Because electricity can be deadly if it isn’t controlled properly, it’s essential to have safeguards in place to stop the flow of electricity if it ever leaves its intended circuit. One of the ways you can keep yourself and others safe, in your home and your business, is to have properly installed and functioning GCFI receptacles (outlets). GCFI is the acronym for “ground fault circuit interrupter.” What is a GFCI, how does it work, and what should you do if you discover one that isn’t working?
Let’s consider a typical electrical receptacle (outlet)
In an electrical receptacle, there are 3 openings per plug-in. Usually, there are two narrow openings at the top of the receptacle and a semi-round opening beneath them. The shorter of the two narrow openings is where the current leaves the receptacle. It must return to the longer of the narrow openings. This is the neutral side of the receptacle. If 120 volts leave the shorter opening, all 120 volts must return to the neutral opening. This assures us the electricity that the receptacle is putting out isn’t leaking anywhere.
What could cause an electrical “leak?”
The most common culprit is water. Water is an excellent electrical conductor. If it interrupts the current, drawing some of the electricity away from the receptacle and into the water, it could result in electrocution, and even death, for anyone nearby.
Because of this, in your home and business, GCFI receptacles should be installed anywhere there is water, for example, within 6 feet of the sinks in your bathroom or kitchen. You should also have them in your garage and on the exterior of your home because these places will often be wet. Circuit breakers, extension cords, and other electrical equipment are also often equipped with a GCFI.
Unlike a home’s fuse, the GFCI is integrated into the receptacle itself
If there is ever an imbalance in the amount of current that flows from the hot side to the neutral side, the GFCI outlet will detect any loss of electrical current within a third of a second. Immediately, the remaining electricity will flow to the “ground,” which is the semi-round opening in the outlet. This trips the circuit, stopping the flow of electricity.
The buttons on a GFCI receptacle
That electrical receptacle next to your bathroom sink has 2 buttons in the middle of it. One is usually (but not always) red. That’s the test button. In order to test the receptacle, plug a nightlight into it and turn it on. Then, push the test button. It should trip the circuit which will result in the night light turning off. This is good. It means that your GFCI outlet is doing its job. In order to reset the circuit, just push the other button. The light should come back on. If your outlet doesn’t pass this test, call an electrician as soon as possible so that he can assess and fix the situation.
Businesses have special GFCI needs
Here are just a few of them and where they can be found in the 2002 NEC (National Electrical Code)
424.44(G) Electric Space Heating Cables
511.12 Commercial Garages
517.20(A) Healthcare Facilities
525.23 Carnivals, Circuses, and Fairs
527.6 Temporary Installations
547.5(G) Agricultural Buildings
555.19 Marinas and Boatyards
620.23, 620.85 Elevators and Escalators
680.22(A), 680.23, 680.27 Swimming Pools, Permanent
680.32 Swimming Pools, Storable
680.43, 680.44 Spas and Hot Tubs
680.51(A), 680.56(A), 680.57 Fountains
680.62 Therapeutic Tubs
680.71 Hydromassage Bathtubs
If you have a business that uses a lot of water, such as a car wash, a restaurant, or a brewery, properly working GCFI receptacles are essential. Even more important is to have an experienced electrician that can make sense of the code and ensure your business is safe. If you have any electrical needs, contact us at Landmark Electric, Inc.
 This is a description of a United States 120 volt outlet. Even though outlets can look different depending on the country they are in, as well as their specific use, the principles are the same.