GFI vs GFCI: Are They the Same?

If you’re not familiar with all the different terms used in electrical work, it can get confusing. Two terms that you’ve probably heard used at one point or another are GFI and GFCI. The fact that there are different terms has people wondering if these jumbles of letters mean the same thing or refer to two completely separate entities. 

GFI and GFCI are slightly different terms, but they refer to the same thing. Both terms get used in reference to protective measures placed on outlets and circuit breakers. If a GFI or GFCI circuit breaker or outlet detects electrical anomalies, it automatically cuts the flow of electricity to prevent electrical shock. The terms are interchangeable. 

While the two acronyms are interchangeable, that begs the question of why there are two different terms in the first place. We’ll take a closer look at that in the lines that follow, and we’ll also explore further into the world of electricity. 

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Why GFCI Outlets have a Blinking Re...
Why GFCI Outlets have a Blinking Red Light? – Home Inspection Insider
Is There a Difference Between GFI and GFCI? 

Let’s establish right off the bat that there is no main difference between GFI and GFCI. GFI stands for Ground Fault Interrupter, and GFCI stands for Ground Fault Circuit interrupter. The only minor difference between the two terms is the word “circuit,” but you can use either term whether you’re using a single outlet or a circuit breaker. 

You should note that GFI gets used more often to refer to receptacles, whereas GFCI refers more to the entire circuit, meaning the breaker. However, you shouldn’t put too much stock in this subtle difference because the terminology will vary depending on the professional electrician you talk to and which one they prefer. 

What is the Purpose of a GFI or GFCI Outlet or Breaker? 

Regardless of which term you hear or prefer to use, the purpose of GFI and GFCI products are the same: to protect you from electrocution. How these devices do, is quite interesting. Essentially, GFI and GFCI devices detect anomalies in your home’s electrical system or branch circuit across the hot wire and neutral wire.

When an abnormality occurs, an electric current takes an unintended path to the ground capable of fatal electrical shocks in standard receptacles. These anomalies generally occur when electrical appliances contact water sources.

With ground fault interrupters, the sensor cuts off the flow of electricity nearly instantaneously thus preventing fatal electric shocks.

If it notices a slight difference between the two, it will automatically kill power to the breaker or outlet. The result is the same as that of a flipped or tripped breaker. Even the slightest anomaly in electrical flow indicates that electricity is somehow leaking out of the electrical device. The electricity could strike you if you’re standing near it, resulting in an electrical shock. 

GFI and GFCI outlets and circuits will also trip if they get wet or detect moisture. Moisture detection is why most GFI devices get installed in bathrooms, kitchens, laundry rooms, or outdoor areas. 

What is a GFI Breaker? 

A GFI breaker or circuit breaker is a GFI device that gets installed inside the main panel box of your home. This device will get installed in place of a standard circuit breaker without GFI protection. Installing a GFI breaker means that every outlet on its circuit has GFI protection, meaning that you don’t have to install individual GFI receptacles. 

Total protection means that anything plugged into an outlet wired into a GFI breaker gets protected from power surges and moisture. There are certain parts of your home where the National Electrical Code has GFCI requirements, but you often get to choose between individual receptacle outlets or circuit breakers. 

While GFI breakers look very similar to traditional circuit breakers, they have one subtle difference. Towards the bottom of the breaker, there’s a small button or switch. This button or switch will trip when it detects electrical anomalies anywhere along its circuit and kill power to all the regular outlets it’s powering. The entire breaker will trip any time the GFCI portion of the breaker trips. 

How to Reset a GFI Breaker

If you notice a lack of power to an entire circuit of outlets, it’s probably because of a tripped breaker. If the outlets are in your kitchen, bathroom, or laundry area, there’s a good chance that the tripped breaker is GFCI protected. Luckily, resetting this type of breaker is one of the easiest DIY electrical jobs you’ll ever run into. 

  1. Locate the main panel box in your home. 
  2. Locate the tripped breaker, usually signified by being halfway between the ON and OFF positions. 
  3. If you notice a small button or switch on the breaker, it’s GFCI protected. 
  4. If you’re unsure if it’s tripped or not, push the button or switch to test the breaker. 
  5. If the breaker doesn’t move, this means it’s tripped. 
  6. To reset the breaker, move the breaker switch entirely to the OFF position, then slide it back to the ON position. 
  7. If the breaker refuses to stay in the ON position but immediately trips again, the problem that caused it to trip in the first place is still present. 

What is a GFCI Receptacle? 

GFCI or GFI receptacles and outlets work the same way other outlets do, but they look quite different. Outlets without GFI protection often have a round surface area similar to an oval or circle. GFCI outlets, however, are usually square, and they have two buttons between the top outlet and the bottom one. 

These buttons should be labeled as TEST and RESET. Most modern GFI outlets also have a tiny light near the RESET button that shines red when the outlet gets tripped. GFI outlets work very similarly to GFI breakers, except that only the outlet is protected rather than the entire circuit. 

If the outlet notices electrical anomalies, it will trip, and you’ll have to reset it before power gets restored. While traditionally, GFI outlets offered protection to a single outlet, modern devices can get wired differently to protect all the individual outlets located downstream of the GFI one. This difference is known as single-location protection versus multiple-location protection. 

The concept is very similar to how GFI breakers work. Every outlet that receives its power supply from the GFI receptacle is under its protection, including standard outlets that wouldn’t normally have GFCI protection. 

However, it’s important to understand that only the outlets downstream from the GFI device get protected. Any outlets between the GFI device and the panel box don’t receive this benefit. For this reason, it’s common for the first outlet in a kitchen or bathroom to be a GFCI device, but the next outlets in line are not. 

How to Reset a GFCI Receptacle

Resetting GFI receptacles is even easier than resetting a GFI breaker. 

  1. Locate the GFI device in question to see if it’s tripped. 
  2. If your device has a tiny light shining red, you have a tripped outlet. However, older GFI outlets don’t have this feature, so you’ll have to test the outlet. 
  3. To do this, push the TEST button. If the outlet makes a clicking noise and trips, you can safely say it wasn’t previously tripped. However, if it doesn’t make this noise, the outlet is tripped, and you have to reset it. 
  4. Simply push the RESET button to reset the outlet, and the outlet should resume normal operation. 

Should I Install a GFI Receptacle or Breaker? 

It doesn’t matter whether you install a GFI receptacle or a breaker in most states and situations. The only thing that matters is that you do one or the other in certain locations. Because moisture is the most prevalent threat to electrical anomalies and electrocution, you should install GFI devices in any location where moisture is a possibility. These locations include: 

  • Bathrooms 
  • Kitchens 
  • Laundry Rooms 
  • Outdoor Kitchens 
  • Outdoor Outlets 
  • Porches, patios, and decks 
  • Garages 
  • Unfinished basements 
  • Shops 
  • Barns

While this may seem like many places, you’ll still have far more traditional outlets in your home than GFI ones. Many areas requiring GFI protection will never experience a problem, but you can never be too safe. Make sure to check with your local building code and NEC regulations to verify whether or not you need an outlet or circuit with GFCI protection. 

As previously stated, it’s usually up to you which type of GFCI device you install. Breakers and outlets do the same thing, especially with modern GFI outlets that can kill power to an entire circuit. 

Pros of a GFI Outlet 

GFI outlets are the more common choice for GFI protection in most cases. This is especially true if you install or rework your electricity because replacing outlets is easier and less dangerous than replacing breakers. 

However, in new construction situations, it’s entirely up to you as to which type of device you prefer. To help make your decision easier, here are some of the advantages of GFI outlets. 

  • Easier and more convenient to reset than a breaker 
  • Offer both single-location and multiple-location protection 
  • You can install these in larger circuits where not all the devices need GFI protection 
  • Perfect for outlets added after the fact that need GFI protection 
  • Easier to install for DIYers than breakers are
  • GFCI outlets usually cost around $5 more than traditional outlets, whereas GFI breakers cost $40 to $50 more than traditional circuit breakers. 

Pros of a GFI Breaker

There are certain cases when installing a GFI breaker rather than an individual outlet, or a series of them makes sense. Typically, you install GFI breakers when there’s no doubt that an entire circuit needs GFCI protection. The only downside of GFI breakers is that you have to locate your panel box to reset the breaker when it trips. 

There are also restrictions on where you can install GFI outlets, which means that a breaker may be your only option. GFI outlets must be easily accessible and not located behind pieces of furniture or appliances. You also have to be able to locate them easily and don’t need a ladder or another mechanism to reach them. If all the outlets in a circuit aren’t readily accessible or are behind large objects, a GFI circuit breaker is your only option. 

Additionally, installing a GFI breaker ensures that power is cut when moisture or electrical anomalies are detected. Modern GFCI outlets can do the same thing, but there’s always the risk of a faulty outlet or incorrect wiring. Installing a GFCI breaker instead of an outlet safeguards against this possibility. Here are some of the advantages of GFI breakers. 

  • Kills power to an entire circuit 
  • Perfect for pool houses or outdoor circuits where GFI protection is a must 
  • Ensures the killing of power to problem areas 
  • GFCI breakers usually last longer than GFI outlets 

What About AFCI? 

AFCI outlets and breakers are electrical devices similar to GFI and GFCI ones. AFCI protection stands for arc-fault circuit interrupter and operates similarly to GFCI devices, with one subtle difference. The job of an AFCI device is to detect arc faults on an entire circuit or a single outlet rather than to detect ground faults. 

Ground faults can cause electrical shock, but arc faults can result in an electrical fire. Therefore, the main job of AFCI devices is to kill power to electrical outlets and prevent electrical fires from starting. These types of devices tend to be slightly more sensitive than GFCI ones. 

Related Questions 

Are GFI outlets worth it? 

Not only are GFI outlets and breakers worth the investment of a few extra bucks, but they’re also mandatory. Anywhere that moisture is a possibility, GFI outlets must get installed in place of traditional outlets. 

Can you put a GFCI outlet on a GFCI circuit? 

Technically, there’s nothing wrong with putting a GFCI outlet on a GFCI circuit, but there’s no reason. The outlet will already be GFCI protected, so installing a GFCI outlet is overkill and wasteful. 

Why do people say GFI instead of GFCI? 

It’s unknown why some people say GFI rather than GFCI. The most likely reason is simply that that’s the way they learned to say it during training or at some point in their life. However, the terms mean the same thing and get used interchangeably. 

Final Thoughts 

Whether you’re used to saying GFI or GFCI doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of things. They both mean the same thing, and different electricians will refer to them differently. The important thing is that you understand how crucial proper installation of GFI devices is and that you install them in the right locations. Seek out the help of a qualified electrician if you need help.

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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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