What Is A GFCI Outlet? Everything You Need To Know

A close up of a GFCI outlet with an appliance plugged in

If you’ve ever been told to install a GFCI outlet in your home but had no idea what that meant, you’re not alone. Although they are now required by law in many areas of the country, GFCI outlets can still cause confusion for some homeowners.

GFCI outlets are an essential safety consideration when working with electricity. Many modern homes are equipped with GFCI outlets to help protect you and your family from potentially deadly shocks. If you want a good overview of how electricity functions in your home, be sure to check out our definitive guide to home electrical systems.

But what exactly is a GFCI outlet? Do you need to have one in your home? And how do you know if your home already has them?

Keep reading to find out.

What Is A GFCI Outlet?

A GFCI outlet, also known as a Ground Fault Circuit Interrupter outlet, is a special type of electrical outlet that helps protect you from electric shock. A GFCI outlet monitors the current flowing through the circuit and trips the breaker if it detects an imbalance between the hot (black) and neutral (white) wires.

This usually happens when there is a ground fault–meaning that current flows through an unintended path, such as through water or a person’s body. So if there’s ever a problem with the flow of electricity in your home, a GFCI outlet will quickly stop the current. This prevents electrical current from flowing through your body, leading to severe injury or death. 

In short, it’s a life-saving device that helps to prevent electrical shock.

Homes built after the 1970s should have them installed in areas where water is present–such as kitchens, bathrooms, laundry rooms, basements, and garages–but they can be retrofitted into older homes as well.

In many areas of the United States, GFCI outlets are required by law in wet or damp locations. Even if your area does not require GFCI outlets by law, installing them in any wet or damp place in your home is still a good idea. They are relatively inexpensive and easy to install, and they could save your life in an electrical accident. 

Now that we’ve covered what a GFCI outlet is, let’s look at the different types of GFCI outlets.

Types Of GFCI Outlets

Closeup of hand resetting tripped GFI electricity receptacle Residential ground fault interrupter electric socket plug and wall plate

There are three main types of GFCI outlets: GFCI receptacles, GFCI circuit breakers, and portable GFCIs.

Let’s take a look at the differences between each type:

GFCI Receptacles

GFCI (Ground Fault Circuit Interrupter) receptacles are outlets with built-in sensors that monitor electricity flowing through the circuit. If the current flowing into the GFCI receptacle isn’t equal to the current flowing out, it’s a sign of a ground fault. When this happens, the GFCI receptacle trips and shuts off the power to prevent an electrical shock.

GFCI receptacles look like regular outlets but have a test and reset button. They can be used in indoor and outdoor applications, and they’re often required in areas where water is present, such as kitchens and bathrooms. 

GFCI Circuit Breakers

GFCI circuit breakers are similar to Ground Fault Circuit Interrupter receptacles but installed in the main breaker panel. GFCI circuit breakers are often installed in modern homes. They are also commonly used in commercial settings, such as restaurants and office buildings. 

The advantage of GFCI circuit breakers is that they provide protection for all outlets on that circuit, not just one individual outlet. Another advantage of GFCI circuit breakers is that they are cost-effective. They allow electricians to use standard outlets throughout a building and only install one GFCI circuit breaker in the main breaker panel.

Portable GFCI

Portable GFCIs are small devices that can be plugged into a standard outlet to provide GFCI protection. They’re often used when traveling or when working on projects where a GFCI receptacle isn’t readily available. A portable GFCI is a valuable tool for construction workers, electricians, and do-it-yourselfers who work with electricity.

The advantage of portable GFCIs is that they can be plugged into any outlet to provide GFCI protection without having to install a new outlet. Portable GFCIs are an easy way to provide extra safety in a high-risk area and can be an essential piece of safety equipment for any homeowner.

GFCI Outlets With Extra Features

In addition to these three basic GFCI types, varieties are available with extra GFCI outlet features, including weather-resistant and tamper-resistant varieties.

GFCIs are an essential safety feature and are well worth the small additional cost. Whichever type of GFCI you choose, ensure it is compatible with your electrical system and is installed correctly to ensure maximum safety.

Uses For A GFCI Outlet

A close up of a GFCI outlet with an appliance plugged in.

GFCI outlets are a crucial safety feature that is required by code in many areas. Even where GFCIs are not required by law, they are highly recommended by safety experts. 

It is always a good idea to install a GFCI outlet in any area with a water exposure risk. Homeowners should ensure that their homes have adequate GFCI protection to reduce the risk of injury.

Here are the 5 main areas where GFCI outlets are typically used in a home:

Bathrooms

Every bathroom should have at least one Ground Fault Circuit Interrupter (GFCI) outlet. A GFCI outlet protects against electrical shocks by sensing when current flows through a circuit where it shouldn’t be and then shuts off the power. 

For example, this can happen in a bathroom if someone accidentally drops a hair dryer into the sink. When the circuit breaker trips, it interrupts the flow of electricity, preventing a potentially deadly electrical shock. 

Kitchens

GFCI outlets are highly recommended in damp locations like kitchens where the risk of coming into contact with water is more significant. GFCI outlets provide an extra measure of safety by preventing electrocution, and they can also help prevent damage to electrical devices and appliances.

Suppose a kitchen appliance or device is accidentally dropped into water. In that case, a GFCI outlet will shut off the power before the electricity has a chance to cause any damage. Kitchen appliances such as dishwashers and coffeemakers often have exposed electrical components, so it’s important to have GFCI outlets installed near these appliances. 

Laundry Rooms

Many homeowners don’t realize that their laundry room is one of the most dangerous rooms in their house. Laundry rooms are often located near water sources, and electrical appliances in these rooms can pose a serious shock hazard. 

Not only will GFCI outlets help to protect against shocks, but they will also help to prevent fires. When current flows through a circuit where it shouldn’t be, it can create heat build-up that could start a fire. By quickly shutting off the power, a GFCI outlet helps to prevent this from happening.

Garages

One of the most important things you can do to ensure the safety of your home is to install GFCI outlets in your garage. GFCI outlets are designed to protect against electrical shock by interrupting the flow of electricity when a ground fault is detected.

This can be vital in a garage, where power tools and other electrically powered equipment are often used. GFCI outlets can help to prevent serious injuries or even death, so it is well worth taking the time to install them. 

Outdoor Areas

Many homeowners are surprised to learn that their outdoor outlets need to be equipped with GFCI protection. After all, why would you need to worry about electrical shocks when you’re outside? 

GFCI outlets are critical in outdoor areas because they provide protection against shock from contact with water. This is especially important if you have outdoor outlets near pools, spas, or other water features.

Even if you don’t have any water features on your property, it’s still a good idea to use GFCI outlets in outdoor areas, as they can provide protection against weather-related shocks.

How To Install A GFCI Outlet

Electrician replacing a standard electrical outlet with a GFCI outlet.

Installing a new GFCI outlet is a relatively simple process. Still, it is essential to follow the instructions carefully to ensure proper installation and safety.

*Always shut off the power before beginning any electrical work!*

Follow the steps below to safely install a GFCI outlet in your home:

1. Start by shutting off the power to the circuit you will be working on at the breaker box. Alternately, you can shut off the power to your entire house by flipping the main circuit breakers.

2. Remove the faceplate from the existing outlet and unscrew the wires from the terminals.

3. Connect the black wire to the brass terminal on the GFCI outlet and the white wire to the silver terminal.

4. Screw the faceplate back on and restore power to the circuit.

5. Test the outlet by plugging in a lamp or other small appliance. Pressing the “test” button should cause the power to the GFCI outlet to shut off. If the power doesn’t shut off, do not use the outlet! Instead, consult with a professional electrician.

With just a few simple steps, you can install a GFCI outlet and enjoy increased safety in your home!

Blue Sky Electric Can Help With All Your Electrical Work

GFCI outlets are crucial safety devices that every home should have. While they may cost slightly more than regular outlets, the added safety and protection they offer is well worth the investment. Suppose anything abnormal happens (like a power surge). In that case, the GFCI outlet will automatically cut off the power supply before anyone gets hurt.

While all homes built after the 1970s should have them, many older homes don’t. If you’re not sure whether your home has GFCI outlets or not, it’s a good idea to hire an electrician to check for you. Adding them to your home is a relatively inexpensive way to provide peace of mind knowing that your family is protected from electrical shock.

Here at Blue Sky Electric, we can answer your questions about GFCI outlets and provide you with the best installation service in your home or office. Fill out our contact form today, and one of our experts will be in touch with you shortly.

Thanks for reading!