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Home > How Does It Work? > What is a GFCI Outlet?

What is a GFCI Outlet?

By Brett Freeman
What is a GFCI Outlet?

Just about everybody has seen a ground fault circuit interrupter (GFCI) outlet. They're the electrical outlets with the little "test" and "reset" buttons in the middle. But few people know what they're for. Fewer still know how they work.

A Shocking Tale

Around 300 people are electrocuted each year because of faulty wiring or appliances in the home. In theory, electricity operates in a closed circuit, running through insulated wires to power lights and appliances. But the circuit doesn't always remain closed. For example, if a person is barefoot or standing in water, making him grounded, and he touches an exposed wire, the electricity stops running through the circuit, and instead runs through the person and into the ground. If the electricity isn't interrupted, it can cause serious bodily harm or death.

The purpose of GFCI outlets is to prevent fatal electric shock in just such a situation. A faulty appliance plugged into a GFCI outlet can still give you a jolt, but the electricity should cut out almost immediately, preventing serious injury.

Something to Watch Over You

GFCI outlets work by monitoring the electricity flowing through them. Because electricity runs in a circuit, that means there is electricity flowing out, and electricity flowing in. A sudden imbalance between electricity out and electricity in, such as would be caused if electricity escaped the circuit via an exposed wire and instead began running through a person, would trip the GFCI circuit, stopping the flow of electricity almost instantly.

Currently, the National Electric Code calls for GFCI outlets in all outdoor and garage outlets, and in kitchens and bathrooms indoors. The Consumer Product Information Commission estimates that two-thirds of electrocutions in and around homes could be prevented with GFCIs.

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