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Everybody knows what a ground fault circuit interrupter (GFCI) receptacle looks like — they are the wall outlets with a test and reset button. They protect you from electrical shock and prevent electrical faults from damaging your appliances. Since wet areas make ground fault problems particularly dangerous, GFCI receptacles are mostly found in bathrooms, kitchens, and other areas with plumbing.

Put simply, a GFCI outlet cuts off power when it detects a problem.

How Do Ground Fault Circuit Interrupters Work?

Electricity flows in two directions on the wires of a circuit. The breaker panel sends electricity to your outlets, and the electricity flows back to the source in a constant loop. To prevent sparks, fires, and electroshocks, the circuit has a ground wire that sends power to a safe location (the actual ground of the earth or otherwise).

When operating safely and normally, the power flowing on the hot wire should be equal to the power flowing on the grounded neutral wire. A ground fault occurs when the amount of power on the grounded wire is not what it should be — and that means electrical energy is flowing somewhere it shouldn’t!

When the GFCI detects a ground fault, the receptacle releases the contacts — “interrupting” power to your appliance. The appliance shuts off, and you won’t be electrocuted. You can then check for wetness, correct any problems you find, and then reset and test the GFCI before attempting to use the appliance again.

Required and Recommended Locations for GFCI

California electrical codes and local laws (and common sense!) require that you have functioning ground fault circuit interrupter receptacles in wet or outdoor locations.

Places where you need a GFCI receptacle:

  • Kitchens and bar areas
  • Bathrooms
  • Laundry rooms (exception: laundry machines have their own kind of protection)
  • Unfinished basements
  • Garages
  • Outdoor areas (exterior outlets, and outlets near pools and hot tubs)
  • Any outlet within 6 feet of plumbing


Testing a GFCI Receptacle

A broken GFCI outlet may continue powering your appliances, but not detect a ground fault. In that case, you are not protected as you should be.

Occasionally test your GFCIs by running an appliance and hitting the test button on the receptacle. The appliance should turn off.

If the GFCI has shut down the power, you need to hit the reset button to restore power before trying again. If it detects another ground fault, you may have a wiring problem or dangerous condition present.

Are GFCI Breakers Better than GFCI Outlets?

Ground fault protection can be added directly to circuit breakers, so the entire circuit has GFCI protection. This might be your best option if you need to replace a breaker panel or are building a new home. However, adding or replacing a GFCI outlet costs less and offers the same protection. A GFCI outlet will protect itself and all outlets further down the line.

Interested in protecting your home and family from electric shock? Great idea. Talk to us if you need help testing, replacing, or installing ground fault protection throughout your home!

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