Electricity can never be totally safe-there’s always the risk of fire or electric shock if things go wrong. Most of us assume that the circuit breaker is the safety net in our home, but this is only partially true. Each year more than 300 people are electrocuted and thousands more injured from electrical shock in and around their homes.

In instances of a severe short circuit, dangerously high levels of electrical current will flow through your home’s wiring. That’s when circuit breakers trip open to protect your home and family. Unfortunately, the current level needed to trip a breaker is much higher than the amount needed to deliver a powerful and possibly lethal electrical shock. In the case of a ground fault condition, for instance, you or a member of your family can be at risk from serious electrical shock, but the circuit breaker may not detect a high enough current level to cause it to trip. However, there is a source of added protection in such an instance. It’s known as a GFCI. It’s designed to protect you and your family from the hazards of ground fault shock.

What’s a Ground Fault?

A tool or appliance can become damaged through normal use in a way that allows electricity to “leak” out of it. Electricity will always take the lowest resistance path to travel to ground. Now consider that water is an excellent electrical conductor. If you touch this damaged device in your kitchen, bathroom, basement, or any area where it’s wet or damp, you can become the path through which the electricity travels to ground. This is a ground fault, and it can be lethal. Did you know that far less than 1 amp of electrical current could be fatal? Most circuit breakers will only trip at current levels in excess of 15 or 20 amps.

While this sounds alarming, there is something you can do to minimize the risk of ground fault shock. Install GFCIs (ground fault circuit interrupter) in your kitchen, bathroom, garage, laundry room, workshop and outdoor areas such as a pool or hot tub. These easy-to-install, inexpensive devices are designed to replace ordinary receptacles in wet or damp locations. Homes built after 1975 are required by the NEC (National Electrical Code) to have GFCIs installed in most places where water and electricity are likely to come in contact. If your home was built before 1975, make sure you replace ordinary outlets in these areas with GFCIs. GFCIs must be installed in accordance with local codes and manufacturer’s instructions. Improperly installed GFCIs may not afford the added protection.

What does a GFCI do?

When an appliance is plugged into a GFCI receptacle, the GFCI monitors current flowing through two conductors in the receptacle, called the “hot” and “neutral” conductors. If everything is working well, the amount of current flowing out through the hot conductor should equal the amount flowing back through the neutral conductor. If there is an imbalance, current leaks out, resulting in a potentially hazardous ground fault condition. The GFCI will detect and measure this imbalance, and when it reaches a relatively small level of 5 milliamps (.005 amps), the GFCI will trip and shut off power at the receptacle.

In other words, if even a very small amount of current is leaking out of the appliance, the GFCI trips within a fraction of a second. This significantly reduces the risk of electrical shock due to a ground fault.

A GFCI receptacle monitors the electrical current flowing in and out of an appliance that’s plugged into it. If the electricity returning to the receptacle differs even slightly from the electricity flowing out to the appliance, the GFCI will trip and shut off power at the receptacle. In other words, if even a very small amount of current is leaking out of the appliance, the GFCI trips within a fraction of a second. This significantly reduces the risk of electrical shock due to a ground fault.

Why you should test GFCIs

While GFCIs have had a significant impact on consumer safety since their introduction over 30 years ago, there is a possibility that they can be become damaged and no longer offer protection from ground faults”. According to the Leviton Institute, voltage surges from lightning and other sources can damage GFCIs just as they would any other electronic device. That’s why it’s crucial to test these devices once a month to make sure they’re working properly.

Too often, people will simply engage the RESET button on a GFCI after they find that it has tripped off, without investigating what caused the device to trip in the first place. The natural assumption is that if a GFCI can be reset, all is well. But this assumption can be shockingly dangerous: A standard GFCI will continue to deliver power even after ground fault protection has been lost. You may assume you’re protected when you may not be.

Simple Testing Procedures

Very few homeowners bother to test their GFCI’s even though testing is a simple process that takes less than a minute. Here’s how: Plug a lamp or radio into the GFCI outlet. Turn on the lamp or radio. Push the TEST button on the GFCI. If it is working properly, the GFCI will trip and power to the lamp or radio will be cut off. If power did not go off when you pushed the TEST button, there is an electrical problem and protection may be compromised. At this point, you should contact a licensed electrical contractor.

New UL Requirements for 2003 To make GFCIs less susceptible to damage, Underwriters Laboratories Inc. (UL), the world’s foremost product safety and certification organization, has issued new listing requirements that must be met in order to maintain a product’s UL listing. These new requirements become effective January 1, 2003. All devices manufactured as of that date need to comply with the new standards. These include: increased surge immunity, overload protection, corrosion resistance and electrical noise resistance. In addition, all GFCIs must provide a diagnostic indication for miswiring, helping to prevent a common miswiring error during installation.

If you’re buying a GFCI to replace a standard outlet, make sure you buy a device that complies with the new requirements. Most manufacturers’ products state on the package that they are in compliance of the new UL requirements.

Raising the Safety Bar:

Lockout GFCIs For an even higher level of protection, consider having your electrician install a GFCI with a lockout feature. With this type of device, you will not be able to engage the RESET button if the device becomes damaged and cannot respond to a ground fault. A GFCI with a lockout feature will safeguard you from the possibility of having a live, unprotected receptacle in an installation where GFCI protection is required.

Upgrade Now

To best protect yourself and your family, have GFCIs installed in all areas both inside and outside your home where a water source is present and receptacles are required. Replacing your current GFCIs with models that meet the new, tougher listing requirements will help ensure that they withstand conditions that have damaged GFCIs in the past. Remember to test your installed GFCIs monthly. And for the utmost in protection and peace of mind, install devices that offer a lockout feature.