Ground Fault Circuit Interrupter Fundamentals
What A GFCI Is, and How It Works
One of the frequent problems our customers encounter is with a Ground Fault Circuit Interrupter – or GFCI – circuit which has either stopped working, won’t reset, or tripped itself without their knowledge. Beginning in 1971, the NEC (National Electric Code) started implementing these protective devices. While initially required on construction job sites and in bathrooms (where electricity and water mixed), the requirements have expanded over the years to include other areas:
- Where tools are or will be used, like in a garage
- Where water and electricity mix, now expanded to include hot tubs and swimming pools, outlets within six feet of sinks, and even the dishwasher and disposal
- Any normal outlet located outdoors must be GFCI protected
- All heating, air-conditioning, and refrigeration equipment must be protected
- Countertop outlets, where water and appliances might overlap
- Laundry rooms
- Unfinished portions of a basement
- Receptacles located in a dwelling unit boathouse
- And in other code-specific locations, per the 2014 NEC and Pikes Peak Regional Building Department’s code.
Keep in mind that these rules are in effect on new construction, upgrades, or updates – not on previous installations. It’s possible that your current wiring is fine, and not necessarily in need of expensive upgrades. When in doubt, ask an electrician!
What is a GFCI, anyways? How does it work, and why does it matter?
The GFI was installed and implemented to protect electric users from electrocuting themselves whenever electricity ‘leaks’ through a person who is in contact with a source of grounding, and anything that is electrified – and could result in lethal shock.
The short answer: a GFCI (Ground Fault Circuit Interrupter) is an electrical protection device. By monitoring the amount of current flowing through it and returning to it, the GFCI protects end users from faults that might lead to leaking electricity – such as getting electrocuted, using faulty appliances, equipment, or even faulty electric floor heating cables.
There is a very long and convoluted description of how a GFI functions, but the easiest way to describe it is this: the circuit electronics monitor the amount of current flowing both in and out, and if it varies more than the monitor thinks is safe (aka, 5 milliamps) then the circuit interrupter disconnects the power to prevent fatalities from electrocution. They can function with or without an equipment ground (or third prong).
These are a frequent nuisance for our customers – not only because the circuitry inside the interrupter wears out, but also because the GFI outlets are frequently installed in inconvenient places. The most common place to find a tripped GFI breaker is in a garage – behind a pile of boxes and ‘stuff’ – or in a basement, swallowed up by holiday decorations or things in storage. Sometimes your GFI outlet is actually outside! However, because these ‘easily accessible’ outlets aren’t easy to get to (and commonly out of sight), they are frequently out of mind – or even completely unknown.
When your GFI circuit goes out, it can mean losing power to outlets, overhead lights, or even a wall where switches and outlets provide power. The most frequent areas this causes problems are in bathrooms, basements, garages, and even kitchens. While we know there are few things as bizarre or uncomfortable as having the lights go out while you’re using the restroom, the good news is that GFIs are usually easy enough to reset – by pressing the reset button.
Sadly, sometimes even that isn’t enough – and you do need to check if you have a breaker in the electrical panel that will need resetting.
If you are ever in doubt, or just want help troubleshooting whether YOUR GFCI needs resetting – or replacing! – then don’t hesitate to reach out to Swartz Electric, YOUR Colorado Springs Electrician!
Swartz Electric – Your Colorado Springs Electrician performs electrical work throughout Colorado Springs, Monument, Black Forest, Fountain, Falcon, Woodland Park, and everywhere in between. We are the electricians in Colorado Springs to solve your electrical problems and meet your electrical requirements.
Call, e-mail, visit our website, or stop by our office today, and allow Swartz Electric to serve YOU.
This is an original article written by Mai Bjorklund for Swartz Electric. This article may not be copied whole or in part without the express permission of Swartz Electric, LLC.
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