What is a GFCI outlet and why do I need them?

One of the most common defects I find in a home inspection is the lack of GFCI protection in all of the required areas. GFCI stands for Ground Fault Circuit Interrupter and they are the outlets often found with the “test” and “reset” buttons on them.   But what do the do and why are they necessary?

GFCI Outlet

A GFCI outlet decreases the risk of electrical shock. It does this by shutting off the power to the outlet if the appliance gets wet.

But how is this different than what a breaker does inside of the electrical panel? A breaker in the panel protects the home from fire. It will trip when there is too much current running through the circuit, which protects the wiring from becoming overheated. By definition, a standard breaker is protecting the home and the wiring first, then the occupants by default.

A GFCI outlet is designed to protect the occupants first. It measures the amperage of the current flowing to and from the outlet.  If more power is going to the hot side of the outlet than is coming back through the neutral side, it will detect that difference, and interrupt the flow of electricity immediately.

What this means is that if you become a conductor for electricity to travel through your body, the outlet detects that less current is returning on the neutral side (because it is going through you), and it will shut off the power through the outlet within a fraction of a second.  This could save your life.  As explained earlier, when water is part of the equation, you can become a much better conductor, and the risk increases.

GFCI Outlet Example

That is why GFCI outlets are required on outlets or circuits that might be used near running or standing water, such as outdoors, at kitchens, bathrooms, garages, laundry rooms, etc.

In 1968, standards were written requiring GFCI outlets in specific parts of the home. The required locations for these outlets have increased over the years, and have usually only applied to new construction and major renovations

Inspecting GFCI Outlets

In most inspections performed by PinPoint Home Inspections, we find outlets that should be GFCI protected, not protected. We will note the absence of GFCI outlets in the required locations and will alert you to these locations so that you can have them corrected.

In some cases, we find that the GFCI outlets are not working properly, and would not actually provide any form of shock protection.  GFCI components can wear out over time or be wired incorrectly in a manner in which the outlet works, but does not actually trip and shut off power. These are safety hazards that we will bring to your attention.

On older homes, GFCI outlets 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 should 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 usually install 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 into the breaker, which can be used to provide this same protection for the entire circuit.

PinPoint Home Inspection goes through all of the systems of the house and visually inspects and/or tests them to make sure they meet the minimum standards required by the Mississippi Real Estate Commission. We also identify the age and functionality of house components; such as the HVAC (air conditioning and heating), water heater, electrical systems, plumbing, etc for future maintenance purposes. We serve Jackson, Madison, Clinton, Canton, Brandon, Flowood, Gluckstadt, Pearl, Florence, Byram, Terry, Crystal Springs, Hazelhurst, Brookhaven, McComb and surrounding areas of Central Mississippi.


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