A GFCI – ground fault circuit interrupter – is an electrical outlet that shuts off electrical power to a circuit when the current is flowing through an unintended path, such as a person or water. Chances are, you have one of these outlets in your kitchen or bathroom.
Believe it or not, the GFCI outlet actually has an extremely important role. Their job is to protect you, or any users, from electrical shock.
According to the electrical code, you need to have these outlets in locations where there is an increased possibility of electrocution (i.e. where water is located or commonly used).
How Does the GFCI Outlet Work?
A GFCI outlet has a sensor installed that works to identify even minute changes in the current. It has the ability to detect and indicate unsafe conditions or an increased risk of electrical shock. A breaker inside of the outlet will trip if there is any surge in the current. In just milliseconds, the power going to the outlet will shut off, eliminating the threat of being shocked.
Each GFCI outlet is equipped with two buttons. One is usually red, while the other is black (however, these buttons may be other colors, too). The black button is the one used for testing the outlet and will be labeled “TEST” and the other one is used for resetting the breaker after it has been tripped, typically labeled “RESET.”
Problems with GFCI Outlets
Over time, all outlets are going to wear out, and this includes GFCIs in your home. If your GFCI outlet has started tripping more frequently than you think it should, then it may mean that it is getting close to the end of its life. For example, does your outlet breaker trip when you turn your hair dryer on? Has it not done this in the past? If so, then it is a telltale sign you have a GFCI outlet that needs to be replaced.
Most people don’t realize that after about 10 years the sensitivity of the circuitry in a GFCI outlet will wear out, which makes it unable to trip if an emergency were to occur.
Using the Test Button
Now, you may wonder, “what about the test button?” The test button on a GFCI outlet doesn’t tell you that there is something wrong. When you press this button, the power will shut off as always. As a result, the only way for you to check and see if an older GFCI outlet is working properly is to use a circuit tester that is equipped with a GFCI test button.
If you are unsure if your GFCI outlets are working properly, or if you aren’t sure how to test them yourself, then it may be time to call a professional electrician. They can inspect your home’s electrical system and ensure everything is working properly. In the long term, this small investment you make for an inspection and evaluation will pay off by increasing your safety.