So what’s the fuss with these GFCI outlets anyway, and why do I need them in my kitchen and bathroom?
A Ground-Fault Circuit Interrupter (GFCI) is designed to protect people from electrical shock.
We’ll explain it, but first, we need to explain the role of the fuse or circuit breaker. Fuses and circuit breakers are designed to protect a house against an electrical fire. Without a fuse, a fire could start if the neutral wire of an electrical system came into contact with the hot wire. This can happen when a mouse chews through the insulation when someone drives a nail through the wire while hanging a picture, or a vacuum cleaner sucks up an outlet cord and cuts it. When the neutral and hot wire touch, it heats up like the coils in a toaster. The fuse or circuit breaker is designed to heat up faster than the wire and will interrupt the electrical flow through the wire to prevent the fire.
A GFCI outlet is much more subtle. When you look at a normal 120-volt outlet in the United States, there are two vertical slots and then a round hole centered below them. The left slot is slightly larger than the right. The left slot is called “neutral,” the right slot is called “hot” and the hole below them is called “ground.” If an appliance is working properly, all electricity that the appliance uses will flow from hot to neutral. A GFCI monitors the amount of current flowing from hot to neutral. If there is any imbalance, it trips the circuit. It is able to sense a mismatch as small as 4 or 5 milliamps, and it can react as quickly as one-thirtieth of a second.
So let’s say you are outside with your power drill and it is raining, or you’re running a hair dryer in the bathroom, or a toaster next to the sink. You are standing on the ground, and since the drill/toaster/hair dryer is wet there is a path from the hot wire inside the drill through you to ground. If electricity flows from hot to ground through you, it could be fatal. The GFCI can sense the current flowing through you because not all of the current is flowing from hot to neutral as it expects — some of it is flowing through you to ground. As soon as the GFCI senses that, it trips the circuit and cuts off the electricity.
Smart device, eh? This is why modern building codes require GFCI outlets in bathrooms and kitchens. However, many older houses haven’t been updated, creating an unnecessary risk for you and your family.
WIREONE performs a free Residential Safety Inspection on every residential dispatch. During this inspection, we’ll test your GFCI outlets to ensure that they are operating properly. If you don’t have any, we’ll advise you where they are required to be installed by the current building code.
If you are looking for more information about GFCI outlets in Des Moines, please call (515) 259-6549.