GFCI outlet

In elementary school, we all learned about electrical safety hazards. And we all probably heard the same scenarios: radios falling into bathtubs, blow dryers dropped into sinks, holding a power tool in the rain. However, these stories have come true too many times. This is why in certain areas of the house, especially areas around water, a special outlet called a ground fault interrupter (GFI) is required in order to keep you safe.

What is this thing?

You’ve probably already seen them before. Simply take a look in the bathroom, behind your kitchen sink, in the basement and garage, or outside around your patio, swimming pool, or hot tub. In these areas where moisture is prevalent, you’ll see outlets that contain two color-coded buttons between the plugs. This is a GFI and it is a required safety item that immediately cuts off power when a dangerous ground fault occurs.

How does it all work?

Basically, a ground fault interrupter detects and monitors any change that happens in an outlet. For instance, when you plug in a toaster, a current will flow to the appliance and a current will also flow back to the outlet creating a circuit. There should be a constant rate of exchange between the two, but when change occurs (when a current drops or increases from one side or the other) the GFI will instantly trip and shut off the power exchange.

Why is it important?

They’re fast. It only takes an instant to be seriously hurt by electricity. And if your body receives any live current and you happen to be touching the ground (this is called a “ground fault”), you’re going to get a big shock. A ground fault interrupter will literally interrupt the ground fault within the outlet. It won’t have to travel to a breaker or fuse; instead, these safety outlets cut off power in hundredths of a second to prevent any shock, injury, or fatality. Then after the trip, simply push reset on the outlet to restore power.

How do I get them?

Ground fault interrupters are available at any hardware store. And though they’re easy to install, hire a qualified electrician to help you out. They’re trained to inspect the entire home to see if you’re up to code and can advise about any current safety concerns. Plus, they can properly install the equipment. Electrical work is complicated and dangerous, so when dealing with hazards in the home it’s worth the investment.

What do I do?

Perform a monthly inspection. On each outlet, there will be two buttons: one labeled “Test” and the other “Reset.” Plug in an appliance or light fixture to see if it works. Then push “Test” and the power should immediately be cut to the appliance. Push “Reset” and power should immediately be restored. However, they do wear out overtime. They can become stressed and trip too often. If this is the case, have them replaced ASAP.

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