I just moved into a house I’m renting and now noticed that it doesn’t have GFI outlets in the bathroom or the kitchen. I’m concerned for my family’s safety but the landlord said it’s no big deal because it has a circuit breaker at the electrical panel. I thought GFI outlets were mandatory.
They are in all new construction, and your landlord clearly does not understand the difference between a fuse and a GFI outlet. First of all, GFI is usually short for GFCI. GFCI is the abbreviation for ground fault circuit interrupter.
Let me first explain how a fuse and a GFCI work. A fuse is designed to protect a house from an electrical fire. AC current requires two wires. One is called the hot wire. The color is usually black or red. The other wire is the neutral which is usually white in color. In newer circuits, an additional wire was added and that is called the ground. If the hot wire were to accidentally touch the neutral wire or the ground, an incredible amount of current will flow through the circuit and start heating up the wires. The fuse is designed to heat up first before the wire gets too hot. At this point, the fuse will burn out or a circuit breaker will automatically shut off, preventing the wire from getting too hot and starting a fire.
Ground fault circuit interrupters have a clearly different purpose and design. You will notice in newer outlets that there are two vertical slots and then a round hole centered below them. The left slot is slightly larger than the right. The left slot is called neutral. The neutral slot has the white wire connected to that slot. The right slot is called hot and is connected to the hot wire. The round hole below them is called the ground and connected to the ground wire. If you have something plugged into the GFCI and it’s working properly, all electricity that is being used will flow from hot to neutral. The GFCI monitors the amount of current flowing from hot to neutral. If there is any imbalance, the GFCI will shut off. You will notice that the button on the front of the GFCI will pop out. If you are near the GFCI outlet, you can see and hear it pop out when it shuts off. GFCI outlets are able to sense a mismatch as small as 4 or 5 milliamps, and it can react as quickly as one-thirtieth of a second. So GFCI outlets are definitely needed and completely different than a fuse or circuit breaker. Electricity flows from hot to ground.
Water acts as a conductor for electricity. So if water is present and provides conduction through you, it could be fatal. The GFCI can sense the current flowing through you because not all of the current is flowing from hot to neutral as it expects – some of it is flowing through you to ground. As soon as the GFCI senses that, it trips the circuit and cuts off the electricity. Now you can see the big difference.
Ask the Builders is written by Rod Pearson, one of two partners of Touchstone Builders, a local residential and commercial construction company serving the greater Santa Barbara area. They can be reached at 898-1920. Send questions to firstname.lastname@example.org www.touchstonesb.com