GFCI Outlets and How They Keep You Safe

March 4, 2019
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When we were younger, our parents always warned us to never get our fingers near an electrical outlet.  Likewise, I was always strictly told to never stick metal objects anywhere near an electrical outlet. If you’re like me as a child, you can likely relate with the overwhelming urge to do precisely what your parents forbid you from doing.  When you’re young, you tend to let curiosity get the best of you. Thank goodness I had attentive parents. If not, the consequences could have been fatal. Besides the attention of my parents (which I will be eternally grateful for), they did in fact have one particular tool to add that extra measure of safety- GFCI outlets.

It may surprise you to know that hundreds of people die per year due to electrocution in the United States due to electrical shock- even today.  Luckily, due to the required implementation of GFCI outlets in homes in 1971, the number of these electrical accidents (a previously estimated 800 people per year) has significantly decreased.  Just how much have widespread GFCI outlet use offered that extra layer of safety in our homes? While incidents do still occur, the estimated number of deaths per year is now estimated to be around 200 people per year.  While still tragically unfortunate, it is a substantial decrease. We have GFCI outlet implementation, as well as better electrical education to homeowners, to thank.

What are GFCI outlets?

GFCI stands for ground fault circuit interrupter. This is a device designed to protect electrical wiring by causing the circuit to break whenever an imbalance occurs between outgoing and incoming circuitry.  The widespread presence of GFCI outlets are particularly important within areas of the home with close proximity to water. Bathrooms and areas exposed to standing water are particularly susceptible to electrical dangers and GFCI outlets make the occurrence of a dangerous situation less likely.

Now, you may be asking yourself what the difference is between a house fuse and a GFCI outlet. That’s a great question!  The purpose of a house fuse and a GFCI outlet, while both helpful in prevention of extreme dangers, are vastly different.  A house fuse is associated with the protection of your home from electrical fires. Important, yes, but little to do with the prevention of electrical shocks produced by outlets.  A GFCI offers protection by directly detecting interruptions in the electrical current and immediately cutting the power. In doing so, this is possibly a live-saving function.

Recognizing a GFCI outlet within your home is easy!  GFCI outlets have both a test and reset button within the outlet itself.  You have undoubtedly noticed this on the outlets within your home and now, if you didn’t know already, you understand their purpose!

How Does a GFCI Outlet Work?

GFCI outlets are equipped with two vertical slots and one separate round hole beneath those slots.  Each of the slots offer a different purpose- the right slot being referred to as “hot”, the left as “neutral”, and the bottom hole as a “ground” hole.  These slots are where the magic of the GFCI outlet comes into play!

As an electric current runs through the outlet, it passes from “hot” slot to the “neutral” slot.  While this flow occurs the GFCI outlet closely monitors it for any irregularities and reacts astoundingly quickly!  If you know anything about the effects of electrocution on the body you know that once a shock occurs the current is so strong that you are unable to pry your hands away.  This reaction occurs from a shock measured at roughly 10 milliamps. Don’t get too worried by this though! Again, the GFCI is here to help! See, GFCI outlets are incredibly sensitive to any change within the electric current.  Just how sensitive? GFCI outlets immediately recognize an irregularity in the current at as small as 4 to 5 milliamps! Are you starting to see how important GFCI outlets are now?

The Importance of GFCI Outlet Maintenance

The importance of outlet maintenance and outlet upgrades can’t be understated.  Most of us don’t give thought to something as simple as our electrical outlets on a daily basis. From work to kids to errands, we’re all busy.  At Right Electrical Services, we want to make sure you understand why outlet maintenance isn’t something to overlook.

As wonderful as GFCI outlets are in protecting us from the risk of the dangers we’ve talked about, they do not last forever. Most GFCI outlets are good for an average of around 10 years but don’t necessarily assume you’re in the clear.  If you’ve recently moved into a new home you should be especially wary of the state of your outlets. Eventually (and it’s a guarantee) your GFCI outlet WILL wear out and lose functionality. Because of this it’s important to make a habit of testing each GFCI outlet in your home at a frequency of about once per month to ensure that all is working properly.  When’s the last time you tested your GFCI outlets?

Testing Your GFCI Outlets

So what’s the best way to test the GFCI outlets in your home?  It’s really simple and doesn’t take long at all so you have no excuse!  In order to test your GFCI outlet all you have to do is plug in an electrical appliance and make sure the appliance itself turns on.  If it does we’re halfway there. Next, you need to hit the “test” button on the outlet itself that we talked about earlier. In doing so, the GFCI outlet’s attention should be caught and the power should be cut to the appliance.  Finally, you will hit the “reset” button and in doing so the appliance should regain power. Did you get these results while testing your outlets? Awesome, you’re in the clear!

If you didn’t have quite as much luck when testing your outlet, we need to take care of this problem as soon as possible.  If hitting the “test” button didn’t cut power to your electrical appliance, we have an issue here. You may be having this problem due to the outlet being installed improperly or some other malfunction within the outlet.  Don’t take this lightly! You need to immediately replace the outlet or call an electrician in your area.  As you’ve now learned, a dysfunctional GFCI outlet can’t protect you from the risk of electric shock.

electricity lightning
Don’t mess with electricity!

We hope you’ve learned a bit more about the importance of GFCI outlets and have gained an appreciation in their ability to keep you and your family safe.  For more information you can check out our page on outlet repair that has even more useful tips on electrical outlet safety.

If you need electrical services, give us a call or fill out a service request form!  Right Electrical Services will be happy to help with all of your electrical service needs.


Renee is a freelance copywriter and blogger known for her expertise surrounding topics like marketing, freelancing, mental health, and more. She has written for hundreds of small business websites and is the Marketing Director here at Right Electrical Services, LLC. Renee believes that when a business prioritizes entertaining, engaging, and informational content for their readers, they can expect a loyal following that trusts their company.

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