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- Educational Library -

What are GFCI receptacles, and why do I need them?

GFCI (Ground-Fault-Circuit-Interrupting) receptacles—the outlets with the push buttons—are designed to protect people and animals from electric shock.  They’re also known as GFIs or simply “ground-fault.”

How do GFCIs work?

GFCIs measure incoming current vs. outgoing current, and are designed to trip if the smallest fraction (around 4-8 milliamps, or thousands of an amp) are going out through some other path, whether through a person, a piece of equipment, or faulty wiring. Remember that tingle you felt when something didn’t work right? A correctly-functioning GFCI would trip and keep you from getting electrocuted. (Since nearly two-thirds of all home-related electrical deaths are due to ground-fault conditions, GFCIs are important in keeping people safe!)

Believe it or not, GFCIs have been around for more than 50 years. They were first required in the National Electrical Code (NEC) in 1962. Originally, they caused a number of problems, but design improvements helped eliminate the problems and make them more user-friendly.

Where are GFCIs needed?

Think “wet location.” GFCIs are typically required near sinks, bathrooms, garages, outdoors, outbuildings, etc.

How reliable are GFCIs?

One electrical forum I searched said that failure rates can be as high as 57%. Typically, 12% is probably a better figure, but given often poorer quality-control standards in offshore production of products, that figure may be higher.

Thus you need to check your GFCIs regularly—preferably monthly. How do you tell if it’s working correctly? You can push the test button for starters. You could also buy a GFCI tester—just be aware that if someone installed GFCIs on two-wire systems (old house wiring), the trip will function on the GFCI itself, but it will not trip when using a tester.

Where should I not use GFCIs?

The most common place NOT to use GFCIs is on refrigerators and freezers. When lightning strikes nearby, or a surge on the power company’s line occurs, GFCIs can trip—and your fridge or freezer will be without power. Imagine that happening the day after you’ve gone on a two-week vacation, and what the house will smell like when you get home!

Final Advice

If in doubt, call someone who KNOWS electricity, and someone you TRUST for advice.


Ken Stewart, Easley Electric Inc.

We’ll Never Leave YOU In The Dark!

(864) 760-5830

Mailing Address
PO Box 624
Pickens, SC 29671