Ever since the first electrical power systems were developed back in the late 1800s, electrical safety has received national attention. One of the most valuable electrical safety developments has been the invention of special electrical outlets called ground-fault circuit-interrupters (or GFCIs). First used around swimming pools and home exteriors, they quickly proved so valuable than since 1971, they have been mandated for all new residential construction. According to reports from the Electrical Safety Foundation International, GFCIs have cut the number of home electrocutions in half since that mandate went in place.
Ground-fault circuit interrupters are safety devices that are built into outlets to protect against high-voltage electrical shocks. Some folks call them GFCIs (ground-fault circuit interrupters); others call them GFIs (ground-fault interrupters). Both are the same.
GFCI outlets have special circuitry that monitors electrical output. When they detect an electrical “leak” in which electricity has begun to flow between the current source and a grounded surface (such as a person), they turn off the power in a fraction of a second. It happens so quickly that although a person might still experience a jolt, they won’t be killed. They also protect against power surges that otherwise would damage items plugged into them.
Ground faults often happen when equipment is operated in a wet or damp area, or when an electrical cord (or the house wiring itself) has been damaged.
In a general sense, yes, but you need both. On their own, circuit breakers only protect against overloads that could start a fire. GFCIs are much more sensitive, so they protect you against electrical currents that are too low to trip a breaker but are more than enough to cause injury. Sometimes, both may sense a ground fault at the same time, tripping both.
Probably your home has some GFCIs in place, but you’re taking them for granted. Most families do, at least until a problem occurs. But like the changing requirements that have improved the safety of so many other aspects of our lives, home wiring mandates are continually being refined to better protect us all.
Every 3 years, the National Fire Protection Agency updates the electrical code. The National Electrical Code update for 2023 changes in several important GFCI protection requirements. If you are building a new house or doing major remodeling or upgrading of an existing one, you’ll want to be sure that you are conforming to them.
Otherwise, no one will force you to make these changes. The electrical code recognizes that many older homes are not wired to these standards. Even if in the future you decide to sell your home in its present condition, home inspectors are supposed to judge these items by when the house was built, not current standards.
Make the changes anyway. The most important reason, of course, is to better protect your home and family. But there are other advantages as well. Having these upgrades to a home can add to its appeal to potential buyers and facilitate a quick sale. If the home is not up to code, it can create time delays and additional expenses during a sale or purchase.
No, but a great many of them should be protected by one. Most importantly, the 2023 update of the National Electrical Code now requires GFCI protection for all your kitchen receptacles, regardless of their location or purpose. Any area with a sink, such as a recreation room wet bar or an outdoor kitchen, needs them too.
In addition, the 2023 code mandates that GFCI receptacles are required in bathrooms, garages, crawl spaces, basements, and laundry rooms. The electric water heater, the washing machine, and yes, even for clothes dryer need protection.
GFCIs are required for outdoor outlets, including plug-in landscape lighting. They also are required in accessory buildings such as garages, storage sheds, and boathouses.
For your own safety, any easily accessible area exposed to the weather or where a water source is present, should be protected. Electricity and water simply don’t mix.
Take a moment to walk through your house and notice where you currently have GFCIs installed. You can identify them by the two small buttons between the receptacles (plugins) that say Reset and Test. A standard or non-GFCI outlet does not have these buttons. You may be surprised at how few you find– one GFCI can protect several outlets on its same circuit. However, in a kitchen the outlets on each wall are supposed to on a separate circuit, so there would usually be at least one GFCI on each wall.
Compare what you find in your own home to the 2023 regulations. You probably don’t have as much protection as the update requires, especially in your kitchen and bath. The previous code specified GFCIs only for receptacles installed to serve countertop surfaces.
This question matters because in most of our homes, any GFCI outlets we have were put in place years ago, and since then, have been taken for granted.
While GFCI’s do last a long time, they are not immortal. Experts say any GFCI over ten years old may be living on borrowed time. Every time it absorbs a power surge or trips because of a ground fault, the GFCI’s life is shortened. Yet there is no way to tell how much longer it will last by just looking at it.
Be honest, now. There is a test button on your GFCIs, and experts recommend testing them regularly, at least once a month and after storms. Testing one is simple. Plug in a small appliance (like a night light), and then press the Test button. The appliance should turn off. Then press the Reset button to restore power, and it should turn back on.
In the category of “one less thing to worry about,” many new GFCI models are self-testing. Most of them check the circuit’s functionality every 15 minutes, usually by means of a tiny flashing light. When the outlet reaches the end of its working life, the light turns steady and the circuit turns off.
Like GFCIs, ordinary household outlets need to be replaced more often than you might think. Standard three-prong outlets typically stop working well by the 15-year mark (though seldom-used outlets might last longer).
Sometimes older outlets simply stop delivering power. However, they also can become dangerous sooner than that, so it’s important to recognize signs that an outlet needs replacement. Here are six common warnings:
The outlet doesn’t deliver power, and you’ve checked that neither the circuit nor the plugged-in appliance is at fault.
The outlet’s face is cracked or damaged, allowing pet hair or dust inside and raising the chance of fire.
The outlet is loose, which can cause electric arcs and fire.
The outlet’s face has burn marks or signs of melting, which indicate that the outlet has short-circuited or flashed.
The outlet sparks or produces smoke. Immediately turn it off at the circuit box!
The outlet is hot, indicating that it is damaged or improperly installed.
Some older homes still have two-prong outlets. Have an electrician replace these with three-prong or GFCI outlets now! Due to their lack of a grounding wire, two-prong outlets are outdated and potentially dangerous.
Thankfully, no. Contrary to popular belief, there is no maximum number of outlets that one GFCI can protect. A single ground-fault outlet can be installed to protect all the outlets “downstream” of it on the same circuit. It also will protect connected tools and appliances.
You can “daisy chain” as many lights and outlets on a GFCI-protected circuit as you’d like. Because GFCIs cost about three times as much as standard outlets and their installation takes a bit longer, this saves a modest amount of time and money.
As a practical matter, however, recognize the anticipated loads on your outlets. If you will be plugging items into the circuit that draw more power than the wiring and circuit breaker can handle, you’ll be tripping the breakers on a regular basis.
Another downside of a “daisy chaining” approach is that the GFCI trips or goes bad, all the outlets down the line will be affected. Sometimes, particularly in older homes, tracing a non-operational circuit back to the location of the relevant GFCI can be difficult.
Should refrigerators and freezers be on a GFCI?i It seems like a sound idea, especially when an icemaker is included. However, these appliances can also be the source of repeated annoyance if each time the compressor within the refrigerator starts up, it causes minor spikes in electrical flow that trip the GFCI. A refrigerator or freezer deserves its own circuit. These appliances should not be daisy chained. If another outlet in the chain trips the GFCI circuit, power will be lost to refrigerator or freezer and if this goes unnoticed, the contents will quickly begin to thaw and spoil.
Sometimes, rather than multiple GFCI outlets, it makes the best sense to install a GFCI circuit breaker on your home’s main circuit board. A qualified electrician can help you decide the best options for your own situation.
This is a fair-enough question, but with so many variables at play, it’s difficult to give a single answer. The home-improvement referral service now called ANGI estimates an average of $210 to install a GFCI outlet, with a typical range between $130 and $300.
However, like any home repair or improvement, the cost is front-loaded by factors such as the type of professional doing the installation, local labor costs, the necessity for permits or not, and the number and complexity of the installations. Replacement costs for one outlet might be over $200 but the cost per outlet will go steadily down as the number of replacements increases.
The GFCI outlets themselves generally cost in the range of $10 to $20, and some experienced homeowners may be able to handle the installation themselves. It’s a straightforward task to wire in a GFCI that replaces a single existing outlet at the end of an electrical run. However, matters such as old wiring, old outlets, and a confluence of network circuits and wires can quickly turn a job into a task that is more complicated than the average homeowner can comfortably handle.
Any time you work with electricity, even the smallest mistake can put yourself, your home, and your family at risk. Furthermore, in many areas there are regulations, codes, or laws that require a permit or even prevent you from doing the work yourself. You might also void warranted items in your home or even void your homeowner’s insurance entirely.
For such reasons, like most other home electrical work, experts recommend leaving this task to licensed electricians to ensure that it is completed quickly, effectively, and safely. There are other ways to save money on this project, though.
First, look at the big picture and bundle the project with other repairs and upgrades. This may seem counter-intuitive to homeowners who want to keep their costs low. However, doing this usually ends up saving on total expenditure, primarily because of saving in labor costs. Maybe it’s time to modernize the electrical system, for example — today’s use of electronics usually pushes the limits on what a good old house can manage. Perhaps it’s time to be thinking of a kitchen or bathroom renovation or upgrade– wiring changes and upgrades may be absorbed into the project’s total cost.
Second, get a fixed-price quote. A signed agreement with a fixed price is better than an estimated cost, which might vary a great deal if complications arise. Remember the old saying that a verbal agreement is only worth the paper it’s written on!
Third, make the job appear clear-cut and simple. Before the electrician even arrives to give an estimate, move any furniture, clear off countertops, put the dog in another room – do anything you can do to make it look easy for the electrician to come in and get right to work. What they charge is almost always influenced by their judgment as to how much time the job will take. Make it look easy and straightforward.
Even when GFCI upgrades are not legally required, for safety reasons it makes good sense to do them. Statistics say that 68% of house fires are caused by electrical problems, and the #1 cause of residential electrical fires is outdated electrical outlets and older appliances. Particularly if your home is more than 20 years old, outdated wiring may put your family at risk for fire damage. Updating your electrical outlets to GFCIs where recommended is a relatively low-cost way to make your home safer for everyone.