A Down to Earth Guide to GFCI’s
By Tim Wojnar
What the heck is a GFCI?
Why is GFCI protection important?
Different ways of installing GFCI protection
Install a GFCI receptacle on any particular outlet: This is the simplest way to GFCI protect an outlet in a home. You will note that GFCI receptacles are identified by having two buttons located on the outlet itself (See Figure 2 below). The buttons should read “Test” and “Reset” and they allow you to test the GFCI for proper function. Press the “test button” (this simulates a ground fault) and the “reset button” should pop forward and the power to the outlet will shut off. Press the “reset” button and the outlet power should be restored.
Install an outlet in series with a GFCI receptacle: Versus installing a GFCI receptacle for every outlet needing protection, you may wire all the outlets within in a circuit loop to another GFCI type already installed as illustrated in Figure 3 below. An example of this would be in kitchens as most of the time all the outlets are on the same circuit. All the outlets within a given kitchen (if they are all wired on the same circuit) maybe protected by one GFCI receptacle installed on that circuit. The non-GFCI type outlets will have the same ground fault protection as the outlet with the GFCI type installed, so if a ground fault is detected on any of them all of the outlets tied to the GFCI branch will shut off. The biggest drawback to installing GFCI’s in this manner is that several outlets lose power versus one, although power is quickly restored by pressing the reset button of the GFCI receptacle. The advantage of this configuration is that it is a budget friendly option if you are retrofitting a kitchen that had no GFCI devices as only one outlet needs to be replace versus several.
Install a GFCI breaker for the whole circuit: A GFCI breaker is installed at the Distribution Panel (You can see the panel in Figure 3) of a home versus at an electrical receptacle. The breaker protects the whole circuit it is connected to from a ground fault similar to how a GFCI receptacle protects a circuit in item 2 above. You can see what a typical breaker looks like in Figure 2. This is the least common type of protection seen in homes (at least in Illinois), but why it that? The answer lies in convenience. When a GFCI device trips, it needs to be reset and it is a lot more convenient to press a reset button at a outlet nearby than versus potentially travelling to your basement to turn reset a breaker. Additionally, the breaker will protect the whole circuit so if there are lighting fixtures attached to that circuit, those would turn off as well when the breaker is tripped. One use of GFCI breakers that seems to make the most sense is for specialty items that hard wired in place or their outlets are hard to get to (i.e pool equipment or a jacuzzi tub).