How Do GFCI Outlets Work and Why You Need Them


GFCI outlet

Electricity has become an enormous part of our lives, so big that it is almost impossible to live without it. Love it or hate it, electricity gives us comfort, but it can also be dangerous.

When working with electricity, safety should be the number one priority. That’s why GFCI protection in your home is an essential part of today’s homes.

So, how do GFCI outlets work? A GFCI outlet is a safety device that protects against electrical shocks in wet areas. A GFCI outlet uses a built-in sensor that monitors electricity between the hot and neutral inlets. When a surge as low as 4 or 5 milliamps is detected, the sensor breaks the electrical circuit by tripping the TEST button on the outlet.

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In other words, a GFCI outlet works by cutting power to an electrical outlet to protect against electrical shock. GFCI outlets have a sensor that detects electrical imbalances as low as 4 to 5 milliamps across the hot and neutral terminals. Once an imbalance occurs, the sensor instantly breaks the circuit by cutting power to the outlet.

The accidents have dramatically decreased since the introduction and the consequent increase of GFCI outlets usage.

They provide high levels of protection and safety for us and our homes. That is why it is essential to be adequately informed and better understand how they work, recognize them, and expect from them.

How Do GFCI Outlets Work?

A GFCI outlet is a great thing to have to improve the overall safety of your home. Not everybody is a certified electrician, and all the technical vocabulary can be very confusing.

Don’t worry. You don’t need to know every single term to understand and know some crucial details. That’s what this article is all about.

The GFCI outlet can detect problems with the electricity that is traveling through a circuit. When a problem is detected, it shuts itself off, stopping any electrical current from that particular outlet. This helps to protect against electrical shock.

The Outlet

Take a look at your outlet. Here in the United States, we have two vertical holes that are usually on top and another round hole below them.

  • The left hole is the “neutral,“ and the right is the “hot.“ The round one beneath them is called the “ground.”
  • When you plug in an electrical appliance, the electricity will begin to flow from the hot to the neutral.

The Ground Fault Circuit Interrupter (GFCI)

The GFCI has a sensor that tracks the flow of the current. The flow of the current usually remains the same (with some slight losses). However, if a ground fault happens, this will create an imbalance. That imbalance will be registered instantly by the GFCI, and it cuts off the power in the outlet.

The GFCI outlets work fast, and this is vital as it can save lives. It can detect as small imbalances as low as 4-5 milliamperes, and it can trip the circuit in one-thirteenth of a second. In that short amount of time, you might feel a slight pinch, but the GFCI will stop any prolonged exposure to the life-threatening electrical shock that might be lethal.

Just for comparison, at ten milliamperes, human muscles paralyze due to the electricity passing through the body, and only two seconds of this are enough to cause death.

The standard outlets cannot monitor the current and do not provide such protection. However, standard outlets can be used on a GFCI protected circuit, provided the GFCI is on the leading outlet.

For example, sometimes in new construction homes, you will see bathrooms with standard outlets but may have a GFCI on the same circuit located in another bathroom. Another example is where exterior outlets will be GFCI protected through a GFCI outlet located inside a garage.

It is common for you to find a GFCI outlet positioned closest to the electrical panel box, and other areas will be protected through the same circuit.

What Is a Ground Fault?

Many people understand how a GFCI outlet works but don’t truly understand what a ground fault is. 

So what is a ground fault? A ground fault describes how electricity unintentionally exits a contained path and follows its natural flow directly to the earth (ground). In our homes, electrical wiring uses insulated sheathing to contain electricity. As foreign objects contact an electrical circuit, electricity will attempt to follow this unintended path to the earth.

The electricity is traveling through the wires in your home. These wires are containing the electricity within themselves because they are covered in plastic insulating material.

If everything is working correctly, the electrical current travels safely through the wires reaching any appliances and equipment you might have plugged in.

This is what should normally happen with electricity when it is properly contained within the wires and equipment.

That is not necessarily what is natural to the electrical current, though.

Electricity is always looking for a place to the ground. That’s why lightning usually strikes the earth (going from negative to positive).

When a ground fault happens, the electrical current has escaped the wiring and its intended path and goes into the ground. This can happen due to bad wiring or installation, damaged wires, and when the current is in contact with an appropriate conductor.

Water is one such conductor. There is a high risk of a ground fault in wet areas, like bathrooms or kitchens.

Why Are Ground Faults Dangerous?

During the ground fault, the electricity has taken a path that is not unintended for it. In doing so, it will use any conductor to pass through it and reach the ground.

If that conductor is a human being, this can lead to electrical shock and electrocution – and that happens just once.

When that happens, our muscles will “freeze” due to the electrical current passing through our body. For example, if you grabbed a damaged wire and you get electrocuted, you won’t be able to release it, thus maintaining the connection between you and the electrical current.

Just a few seconds of this are enough to cause death.

That muscle paralysis is the reason it is so dangerous as you might not be able to let go of the wire leading to a fatal result. If another person touches you in the meantime, they can feel the electrical shock, putting them in danger, too.

What Are the Biggest Causes of a Ground Fault?

First, a ground fault can happen when the wiring insulation is damaged or due to faulty wiring.

When inspecting a home, there is a reason why pest inspection is essential as rodents can chew through the wiring, causing a lot of unexpected costs and health hazards.

However, the biggest reason for ground faults happening is moisture (or dampness) and environmental conditions.

Do You Need GFCI Outlets?

GFCIs can be considered a safety feature that you need to make sure you have installed as it will protect your home and your family.

GFCI outlets don’t need any special care or tending to. Every once in a while, you might want to give them a simple test (by pressing the test button) to check if they are still functioning correctly, and that’s about it.

Testing is especially important with GFCI outlets located outside because they tend to wear out faster than GFCI outlets installed indoors.

If an electrical fault happens for some reason, the GFCI will stop cut off the power to that outlet. This will save you from receiving an electrical shock and protect your appliances from being damaged.

But there is another question that I frequently get asked, and that is:

Is There Any Difference Between a GFCI and the Circuit Breakers in the Electric Panel?

So far, it sounds as if they are the same thing. So you might wonder whether or not you need any GFCIs.

Both of them serve different purposes and protect the home and you in different ways.

  • The circuit breakers’ primary purpose is to cut off any electricity that is flowing through the wires in a particular circuit. When there is a sudden surge in the current flowing through the electrical wiring that surpasses the electrical wire’s allowable rating, the circuit breakers will trip, protecting the home from any electrical fires.
  • The GFCI will offer protection in a different aspect as it will stop the electricity flowing through the outlet where there are signs of a ground fault or short circuit. In addition to that, this happens almost instantly.

How to Know If My Outlet Has a GFCI?

Since GFCI outlets and breakers provide safety, anyone should be able to recognize them.

The easiest way to identify receptacles equipped with GFCI protection is to look for the two buttons they usually have. Often they will come with a “Test” and a “Reset” button.

The reason for that is so you can test if the GFCI is working correctly. Some outlets even have an indicator light on them. Usually, an outlet containing a GFCI should also have a label on it, but that is not always the case.

In some cases, a few different outlets can be connected to a single GFCI, so there might be no visible clues on the outlet themselves.

A GFCI protection can be provided by a distribution panel that is equipped with a GFCI breaker, and it can protect several different outlets connected to it.

Because of that, it is important to know that just by taking a quick look at an outlet, it might not always be possible to tell if there is GFCI protected or not.

How Do I Know If My GFCI Receptacle Is Working?

Since we are talking about home and personal safety here, it is vital to understand not only how a GFCI outlet works but also how to find out if it has gone bad or failed. If your GFCI has a blinking red light, it has likely failed.

An outlet like this doesn’t require any special maintenance (it is just like a regular outlet), but it certainly has some life expectancy. A GFCI outlet should be tested every month and replaced every ten years or so. A GFCI outlet can last 15 years or more.

Just like anything, GFCIs can break, wear out, or become faulty over the years if you live in an area with high lightning activity, the time until a replacement can go down to even five years or less.

To check if the outlet is working correctly, you can test it. The test itself takes just a few seconds, and it doesn’t require any additional equipment. You don’t have to power off the whole electrical power.

How to Test a GFCI Outlet:

outlet tester

You can quickly test a GFCI outlet or circuit. Here are the simple steps.

  • Take a look at the outlet – between the top and bottom receptacles; there should be two small rectangular buttons. On one, it should say Test, and on the other, Reset.
  • Press the Test button. Then the outlet should create a small sound as it shuts off the power to the plug connectors.
  • Make sure there is no power in the connectors by plugging in a table lamp. The lamp should not turn on.
  • When you are sure there is no power, press the Reset button to ensure the outlet is back to working normally. If you plug in the lamp now, it should be working.

Keep in mind that the older GFCI equipped outlets can fail while being closed, and despite being tripped, they will still conduct electricity. This means that there is zero protection against any electrical faults.

On the other hand, newer models usually fail while being open. Although they will not work anymore, they still have cut off the electrical current.

Another point of concern is if the outlets are wired correctly. If they are wired backward (also called reversed polarity), a newer unit will not work, while an older receptacle will not offer GFCI protection.

I recommend the FLIR RT50 Receptacle Tester available at Amazon. The FLIR Receptacle Tester has a built-in GFCI test button to allow you to test GFCI protection on outlets downstream from the lead GFCI outlet.

Where Should You Install GFCI Outlets?

GFCI outlets should be installed in places and rooms where appliances are frequently used close to water sources. The presence of any water or moisture can increase the chances of receiving accidental shocks.

If you are buying or moving into an older home, you need to know that older homes are not required to have GFCI outlets unless the wiring will be updated, in which case the receptacles need to be changed. This means that older buildings might not have any GFCI protection, and while working with appliances outside or close to water, you should take extra care.

According to the NEC (National Electrical Code) standards and recommendations, a GFCI should be installed in places such as, but not limited to:

  • Bathrooms – all outlets in bathrooms need GFCI protection.
  • Jetted tubs – Jetted tubs should be GFCI protected. This is often done by a GFCI breaker inside the electrical panel box.
  • Kitchens – in recent years, the electrical code has expanded to include all outlets, including refrigerators.
  • Laundry and utility rooms – any outlet within six feet of a sink, washing machine, water heater, or wet bar and utility sinks.
  • Swimming pools – Any receptacle within 20 feet of the edge of any pools.
  • Exterior outlets – outlets outside for the usage of any power tools and garden equipment.
  • Garages and other accessory buildings – outlets located in garages, sheds, docks, boathouses, or other outbuildings
  • Crawlspaces and unfinished basements – outlets located in unfinished areas to provide power sources for tools, lights, etc.
  • Hot tubs and spas – outlets within 10 feet of the edge of any spas or hot tubs.

This is because water can conduct electricity, and there is a high risk of creating a ground-fault and receiving a shock.

During the past several decades, with every code revision done, the areas required to have a GFCI equipped receptacles have been expanding. The revisions are usually done every three years. As you can see, there are very few places and rooms that are not required.

It is not required to install a GFCI outlet in any bedrooms and living rooms or any other rooms with no running water or plumbing fixtures. In those areas, it is still considered okay to use a regular outlet.

What Are the Different Types of GFCI?

A GFCI can be installed and found in various locations, and sometimes it might look a bit different, too. This doesn’t change anything, as the way the protection works is virtually always the same.

Here we will go through the three most common ways a GFCI is being installed:

  1. GFCI Equipped Outlet

As we have just discussed, the standard GFCI outlet has protection built inside of it. This outlet only offers shock protection to the appliances connected to it and is the most commonly used and cheap method.

Also, some appliances do come with in-built GFCIs, so they might not necessarily need extra protection, but the majority of them still don’t have proper GFCI protection.

  1. GFCI Circuit Breaker

The GFCI circuit breaker, on the other hand, has several different outlets connected to it, and it protects all the receptacles connected to it. If the GFCI detects a ground fault, the breaker trips inside the electrical panel box, killing power to the entire circuit.

Usually, the GFCI will be installed in the panel at the circuit breaker. The way to recognize it is that there will be a yellow or red Test button near the electrical panel switch. Failure of the GFCI breaker or outlet is a common electrical defect.

  1. GFCI Dead Front

The GFCI dead front is another variation that you might see. A dead front usually has just two buttons on it and provides an easy way for anyone to test it and reset it if it trips. GFCI has Test and Reset buttons only with no receptacle outlets.

It is usually used to protect remote appliances that are not easily accessible – like the bathroom’s spa pump, which is often built inside the walls near the electrical panels or a bathroom.

Will a Home Inspector Check for GFCI Outlets?

If you are in the process of buying a new home and you are worried about the state and condition of the receptacles (outlets), a home inspector will help you.

The home inspection checks the overall condition of the home. Everything readily accessible and visible will be examined. During the home inspection, the outlets and their status will be inspected too.

Older homes still might not have GFCI protection on some or all of the outlets. A home inspector will inform you about any electrical concerns and possible dangers, including a lack of GFCI protection.

If the home you are interested in doesn’t have GFCI protection, this can often be easily corrected by a licensed electrician. In some rare cases, re-wiring may be needed to add proper GFCI protection.

Do you need a Licensed Electrician? We can help! Get a free estimate from top-rated, screened, and licensed electricians in your area!

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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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