What are GFCI Outlets and What Are Their Benefits?

We’ve all seen those outlets with the little “test” and “reset” buttons on the face of the outlet.  These are called “GFCI” outlets.  The “GFCI” stands for Ground Fault Circuit Interrupter.   But what does that mean? And why are these types of outlets necessary?

1. They prevent electrical shock.

GFCI outlets have sensors inside of them that monitor the flow of electricity. If even a minuscule amount of electrical current travels along an unintended path, most three-prong outlets will redirect it into the ground. However, if that current is conducted through a human being during a “ground fault,” it can have deadly consequences. GFCI outlets cut off electrical power to their receptacle completely as soon as they detect discrepancies in the current. This keeps us from receiving painful shocks from power surges, faulty technology, or contact with water.

There are various factors that can determine the outcome or severity of a shock.   These factors are:

  1. The strength of the voltage
  2. Your resistance as the conductor (wet skin is much less resistant than dry)
  3. The path that the electricity takes through your body (through the heart is a bad path)
  4. The duration of the electric shock.  If the amperage running through your body is high enough, your muscles can lose function or spasm, causing your body to freeze in place.  You may not be able to release your grasp on the item that is causing the shock.

It’s impossible to predict exactly how mild or severe an electrical shock will be, as these factors can come in a variety of combinations.  Contact with water is a key ingredient that should always be avoided, as it can cause you and your surroundings to become much more conductive.

But we can all agree that it’s best to try to avoid shock hazards entirely.

2. They prevent electrical fires.

As the wiring in a home ages, its insulation can slowly deteriorate. If loose or exposed wiring experiences a prolonged surge in the electrical current, it can spark a fire inside the walls of your home. A GFCI outlet stops any electrical current “leakage” in its tracks before it has the chance to spark an electrical fire. If you live in an older home that could be prone to electrical oddities, GFCI outlets are a major asset for fire prevention and protection.

3. They bring your outlets up to modern electrical codes.

Because GFCI outlets are such an advantageous safety sensor, they are required by the National Electrical Code in all new kitchens, bathrooms, garages, basements, laundry rooms, outdoor spaces, and more. Older homes built before this requirement was standard often do not have GFCI outlets installed next to sources of water. Upgrading existing homes that don’t meet modern electrical code standards is not required by law, but it is much safer for your property and your family. It is also significantly important if you ever decide to rent or sell your property. Any safety inspector will immediately notice if there is an old-fashioned outlet receptacle near a water source posing a potential hazard. Upgrading to GFCI ensures current and future residents of your property will stay safer from electrical dangers.

 Inspecting GFCI Outlets

During a home inspection by a HIABC home inspector, there is almost inevitably a conversation about GFCI outlets.   Zinc Home Inspectors will note the presence or absence of GFCI outlets in the required locations.  We will alert you to these locations so that you know where they are in case they were to trip. And we will test them when possible to verify that they are working properly.

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There are many cases where we find that the GFCIs are not working properly, and would not provide any form of shock protection.  GFCI components can wear out over time.

Or they can be wired incorrectly in a manner in which the outlet works, but does not trip and shut off the power. These are safety hazards that our inspectors will seek to bring to your attention.

On older homes, GFCIs may not be present, as they may not have been required by code at the time that the house was built.  If they aren’t present in your home, you ought to consider installing them.

GFCI outlets are relatively inexpensive, and a standard outlet can easily be swapped with a GFCI with minimal difficulty.  One GFCI outlet on the circuit can protect multiple outlets down-line, so you can often install just one on each required circuit, and the other outlets down-line on this circuit will be protected.

There are also circuit breakers with a GFCI and test button built-in at the breaker, which can be used to provide this same protection for the entire circuit.

Zinc Inspections offers a variety of home inspections in Vancouver for both residential and commercial properties to detect these sorts of hidden problems. The HIABC Inspectors at Zinc Home Inspections of Greater Vancouver take safety concerns seriously – you should too.  Review where GFCI outlets need to be installed in your home and work with an electrician or qualified person to help update those outlets – your life may depend on it!

Zinc Inspections is owned and operated by Ali Javaheri, a licensed member of The Home Inspectors Association BC (HIABC) with more than 15 years of experience in BC’s housing industry.

For more information on what is included in our home inspection package, visit us at www.zincinspections.com.