hidden in a service panel, they are preferable for safeguarding external outlets. Cost and hassle are the main drawbacks of GFCI circuit breakers over receptacles (resetting). Because they are not exposed to the elements like GFCI receptacles, circuit breaker types will likely outlast them.
Most people have had to “reset” a GFCI outlet at some point in their lives, right? After it has tripped, push the RESET button to reset it. Power surges, electrical storms, or just overloading the circuit can cause GFCIs to trigger. In reality, unless they’ve tripped, you generally don’t give them any thought. That might be a fatal mistake.
What Are GFCIs and How Do They Work?
In the United States, a standard 120-volt outlet features two vertical slots and a round hole centered below them. The “neutral” space on the left is slightly larger than the “hot” slot on the right. The “ground” is the hole beneath them. If an appliance is operating securely, all of the electricity it consumes will flow in exactly equal proportions from hot to neutral.
A GFCI outlet monitors the current and trips the circuit if there is an imbalance in the flow. Any discrepancy (as tiny as 4 milliamps) is detected by the GFCI, which interrupts the circuit practically instantaneously (one-thirtieth of a second.) These specifications are significant because electrical shock causes human muscles to lock up at roughly 10 milliamps, rendering them unable to release whatever is causing the shock. A continuous current of just two seconds can be fatal.
The spring-loaded connections close when the reset button is pressed, enabling current to pass. The connections are kept closed by an internal solenoid coupled to a sensing coil.
The hot and neutral conductors are surrounded by the detecting coil, but it is not electrically coupled to them. The current flowing down the hot conductor returns up the neutral conductor in normal functioning, and the currents are equal and opposite, canceling each other out.
Any fault to ground, such as a person touching a live component in the linked appliance, will cause some current to flow in a different direction, causing an imbalance in the current flow.
This imbalance causes a current to flow through the sensor coil, releasing the spring-loaded contacts and turning off the appliance’s power supply.
All of this happens in milliseconds, dramatically minimizing the risk of receiving a potentially fatal jolt.
The device’s correct operation can be tested using the test button. This creates an imbalance in the sensing coil, simulating a malfunction. The device must be changed if the GFCI does not trip when this button is pressed.
Service for GFCI Outlets GFCI outlets do not last indefinitely. As a result, some of yours may no longer be safeguarding you as well as they should, including next to your hvac equipment. GFCI outlets that work save thousands of lives every year by preventing electrical shocks caused by wet hands, inappropriate extension cord use, and touching bare exposed wires, among other things. But only if they’re functional.
The average GFCI outlet has a 10-year life expectancy. If your house is older, there’s a significant probability that at least some of your GFCI outlets aren’t working. If your area is prone to corrosion, excessive humidity, and/or frequent storms or power surges, GFCI outlets may become inoperable in as little as 5 years.
Contractors and developers sometimes buy GFCIs in quantity, which results in the cheapest-made units on the market, exacerbating the problem. Purchasing specification grade, commercial grade, or hospital grade receptacles will ensure a longer lifespan. For just a few dollars more, you can get considerably better GFCIs.
Examining your GFCI
GFCI outlet that isn’t working
Testing your GFCI outlet is the easiest way to determine if it is still working. The outlet must be turned on in order to do so. A GFCI outlet that isn’t energized can’t be tested, and it won’t let you reset it until it is.
The simplest method is to use the outlet’s TEST button. This causes a ground fault and interrupts the flow of power. As a result, the spring-loaded RESET button pops out. The circuit can then be reconnected and regular operation resumed by pressing the RESET button. A red TEST button and a black RESET button are common GFCI outlets, while modern outlets may have a different appearance.
If the GFCI does not trip when you press the TEST button, replace it as soon as feasible. If your test trips the outlet but the RESET button does not reset, it needs to be changed (it wasn’t protecting you in the first place). Because a GFCI outlet can’t be reset if it doesn’t have electricity, be sure the breaker isn’t tripped before assuming the GFCI outlet is broken.
Your GFCI outlets should be tested at least once a year. It’ll take a little extra effort, but it could save your life.
Tester for GFCI outlets
Simply plug it in, push the tester’s button, and check to see if your GFCI outlet trips. Indicator lights on testers like this one indicate whether any outlet (GFCI or standard) is properly wired. It can detect issues such as an open ground, an open neutral, an open hot, or inverted wires. When a circuit is tested, even if it does not appear to be a regular GFCI, it will go dead. If this is the case, you either have a GFCI breaker in the main panel or the outlet you tested is “downstream” from another GFCI outlet. If this is the case, locate the breaker or outlet and reset it.
Protocol for Replacement
There is no way to fix outlets without dismantling them. They must be replaced if they are proven to be defective. Check and verify GFCI functionality in each quartier with a tester. Replace one at a time for the first five years, as needed. If one fails after five years, replace them all.
First and foremost, there is safety.
Any homeowner may (and should) perform their own GFCI outlet testing. Average householders should leave the replacement of a GFCI outlet that has reached the end of its operational life to a licensed electrician. If you ignore this advice, keep in mind that all electrical repair should be done safely, which includes turning off the circuit at the breaker and inspecting all wires in an outlet box before touching anything. This is especially critical in boxes with several outlets and/or switches. Never assume a wire is broken. Before touching anything, use an electrical circuit tester. If you don’t have one, you can acquire one for less than $15 in a set with a GFCI outlet tester. Every homeowner should have these useful gadgets.
Conclusions and Recommendations
GFCI outlets, like smoke and CO detectors, wear out and fail after a few years. It’s very likely that some of your GFCIs have failed or have outlived their usefulness. You can test your GFCI outlets securely using your own tools. Any outlets that have failed should be replaced by a certified electrician. Another issue to avoid is installing a master GFCI (a GFCI that controls a group of non-GFCI outlets) in a closet or other inaccessible area. When these are tripped, finding them can be time consuming and annoying.