GFCIs, Two-Prongs, and Everything In Between!
By Victoria Figueiredo
We’ve mentioned outlets on this blog many times, but never have we given them their very own dedicated post beyond explaining what GFCIs are. We regret to say we’ve been remiss, but we’re correcting the error of our ways. Outlets are at least in the top five most important electrical components of your home, but we never really consider what they are or how they work! Let’s do a little learning, shall we?
Plug, GFCI, AFCI, electric receptacle, wall socket – an outlet by any other name would smell as sweet. No matter what you call them, you’re usually referring to the spot in the wall where you plug in an appliance or tool. The actual machination behind the outlet you deal with every day is actually pretty simple. You have a live, or “hot” wire carrying electricity from your service panel to the outlet, a neutral wire carrying current back to your panel, and in the case of a three-prong outlet (which is the only kind you should have, but we’ll get into that later), there’s a ground wire carrying excess current to a safe disposal site. Beyond that, every other kind of outlet is just a different iteration of the same concept, except with added features that suit specific needs. In no particular order:
- GFCI Outlets
We’ve discussed GFCIs before, and you’re more than welcome to read about them in depth here. The Reader’s Digest version is that GFCI, or ground fault circuit interrupter (thank God for acronyms), outlets are required by code as a safer alternative to a regular outlet that exists near a water source. That means every outlet in your bathroom, laundry room, kitchen, and outdoor areas should be GFCI rated. Why? Because the GFCI contains a mechanism that ensures the current flowing to and from the outlet is balanced. This matters because an imbalanced current near a water source means potential shock factor, and not of the Fox News variety. If the mechanism senses an overload or excess current, it shuts off until you manually reset it. Very safe, very nice to have.
- Tamper Resistant Outlets
Also known as childproof outlets, these receptacles have tiny spring-loaded shutters that stay closed when the outlet is not in use. In order to get the outlet to work and electricity to flow, both shutters have to be pressed at the same time. These are required in all newly built or recently renovated homes, and they keep any half-baked toddlers in close proximity from jamming a key or paperclip into the outlet, which we all know ends in super annoying shrieking or eerie, child neglect-y silence. Either way, best avoided.
- Recessed Outlets
Have you ever plugged your phone charger into an outlet behind a couch, table, or nightstand, only to pull it out a few hours later and find that your once sprightly cable is now bent at a weird angle and hanging on for dear life? That’s because, as I’m sure you already knew, there was not enough room between the outlet and whatever was in front of it to let your charger come out alive. A good long term solution is installing recessed outlets. Exactly what they sound like, recessed outlets sit deeper in the wall so that the end of your charger, plug, or whatever else is flush with the wall instead of sticking out and getting wrecked.
- USB Outlets
In the same vein of functionality as the recessed outlets, you have USB outlets. Ditch the charger adapter entirely and just plug your USB charger right into the outlet. Get yourself a recessed USB outlet and you’re really making moves.
- Pop-Out Outlets
If you’re looking to add outlets to your bathroom vanity, kitchen island, or any other floating space in your home, do yourself a favor and make them pop-out outlets. These keep cords from hanging around in dangerous areas, like where you’re using knives or heat tools and when they’re not in use, you can just slide them away so they’re not in your way or tempting little hands. Truly the ninjas of the outlet world.
- Wi-Fi Outlets
If you’re consistently scatter-brained or a habitual space cadet, Wi-Fi outlets are going to be your jam. Freaked out that you left your curling wand plugged in and turned on? Still trying to guess whether you ever did turn off the stove before leaving the house? Just hop onto an app on your phone and turn off the outlets that have you worried! Easy peasy.
Now that we have your head swimming with so many options for your home, let’s get into what you definitely don’t want to have around. Namely, two-prong outlets. We get a lot of calls from people who know they’re not supposed to have two-prong outlets but aren’t in any particular rush to get them changed out or updated. We assume this is because they just don’t know why they need that third prong.
We described the basic three-wire setup of your typical outlet earlier. Two prong outlets have a hot wire and a neutral wire, but no ground. This may seem like no big deal, but the absence of the ground wire, which like we said carries excess current to safe grounding spot (usually a wire buried deep beneath your home), means that if for any reason too much electricity is delivered to your two-prong outlet, the extra electricity has no place to go. What happens next? You’re either getting a nasty shock the next time you try to plug or unplug something, or you’re dealing with a serious fire hazard. Neither one of these outcomes is particularly favorable.
Because two-prong outlets are extremely common in older homes, it’s super important that you double check not only that they’ve been updated to three-prong models, but that they’re actually grounded. Pretty often you have DIY enthusiasts or unsavory electricians swapping out the receptacle without actually installing a ground wire. This makes for quicker work but doesn’t actually solve the problem at hand. If you’re concerned that you have ungrounded outlets, call your local electrician and have them take a look. You can buy a tester yourself at any hardware store, but the repair work is best left to a professional. Remember, you’re dealing with a pretty deadly force!
While you’re looking around your home with that concerned look on your face, also take notice of any outlets that don’t hold onto the plug, ones that are hot to the touch, discolored from heat, sparking, smoking, smell like something is burning, and any GFCIs that don’t trip when you test them. All of those should be looked at by a licensed electrician ASAP!
That’s really the long and short of outlets, but there’s a lot of information floating around out there. Leave questions, comments, and your ode to the GFCI receptacle in the comment section below!