Common Questions About GFCI Code Requirements


outlet tester

By now, most everyone has at least heard of ground fault circuit interrupter (GFCI) circuits. You can easily distinguish a GFCI outlet by the two buttons (a TEST and RESET button) that are located on the outlet itself. There should also be a label reading GFCI on it as well.

GFCIs are important safety features for many reasons. Surprisingly though, many homeowners and potential home buyers still do not understand GFCIs and their purpose.

A lot of the common questions about GFCI breakers and outlet requirements have to do with what locations they need to be installed, on which receptacles, and which appliances need a GFCI protection.

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I strongly encourage every future homeowner or homebuyer to explore these requirements.

Here is the thing.

Buying or owning a house is no small expense. A simple thing like bad or outdated wiring can cost you an arm and a leg in some cases.

Not just that, but as you will find out, there are specific requirements that may make things even more complicated for you in the future. Also, GFCIs are not just any outlet but an outlet that provides irreplaceable health and safety

Are GFCI Outlets Required by Code?

Yes, the current National Electrical Code (NEC) requires ground fault circuit interrupter (GFCI) protection in wet areas including bathrooms, jetted tubs, kitchens, laundry rooms, garages, crawl spaces, exteriors, swimming pools, hot tubs and any areas that could come in contact with moisture.

What’s the purpose of a GFCI?

Ground Fault Circuit Interrupter (GFCI) is a safety device that continually monitors the electrical current flow for ground faults.

The GFCI monitors the current that goes to the electrical device and compares it to the electrical current that goes out of it.

If the GFCI detects any loss of current, it will automatically trip. The reason behind this is that this loss of electrical current more often than not will signify that there may be a ground fault happening.

Is a Ground Fault Dangerous?

A ground fault is dangerous as this means that the electricity has escaped the insulating wires which may have been damaged, frayed, or compromised. By escaping from the wires, the electricity has a chance to get in contact with our body and can electrocute us.

This kind of electrical shocks can be fatal even if they last a few seconds.

What makes electrical shock dangerous and lethal is the amperage. Even low amperage levels can be hazardous as 0.01 amps are enough to create an intense and excruciating shock. And anything starting from 0.1 to 0.2 amps can be lethal. (And most of our appliances today use a lot more than that.)

How Do GFCIs Protect Me?

A GFCI, when properly working, will protect us from the electrical shock by immediately tripping when a ground fault is detected.

It works incredibly fast. It can trip in just 1/13 of a second. And this happens when as small difference as a 0.004 to 0.005 amps is detected. You will still probably feel a slight electrical shock, but it will not be dangerous in any way.

And the numbers of electrical shock-related accidents can be truly shocking (1).

  • At least 30,000 electrical shock accidents happen every year.
  • More than 2000 children are hospitalized each year due to electrical shock injuries.

What are the National Electrical Code Requirements?

Thus it may come as no surprise to you that GFCI outlets are required by the National Electrical Code (NEC). And they are needed in almost all rooms and areas of the building.

GFCI receptacles were first introduced and required in 1971.

In the beginning, they were only needed for the swimming pools and outside areas. But ever since then – and with every Code revision – these areas have been continuously expanding.

Where Are GFCI Outlets Required by the Code?

Because of the constant expansion of the requirements, you will find out that almost all of the receptacles are required to have ground fault protection.

According to the Code, all outlets that are rated at 15 and 20 amperage and 125V that are installed in the following areas need to have GFCI protection.

  • Garages and accessory buildings.
  • Bathrooms, jet tubs, pools, and spas.
  • All outdoor areas.
  • Kitchens and nearby sinks.
  • Laundry areas and nearby sinks.
  • Unfinished basements and crawl spaces.

Additional Requirements and Information

Also, since the Code revision in 2017, some additional changes were done stating that the GFCI device needs to be placed in an easily accessible location.

This applies to both outlets and breakers that have GFCI devices installed on them.

So what does that really mean?

Easily accessible means that you shouldn’t need any tools or equipment to access and manipulate the GFCI device. (Like climbing a ladder, for example)

If you can simply walk up to the GFCI and press the “TEST” or “RESET” button, for example, then you are good to go.

If the GFCI outlet is inaccessible, that’s going to be okay as long as the “TEST” and “RESET” buttons are extended and placed in an easily accessible location. (The buttons do not necessarily have to be on the receptacle.)

Due to some GFCI protected outlets not being easily accessible, such as behind the refrigerator or washing machine, the GFCI reset is typically located on the breaker itself inside the electrical panel box.

Common Questions About GFCI Breaker and Outlet Requirements

Let’s look at some of the common questions about GFCI breakers and outlet code requirements in place today.

Are GFCI Outlets Required for Dishwashers?

The revision of the NEC in 2014 states that dishwashers in dwelling units are required to have GFCI protection.

This may cause a lot of confusion but let me explain.

This requirement about dishwashers was added since compared to the older models some of the newer dishwashers may have a different failure mode. This may cause a potential latent electrical shock hazard when a dishwasher malfunctions.

This makes a GFCI protection a must-have. However, some dishwashers can also be hardwired. And since there is no outlet per se, this meant that until 2014, some of them could have been installed without GFCI protection.

The GFCI reset for the dishwasher is generally located on the Dual-Function breaker inside the panel box. However, some older homes may only have a GFCI breaker or no GFCI protection at all.

Are GFCI Outlets Required for Refrigerators?

GFCI protection has been required for all commercial kitchens and refrigerators ever since the revision of the Code in 2008. However, for residential homes, GFCI protection for the refrigerator was not necessary until recent updates in the NEC code.

There was once a time when refrigerators were not required to have GFCI protection. My home was built in 2004 and doesn’t have GFCI protection for the refrigerator circuit.

This was generally the case to prevent food spoilage from a tripped GFCI that was not detected, for instance, while at work or on vacation.

Older refrigerators were well-known to cause GFCI outlets and breakers to trip constantly. So they do have a bad reputation going on for them.

However, newer models, and by newer think models that were built in the last 15-20 years, are not known to cause such nuisance tripping of GFCIs.

In today’s homes, refrigerator circuits are with Dual-Function Breakers which offer both AFCI and GFCI protection. These breakers have a reset button located on the breaker itself inside your electrical panel box.

Are GFCI Outlets Required in Bathrooms?

All 15 and 20 amp 125V receptacles that are in the bathroom need to be GFCI protected.

Bathrooms are almost always one of the first rooms that are being checked for proper GFCI protection. And this has been one of the first places that were required to have this kind of protection.

It has been in effect since 1975.

There are usually high amounts of water, moisture, and humidity. All this poses a high chance for a contact of water with electrical appliances which can result in electrocution.

Are GFCI Outlets Required in Bedrooms?

GFCI protection is not required in the bedrooms. According to the Code, only AFCI protection is required there.

It is believed that bedrooms are not high-risk areas. Some rare instances exist in master bedrooms where a vanity with a sink or wet bar is installed. In this instance, GFCI protection is required if an outlet is within 6 feet of the water source.

Are GFCI Outlets Required in the Garage?

Yes, they are. GFCI outlets in garages are required since the 1978 revision of the NEC.

Every 15 and 20 amp 125-volt receptacle that is found in the garage needs to be equipped with proper GFCI protection.

The wiring in the garage can be subjected to dust, moisture, and other things that can all create the necessary conditions for a ground fault.

Are GFCI Outlets Required Outside?

The Code requires all outside receptacles to be protected with a GFCI device. That requirement was implemented with the 1975 revision of the NEC.

This includes all receptacles found on the outside walls, on balconies, and attached decks.

The majority of these receptacles will most likely be subjected to the elements on a constant basis throughout the year. So they need to have an appropriate water-resistance rating and weatherproof cover.

Additionally, because all of these receptacles have to be easily accessible, they are not allowed to be installed higher than 6 1/2 feet above the walking or ground surface.

Are GFCI Outlets Required in Laundry Rooms?

According to the Code, all receptacles (15 and 20 amp at 125 volts) in the laundry rooms need to have proper GFCI protection.

The revision of the NEC done in 2005 requires that all receptacles within 6 feet of a sink or a wet bar need to be with a working GFCI protection installed.

Laundry rooms can expose the electrical wiring and the different electrical appliances and devices (Such as washers, dryers, lighting, etc.) to high amounts of moisture, humidity, or water. Therefore, GFCI protection is needed to protect against electrical shock.

As with refrigerators in kitchens, washing machines typically have a Dual-Function Breaker installed to offer GFCI and AFCI protection.

Are GFCI Breakers Required for Jet Tubs?

GFCI protection is needed for any outlet up to 30 amps and 125-volt that are located within 6 feet of the jet tubs.

Jet tubes, hot tubs, hydro-massage tubs, Jacuzzi tubs, and whirlpools are required by the NEC to have proper GFCI protection. The requirement was introduced with the 1987 revision of the NEC.

Jet Tubs generally have a motor that is at least partially inaccessible, therefore GFCI breakers are used and located inside the electrical panel box.

Are GFCI Circuits Required in Attics?

There is no requirement in place from the NEC to have GFCI receptacles in the attic.

Another important thing is to make sure you check the local regulations as local codes may have different requirements.

Are GFCI Circuits Required in Basements?

This answer depends on is the basement finished or unfinished. If the basement is unfinished space, yes, GFCI protection is required. On the other hand, finished basements do not require GFCI protection unless a wet area exists like a kitchen, bathroom, or laundry room exists.

Are GFCI Circuits Required in Crawl Spaces?

Yes, electrical outlets located inside crawl spaces are required to be GFCI protected. Electrical outlets inside crawl spaces are used to power dehumidifiers, foundation vent fans, sump pumps, etc.

Since these outlets are not easily accessible, the circuit is ideally GFCI protected via a GFCI breaker located inside the electrical panel box.

Are GFCI Outlets Easy to Install?

Replacing a GFCI outlet is not necessarily difficult. However, when working with electricity, there should be no surprises. If you decide to install the outlets yourself always make sure to double and even triple check if necessary. It is always better to be safe than sorry.

To paint a better picture of how GFCI outlets are installed, I will go through some basic principles and things to keep in mind.

A word of caution: If you’ve never done any electrical work before, hiring a professional electrician is recommended. DO NOT underestimate the danger of working with electrical wiring.

One of the first things you need to do is locate the circuit breaker supplying electrical current to the receptacle that will be replaced.

Then you need to switch it off. Make sure ALWAYS to have the breaker switched off before opening up the receptacle box or interfering with it in any way. You DO NOT want to have any electricity flowing while working with the wiring and the receptacle. This is extremely dangerous and can be fatal.

  • One of the first things you will need is a few tools like a circuit tester. A circuit tester is a device that can be plugged into the receptacle, thus checking if the receptacle is working correctly and whether or not it is delivering electrical current.
  • There are also GFCI circuit testers which can check if the GFCI is installed and working correctly.

These testers are used to check if the electrical current is indeed cut off and the wiring and receptacle are safe to be worked with.

One of the frequent problems that you may be faced with – on older properties, in particular – is the size of the box.

Older receptacles may be a lot smaller while the newer GFCIs may require more space. Some of the boxes may not be deep enough to accommodate the GFCI receptacle. This will make the whole installation process a lot more complicated as some demolition work may need to be done.

Another thing concerning the wiring is always to make sure you use the screws on the receptacle to really tighten the wire in place. If you have loose wiring connections, this is a potential health and fire hazard.

Additionally, the wires need to be wired correctly. This is very IMPORTANT as mismatched wires may render a GFCI protection useless. An outlet that has been wired backward can be considered a latent safety hazard.

Can GFCIs Be Installed When There Is No Ground Wire?

Some of the older homes may not have a ground wire on their receptacles. So that begs the question of what needs to be done.

GFCIs can be installed on electrical circuits that don’t have ground wire.

However, that means that the receptacle needs to be clearly marked that it is not grounded.

The GFCI will work as intended since the device monitors the electrical current that flows through the hot wire and compares it to the neutral.

The Electrical Circuits

Depending on how the electrical circuit is wired, you can check if there is already a GFCI protection in place.

Sometimes receptacles may be wired downstream of an outlet that already has a GFCI protection installed which would mean that this outlet is providing GFCI protection to the rest of the receptacles down the circuit.

This can easily be tested by tripping the GFCI outlet. By pressing the “TEST” button and checking with a reliable pen-tester or another device to see if the rest of the receptacles down the circuit have running power to them.

Can I Install a GFCI Myself?

Although replacing an outlet is not considered a difficult task – electrical current is dangerous and can be lethal – it doesn’t take much to kill a person.

If you have no prior experience working with electricity, replacing an existing outlet with a GFCI outlet yourself is NOT recommended.

It is RECOMMENDED to hire a licensed electrician to do the electrical work.

Are GFCI Outlets Tamper-Resistant?

Tamper-resistant outlets have proven their value, especially in preventing child-related electrical shocks.

So what are tamper resistant receptacles?

Tamper-resistant receptacles (TRR) are receptacles that have added a safety feature to them. They provide extra protection against electrical shocks from tampering with the receptacles.

The built-in shutters inside the plug holes will not open if an object is placed into just one of the slots. This is especially good to provide proper child safety protection.

In comparison, the plastic receptacle caps are not safe and easily removed by children between the ages of 2 and 4.

There are tamper-resistant outlets that do have built-in GFCI protection (and also AFCI protection, too). Look for the appropriate labeling on the outlets.

Are Tamper-Resistant Receptacles required by Code?

Since the revision of the Code in 2008, the TRR receptacles are required on all 15 and 20 amp 125-volt receptacles in all residential buildings.

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Hubert Miles

I've been conducting home inspections for 17 years. I'm a licensed Home Inspector, Certified Master Inspector (CMI), and FHA 203k Consultant. I started HomeInspectionInsider.com to help people better understand the home inspection process and answer questions about homeownership and home maintenance.

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