What is a GFCI Outlet and Do I Need to Install Them?

GFCI outlet

 

GFCI  outlets and breakers save lives by limiting the duration of electrical shocks. How is it different from a circuit breaker? Circuit breakers  and GFCI outlets both interrupt the circuit current but a GFCI is more sensitive and smarter as a circuit breaker will work only when the current is over its capacity  (due to an overload or short circuit).  Some key dates:

 

1971: First introduced and required to be used within 15 feet of a swimming pool and on portable pool equipment.

1973: Outdoor receptacles must be GFCI protected.

1975: Bathrooms & 120-volt pool lights required to have GFCI protection.

1978: Garages and spa tubs required to have GFCI protection.

1984: Distance from swimming pools extended to 20 feet.

1987: Required on kitchen countertops within 6 feet of the sink.

1996: Required on ALL kitchen countertops.

Q. Does every home need to be brought up to current code?
The electrical code is not applied retroactively, however, if you change the receptacles than you must bring them up to the current code. For safety it is recommended that you update to GFCI outlets anyway.  Sometimes a GFCI circuit breaker is installed instead.  Consult a licensed electrician.

Often an outlet in a bathroom or outside is GFCI protected but the outlet does not have a button.    There may be one GFCI outlet that protects all the bathrooms.  This could be in one bathroom or on the wall of the garage.  An older homes it may be a GFCI breaker in the electrical panel.  Newer homes often have a GFCI breaker in the panel as well as a GFCI outlet.

Manufacturers recommend that you test your outlets  once a month. Simply push the button marked “test” to open the circuit. If the reset button pops out with a click, then the circuit works. Simply push the reset button and you’re back to functional. If it does not reset, call a licensed electrician to have it replaced.

More information about GFCI outlets and how they work.

 

Bad Electrical Panels

electrical panels need replacing

bad electrical panels

Bad electrical panels

These are more common than you would think.  This electrical panel is one of the worst I have seen:

  • the panel is barely hanging there on only 2 screws
  • the knockout covers are missing so there is no protection from electrocution
  • it is rusting out with a big hole in the top for water to get in.
  • the main lugs are corroding
  • the breakers are so old they may not even trip if the circuit is overloaded
  • there is no main disconnect switch to turn the power off to the house in an emergency

The most common bad electrical panels do not have all these problems but they may have one or two.

The most common bad electrical panels are actually identified by their brand: Federal Pacific, Sylvania and Zinsco, however, it is surprising how often distribution or sub panels are incorrectly wired.

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GFCI Outlets- What Are They and Do I Need Them?

Ground fault outlet

GFCI outlet

You will (hopefully) find GFCI outlets in the kitchen and bathrooms.  It stands for Ground Fault Circuit Interrupter.  GFCIs are there to protect you from being electrocuted by interrupting the circuit when there is a difference in the currents in the hot and neutral wires.  The difference indicates that some of the current has found another path.  Instead of returning through the neutral wire, current is  either traveling through the ground wire or through you if you come in contact with the hot wire or you drop an appliance into water.  If you start to get electrocuted, the power should cut off within a few milliseconds, before you get injured .  They also help prevent electrical fires.

Many older homes do not have these installed or only in some areas.  To provide a greater level of safety, GFCI outlets are now installed in garages and all wet areas, such as near kitchen sinks, laundry tubs, swimming pools, and exterior walls.

Resetting.   Often one GFCI protects several outlets so if your outlet is not working, it may not be broken as some friends of mine thought.  Check the other bathrooms, garage or even the electrical panel,  to find the reset button.

As a  Circuit Breaker

Newer  houses usually have a GFCI circuit breaker in the electrical panel and it protects all the outlets on that circuit.

Are they required?  In south Florida, there is no law that says you must install them if you do not have them, however GFCIs are a wise safety precaution.

South Florida Home Inspector Warns of Bad Electrical Panels

If you buy a house with this type of bad electrical panel you might have trouble getting insurance!  Not only that, the panel could overheat and catch fire.

Federal Pacific Electrical panels have been known for a long time to be a potential problem but there are still many homes in south Florida that have these bad electrical panels.  Federal Pacific electrical panels been the subject of class action lawsuits because their circuit breakers have been known to fail to trip at a higher rate than standard panels. When a breaker doesn’t trip,  an electrical surge will likely cause the wires to melt and possibly cause a fire. Many Federal Pacific Electric panels and breakers can operate properly for years, but they can also malfunction unexpectedly.  Simply replacing the circuit breakers is not a sufficient.  You need to have the entire panel  replaced by a licensed electrician.

It doesn’t mean you can’t buy the house.  You could ask the seller to replace the panel, get a credit from the seller or just pay to have it  replaced yourself.

 

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This is the Service Panel on the outside of the house.  Notice that it clearly says “Federal Pacific”  on the panel description.

 

 

 

 

There is also a Distribution Panel inside the house – maybe in the garage, hallway, kitchen or utility room.  Watch out for the words “Stab-Lok”  which is a give-a-way that this is a Federal Pacific panel.

Bad electrical panel

Federal Pacific panel

 

 

 

 

 

 

For more on dangerous electrical panels in south Florida and Federal Pacific panels, watch this home inspector video.

Schedule your inspection today and get the Peace of Mind you deserve when buying your next home!