The History of the GFCI Outlet or, How to Not Electrocute Yourself
By Victoria Figueiredo
Long gone are the days of slapping regular old outlets anywhere you want and calling it a day. Why, you ask? It seems that around 1971, the government finally got wise to the fact that regular old outlets near water sources are a trip to the emergency room waiting to happen. It only took them 46 years!
Enter the solution we’re all probably familiar with: GFCI outlets. If you don’t know them by name, you probably know them by sight, just look at the image below! GFCIs (ground fault circuit interrupters) are the outlets that you typically find in bathrooms, kitchens, and other water sources. They have reset and test buttons, and sometimes a little light on them to let you know that all is well in Whoville. These guys are extremely helpful because they reduce the risk of electric shock and fires. What follows is a brief history of the GFCI and a guide explaining how you should care for them. No worries – once you install them, the upkeep is easy and minimal!
GFCI outlets officially became required in 1971, but only for outdoor receptacles. Over time, the list of required GFCI locations grew to include outdoor receptacles, bathrooms, garages, kitchens, unfinished basements, receptacles near swimming pools, and light fixtures near pools. Suffice it to say, you should probably take a walk around your home and property, taking note of any outlets near water sources or outdoors that aren’t GFCI, especially if your home is older. This may seem like kind of pain to do, especially now that it’s sweltering hot outside, but trust us, the peace of mind is totally worth it!
Once you have GFCI outlets installed in your home, it’s incredibly important that you test them at least once a month, otherwise what’s the point of even having them? You have to make sure they’re operating properly! That’s where the relic pictured below comes in. Did you think it was a National Treasure style clue when you first saw it? To be honest, so did we. Imagine our disappointment when we figured out it’s just a GFCI inspection log from 1971 (yes, the debut year of our article’s raison d’etre). Talk about ancient.
Anyway, now that we’re all thoroughly let down, let’s discuss the importance of the test button. GFCIs work by measuring the balance of load flowing to and from the current in question. They detect imbalances with a sensing device and open the circuit to shut off the current when leakage is noticed to limit electrical shock, injury, death, the frying of a toddler, what have you. Now that we know how GFCIs work, how do you test their functionality? Easy. If you read our previous post about the top ten tools you should be keeping in your DIY electrical kit, you immediately ran out to your hardware store to buy yourself a circuit tester. It’s time to whip that bad boy out (we told you you’d need it)! To test your GFCIs, all you have to do is stick the tester into the outlet, press the test button, and interpret the lights on the tester according to the little key that should be stuck to it. Easy! Just do that for all your GFCI outlets once a month, keeping track in a hopefully less distressed log than the one we just showed you, and you’ll be good to go.
Probably equally as important as testing whether your GFCIs are working properly is knowing their lifespans. Spoiler alert: they don’t last forever! Outdoor, non-weather resistant GFCI outlets last for about three years, inside GFCI outlets last for five years, and GFCI circuit breakers last for about ten years. You might get lucky and have outlets that keep working for longer than their estimated lifespans, but you can never be sure unless, as we said, you test, test, test them!
If you ever have an issue with your GFCI outlets, diagnosing and repairing them is definitely not a job for you to do yourself. We also don’t recommend that you install them yourself! Though we do come across successful installations by homeowners, more often we see botched jobs that are actually a greater fire hazard than not having the GFCI in the first place. Just give us a call and we’ll do it for you! The best part of installing GFCIs is that they’re a quick job for a skilled electrician (you know, like the ones we have). A few hours of work and you’ll have peace of mind for years to come! You lucky devil.