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Not So Shocking Truth

By Jon Vacha

A GFCI outlet is an outlet with the little push button that you see in bathrooms and kitchens. But why is there a push button and what the heck does GFCI mean? During inspection walkthroughs GFCI outlets are almost always discussed. Sometimes the GFCI outlets are not present where they should be, sometimes we just want to alert the buyer to where the resets are for outlets that are protected by a GFCI outlet.

A Ground Fault Circuit Interrupter outlet is there for safety. The outlet will trip off and the power from the outlet will cut off if any sort of abnormality is sensed.  It can react as quickly as one-thirtieth of a second. That quick of a reaction is important when you are talking life or death. The abnormality the outlet detects has to do with the current moving from the positive to the neutral wires. If that current changes in the smallest way, that is the signal to shuts off that outlet.

GFCI outlets where first introduced in the 70’s. The National Electrical Code started requiring GFCI outlets for bathrooms in ’75, kitchens in ’87. Currently GFCI outlets are required to be installed at all wet areas, or areas that could potentially become wet including the exterior and garage.  There is an exception for outlets in kitchens that are designated for refrigerators.

Sometimes an outlet without the “push button” can still be protected by a GFCI outlet. This is because outlets can be run in a series and protected by a certain GFCI outlet. Bathroom outlets can all be run in a series and protected by an outlet at one bathroom. An exterior outlet can be protected by a GFCI outlet in a garage. As inspectors we tell stories of legendary quests embarked upon to find the mysterious locations of GFCI outlets hidden behind a Lazy Susan or garage freezer.

We always let a buyer know that it is not a good idea to plug a freezer or refrigerator into a GFCI protected outlet in a garage. Nobody wants to lose that 50 pounds of elk meat or half a cow because a GFCI outlet decided to wear out or a Christmas light from the exterior tripped off the circuit. A recent update in the local building code requires that outlets at the ceilings of garages be protected. We will hear more and more stories of people being locked out of their houses due the power being cut off at their garage door openers.