What is a GFCI receptacle?

So, you have heard the term “GFCI receptacle” but do not know what it means.  First, the word “receptacle” is often interchanged with the word’s “outlet” or “plug”, but they all refer to the same electrical feature.  Second, GFCI stands for “Ground Fault Circuit Interrupt”.  Its purpose is to detect small impulses of change in the current of a wire.  Why is that important? Because these small impulses may be due to a safety condition in the electrical system.  

GFCI receptacles are primarily characterized by the “test” and “reset” buttons on the face of the receptacle.  Think of this feature as a mini breaker installed in the receptacle.  As current passes through the GFCI receptacle, the current is monitored while it is distributed to other receptacles in the circuit.  Since the GFCI receptacle is ALWAYS the first receptacle in the circuit, the outlets downstream of the GFCI receptacle are protected as well.  There is no need to install GFCI receptacles at each outlet location since only one receptacle is needed at the beginning of the circuit.

Current impulses may be caused by a sudden, high demand for electrical current, often caused by a safety issue.  A couple of examples of a high demand, safety condition may be a hair dryer falling into a wet sink basin or perhaps an electrical power tool cutting into a “live” wire. Both conditions represent a very real safety issue!  In theory, if the circuit used to power these electrical appliances is protected with a functioning GFCI receptacle, the GFCI receptacle will “trip” and cut off current flow eliminating the safety condition.

Practically speaking, GFCI receptacles can experience functional problems and should be periodically tested.  Simply push the test and reset buttons, that is it!  You should hear and feel the buttons reset as they lock into position on the receptacle.  It is a good idea to perform this test a couple of times a year.  If the receptacle does not reset, then the receptacle is not working properly and should be replaced.  

A word of advice, if the circuit does not reset, all electrical components plugged into the entire circuit will not work until the GFCI receptacle is replaced.  That means, as an example, refrigerators and freezers storing precious foods may not be working if the GFCI receptacle is tripped. So, be aware and plan accordingly.  A licensed electrician will be needed to replace the GFCI receptacle.

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