Q: You talked about a ground fault circuit interrupter and that it’s necessary in different places in the home. My home was built in the 1950s, and I don’t have these outlets. Should I have one installed?
A: Yes! First, I recommend that all electrical work be performed by a licensed (where required) and insured electrician.
A ground fault circuit interrupter, or GFCI, protects people and animals from accidental shocks or electrocution. A ground fault occurs when an electrical current flowing through a wire or appliance unintentionally flows through an unintended path to the ground.
If you are using a defective appliance or you are standing in a damp area, your body could provide a shorter path to grounding and you could be shocked or electrocuted. The GFCI has a circuit inside the outlet (or breaker if a GFCI breaker is used) that monitors for an imbalance in the flow of current. If there is an imbalance, the GFCI will trip off, sometimes as fast as 1/30th of a second.
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Over the years, the National Electrical Code has been amended, adding this important lifesaving device to newly constructed and remodeled homes. A GFCI will also protect an older two-wire, ungrounded electrical system where the newer three-prong outlets have been installed.
It is against the code to simply replace an older two-prong outlet with the newer, three-prong, grounding type. Also, when you have a motorized circuit such as a freezer or refrigerator or when there is fluorescent lighting, a GFCI may trip too often to be useful. You can install a dedicated outlet for these appliances, but the outlet must be connected to a ground.
A GFCI can be used in almost any 120-volt or 240-volt circuit. The only argument among home inspectors is when and where they are required.