5 Ways to Check Ground-Fault Circuit-Interrupters to Help Ensure Continued Safety in Homes
If you’re not a follically-challenged individual like me, there's a good chance your hair dryer or curling iron has one time or another quit working while you’re getting ready for work or going out with friends. A quick glance at your electrical panel shows all your fuses or, more commonly, circuit breakers, are intact leaving you puzzled as to what the problem could be. But don't jump online and order a new hair dryer just yet. The next step you should take is to look around your house for ground-fault circuit-interrupter (GFCI) receptacles. What are GFCIs? You are looking for rectangle shaped receptacles with the "test" and "reset" buttons in the center of the receptacle itself. The 2020 National Electric Code® (NEC®) section 210.8(A) requires residential homes to have GFCI receptacles located in bathrooms, garages, outdoors, crawlspaces, basements, kitchens, sink areas, boathouses, bathtub/shower stalls, and laundry areas. So why does the NEC require so many of these receptacles in so many different areas? The defined purpose of the NEC is the practical safeguarding of persons and property from hazards arising from the use of electricity. It doesn’t get a whole lot more hazardous than using plugged in electrical devices in these potentially damp or wet locations.
Spending nearly 30 years as a master electrician, I have been called out many times to troubleshoot receptacles that are not working in a home. Many times, the culprit is a tripped GFCI receptacle the homeowner did not know about or was unable to locate. The call often resulted in me spending 10 minutes finding the tripped GFCI and 10 seconds to push the reset button, then handing a one-hour minimum service charge invoice to the homeowner. That conversation was never enjoyable and always left me with an empty pit in my stomach as I accepted their payment and headed back to my truck. To help avoid a professional service fee for simply pushing a reset button, here are some tips for a homeowner that may help them in troubleshooting GFCI receptacles prior to making the call for help:
- Tip 1 – Check the receptacle itself. If the receptacle that stopped working is a GFCI receptacle, unplug all devices in the receptacle, and try pushing the reset button. If it resets, test the receptacle by trying a known working device.
- Tip 2 – Look for a nearby GFCI receptacle. If the receptacle that isn’t working is not a GFCI receptacle, look for a nearby GFCI receptacle that may be tripped. It is permissible for electricians to install a standard receptacle in places that require GFCI protection and protect them with another GFCI receptacle. For example, in a bathroom vanity that has double sinks, the NEC requires a receptacle at each sink basin. Often, electricians will install a GFCI receptacle at one of the locations and then use that GFCI to protect a standard receptacle at the second sink receptacle location.
- Tip 3 – Look for a faraway GFCI receptacle. While the NEC does say what areas require GFCI protection in section 210.8, it doesn't necessarily specify where the GFCI itself has to be physically installed. For example, in some cases electricians may install a GFCI receptacle in a first-floor bathroom and then continue to run the GFCI circuit to a second-floor bathroom where a standard receptacle is installed but is GFCI protected from the first-floor bathroom GFCI receptacle. In the case where the second-floor standard receptacle causes the first-floor GFCI receptacle to trip, the homeowner would need to find, and reset, the first-floor GFCI receptacle. This can also be common in outdoor receptacles where one GFCI receptacle can feed multiple other outdoor standard receptacles. So for instance, a front porch GFCI receptacle could protect a standard receptacle that is located on the back of the home.
- Tip 4 – Check your electrical panel. This is often the first thing many people do, and that is okay. Your receptacle may have stopped working due to the circuit breaker tripping because the circuit was simply overloaded. In that case, unplug all devices and try resetting the circuit breaker. Another option to provide GFCI protection of receptacles as required in NEC section 210.8 is to utilize standard receptacles throughout the required areas, but provide the required protection through a GFCI circuit breaker installed in the electrical panel. If you find this scenario in your home, you can unplug all devices on the circuit, turn the GFCI circuit breaker completely off, and then try to turn the GFCI circuit breaker back on. If the issue that caused it to trip is cleared, it should turn back on.
As always, if the troubleshooting tips above don't lead you to a solution, or make you feel uncomfortable on any level, you should reach out to a licensed electrician for help. If a GFCI circuit breaker or GFCI receptacle is deemed to be defective, you should also engage a licensed electrician to replace the defective item.
One last tip, and in my opinion, the most important:
- Tip 5 - Test all GFCI receptacles and GFCI circuit breakers regularly to ensure they are in working order and reliable to provide the necessary safety protection. While the manufacturer’s instructions for testing GFCI’s should always be followed, it is recommended to test monthly, at a minimum. In the case where you are plugging directly into a GFCI receptacle, it takes little effort to test them before each use to help ensure your personal safety.
It is hard to refute the fact that GFCI protection has helped to reduce electrical safety incidents. Since GFCI protection was first required in home applications by the 1971 National Electrical Code, electrocutions have been reduced by 81 percent overall and by 95 percent in electrocutions specifically caused by consumer products, such as those used in bathrooms, kitchens, and outdoors. Doing your part to ensure that your home has functional GFCI protection in the necessary locations will help to ensure your personal safety, and the safety of others, and can help keep this remarkable statistic trending in the right direction.
More information on GFCI protection can be found on the NFPA electrical circuit-interrupters webpage.