by W. ERIC SCHULT
(The author is a licensed home inspector in North Carolina and owner of OZ Home Inspections, LLC, based in the greater Fort Bragg region and extending throughout NC’s south central sandhills.)
GFCI doesn’t stand for “Good For Confusing Inhabitants.” But it could.
For what it’s worth, a GFCI is that electric receptacle in your bathroom with a tiny “Reset” button on it that you probably haven’t ever given two thoughts about. Or, if you have, the thoughts might be:
- “Why does a bathroom receptacle need a ‘Reset’ button, anyway? Isn’t that what the circuit breakers in the garage are for?” Or:
- “If we need a ‘Reset’ button on one bathroom receptacle, why doesn’t the receptacle on the other side of the vanity have one? And why aren’t there ‘Reset’ buttons on the receptacles in the other bathroom(s)?”
The same observations might be applied to the receptacles in the kitchen, garage, or on the exterior of the house. GFCI’s – short for Ground-Fault Circuit Interrupters – are likely to be found in all of those places if your house was built in the last 30 years or so. They’ve been around since the early 1970’s, and were eventually incorporated into local building codes, requiring them to be installed in a broader set of household locations. Older houses that have not been recently renovated/updated might not have them at all. Or if they do, they might be placed solely in locations proximate to sinks, or outside, and nowhere else.
As a home inspector who performs inspections in multiple jurisdictions and in houses of all vintages, it doesn’t concern me where the house is located, or when it was built, to determine whether a given receptacle should be ground-fault protected. I’m not a code enforcement officer; my recommendations are not based on building codes that might or might not apply. They’re based on common sense safety concerns.
- Any countertop outlet – in a bathroom or kitchen, at a wet bar, or next to a laundry room sink – should be ground-fault protected, because any household electrical device plugged into those receptacles could get wet and present a potential shock hazard;
- Any receptacles that are likely to be exposed to moisture – exterior outlets, outlets in garages, crawlspaces, or/and unfinished basements, etc. – should similarly be protected by GFCI’s.
By contrast, the circuit breakers in a home’s main electric panel are intended to protect against overcurrent conditions that could result in a house fire. GFCI’s are more specifically intended to prevent personal injury/electrocution in environments where the close proximity of water and electricity can present a hazard.
Local vs. Remote Ground-Fault Protection
That’s not to say every outlet in those locations needs to be a GFCI outlet, protecting itself from ground faults. It’s very common for multiple outlets in a single circuit to be protected by a common GFCI device in a remote location. A GFCI counter outlet in one bathroom might be wired to protect the counter outlets in all other bathrooms; a GFCI outlet in the kitchen might be wired to protect all the other counter outlets in that room; and a GFCI outlet in the garage might be wired to protect all the outlets in the garage and perhaps also the exterior outlets.
However, I also frequently encounter configurations that are not very intuitive, or are prone to nuisance trips. For example: During one inspection, I encountered a tripped GFCI outlet on the front porch. When I reset it, the occupant approached me excitedly, and asked, “What did you just do?!!” The family had been living without electric service to all the bathrooms – for two years – because they were not aware that there was a reset location outside! In this case, the installer had also wired the bathroom overhead and vanity lights into the same circuit, so the family had been showering, shaving, brushing their teeth, and presumably applying makeup in the dark. Needless to say, they were very grateful for my intervention, although it remains a mystery to me why they never sought the services of an electrician to resolve this issue. Go figure!
A more commonly encountered condition is the presence of redundant GFCI’s installed in the same circuit. An overzealous homeowner or handyman can create unintended frustration for themselves (and future homeowners) by installing a GFCI outlet in place of a standard outlet that was already being protected remotely. Depending upon where a ground-fault condition happens to occur, this configuration may result in multiple GFCI outlets tripping, in cascade. Restoring functionality, then, requires resetting each GFCI – in a particular order – before the local GFCI will reset. As luck would have it, there’s often one GFCI in the circuit that is not in an obvious or intuitive location and/or not readily accessible. This can result, say, in the unintentional thawing of 200 pounds of deer meat in a freezer in the garage, a sump pump overflow in a crawlspace or basement, or an automatic garage door that won’t let the homeowner in – all because of the presence of redundant, unnecessary, poorly located GFCI’s.
That’s why – even though it’s not rocket science to install a GFCI – I always recommend the task be fulfilled by a qualified electrical contractor. Even then, it may be necessary to clarify the home inspector’s specific recommendation. For example:
“A qualified electrical contractor should install functional ground-fault protection to all kitchen counter outlets wherever such protection is not currently present or functioning as intended (e.g. outlets left and right of stove are among those not currently protected). This recommendation is a safeguard against potential electrical shocks that might otherwise occur in the event of a ground fault.”
Directing the contractor to install GFCI outlets in specific locations is not what we want to have happen, because if he/she follows our directions to the letter, we’ll likely be disappointed by the results.
For any homeowner intent on installing a GFCI outlet him or herself and saving the electrician’s fee, we recommend you read the instructions that come in the packaging – usually a simple paragraph or two and a diagram on a scrap of paper the size of a Post-It note – so, not much reading involved. The instructions will explain how to wire the device so it only protects itself, and doesn’t unintentionally trip other outlets, fixtures, or appliances on the same circuit.
For $5-15 or so, a GFCI outlet tester is a nice little tool for anybody buying or selling a home, or representing a buyer or seller in the transaction. Simply plug the tester into any outlet to determine if it’s wired correctly, and then hit the unit’s “test” button to determine if the outlet is ground-fault protected.
When you hit the “test” button, listen for a click that might happen nearby, or in another room, which would occur if the outlet is protected by a remote GFCI on the same circuit. Keeping an ear out for that click may allow you to avoid a maddening scavenger hunt that I experience with some frequency in the home inspection trade. If it’s not in the usual places (e.g. kitchen, bathroom, and laundry room countertops; garages; and exterior outlets), look for hidden or obstructed GFCI’s that are occasionally located in unintuitive spots (e.g. in the master bedroom closet or toilet enclosure, usually protecting the jetted tub in the master bathroom; in the ceiling of the garage, where the automatic garage door opener is plugged in; behind storage racks in the garage or tool room; in the ceiling of the crawlspace, just inside the crawlspace hatch; or near a sump pump or HVAC unit located under the house).
Understanding GFCI’s won’t take up much space in your noggin, I promise! And it’s worthwhile understanding what a missing or malfunctioning ground-fault device might mean for your family’s safety. At the least, if this blog post gives just one homeowner that “Aha!” moment to track down and reset a tripped GFCI and restore some civilization where there currently is none, please let me know! I can always use a new anecdote for my next blog posting.
(The author is a licensed home inspector in North Carolina and owner of Oz Home Inspections, LLC, based in the greater Fort Bragg region and extending throughout NC’s south central sandhills. Eric “Oz” Schult can be reached at 910-876-7770 or firstname.lastname@example.org.)