Ground fault circuit interrupter GFCIs (also referred to as GFIs) are safety devices installed for the purpose of monitoring the flow of electricity flowing from a power source, usually connected to electronic components. It’s not hard to believe how important they are at your place of work and at home. A recent reminder of a tragic fire event in London is a wake up call for all business owners and homeowners that they need to make sure they’re mitigating risks of fires. So what do GFIs do? Through mitigating the amount of electrical power that flows through it, a GFCI (ground fault circuit interrupter) can prevent serious or even fatal electrical shocks and electrical fires.
Because they play such an important safety role, GFCIs are very important in both the home and the workplace. Particularly in places such as kitchen and bathrooms where water is prevalent, GFCIs can help to prevent electrocution when an electrical leak is present so you can see how important they are in the workplace. They also are very effective at prevent electrical fires that can result from the shorting-out of a circuit. It’s important to note, however, that GFCIs are not a failsafe protection against electrical shocks. They are designed to minimize, not eliminate, electrical shocks. In an incident when shock occurs, if a GFCI has been installed, the risk of serious injury or fatality is greatly reduced.
GFCIs work by monitoring the flow of electricity in a circuit. They achieve this by keeping track of the amount of electricity that travels into a circuit and the amount that returns to the circuit, detecting leaks as they occur. An electrical leak happens when the amount of electricity that returns to the device is lower than the amount of electricity entering the circuit. When a GFCI detects a leak, it instantaneously causes a disconnection in the circuit and causes all flow of electricity to cease. When the electrical flow is cut off, electrical shocks cannot occur.
GFCIs are extremely important in wet or damp environments such as kitchens and bathroom, but also in garages, terraces, porches, workshops, etc. that may be exposed to rain, snow, or other wet weather. If you are buying a home that does not already come pre-installed with GFCIs, it’s important to have a qualified electrician install them as soon as possible for your protection.
Once they are installed, it’s important to ensure that your GFCIs are working properly. You don’t want to find out that they have been improperly installed when you really need them to work! To ensure they continue to work, do a test and inspection monthly. Do this by plugging in a lamp to the outlet and pressing the test button. If the GFCI is working properly, the light will go out and the reset button will protrude. If it’s not working, a light will stay on to indicate a problem with the electrical wiring. In that case, consult an electrician to fix it. Don’t attempt electrical work yourself unless you know what you’re doing!
Even if you aren’t going to install the GFCIs yourself, it’s a good idea to know what the minimum requirements are. Note that these are just minimum requirements. If you have additional features in your bathroom, for example, such as a steam shower, you are going to require more GFCIs. Generally, though, the requirements are one 20-mp rated electrical circuit that is not used for anything other than the outlets in the bathroom. All bathroom outlets should be GFCI protected.
Other bathroom requirements:
Bathroom sinks must have a GFCI receptacle installed within 3 feet from the outside edge of the sink
If you are replacing an older, non-GFCI receptacle in your home, in must be replaced by a GFCI-compliant one.
Some types of bathroom lighting may not be installed above a bathtub or shower stall or within a certain distance horizontally and vertically over the top of the bathtub. These include track lighting, lighting on a chain, cable, or cord, or lights connected to an outlet via a cord, and ceiling fans.
Additionally, bathroom light fixtures must have wiring that is concealed within the electrical box or fixture enclosure. It’s not required that you install light fixtures above bathtubs or shower stalls on a GFCI protected circuit, but the added safety measure is never a bad idea.
Bathroom exhaust fans are another electrical component that may be required to be installed under GFCI protection. If you are going to install the exhaust fan directly above a bathtub or shower, be sure to choose a product that is specifically designed for that purpose and location, and always install fans in those locations on a circuit protected by a GFCI.
Just as you have tested a GFCI in any other room by plugging in a lamp to determine whether the GFCI is working, to test whether a GFCI is protecting your exhaust fan, turn the fan on and press the test button on one of the bathroom GFCI receptacles. If the fan continues to run after the breaker is tripped, it’s likely that the fan is not protected by the GFCI.
Final advice about GFCIs: Don’t ever install an electrical panel in the bathroom. There are far too many risks associated with having an electrical panel so near to sources of moisture and water.
Even though it can be a hassle to change over regular receptacles to GFCIs, it’s more than worth it. A properly installed GFCI could potentially be a life-saving investment. Without them, the risk of electrical shock or electrocution is high, and although the installation of GFCIs isn’t a guarantee that accidents won’t happen, installing them will certainly go a long way toward mitigating the potentially disastrous consequences that can result from a shock. Always hire a qualified electrician to install your GFCIs for you, as poor installation will cause gaps in the GFCIs functionality. Those gaps could potentially cause serious injury and potentially even fatalities.
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