Since their introduction into the National Electrical Code (NEC), Ground Fault Circuit Interrupter (GFCI) outlet location requirements have expanded way beyond the initial recommendations, and now include practically every outlet on your property, in and out of the house. These life-saving devices have improved to the point where they are, almost, tamper-proof, but they can still suffer the consequences of age, overuse, and/or incorrect installation.
GFCI outlets were initially designed to protect against electrical shock hazards in areas in and around your home where water is present, such as bathrooms, kitchens, and outside pools. The very nature of this frequent exposure to moisture promotes internal corrosion in the outlet that can cause any number of internal parts to fail. The GFI (ground fault interrupter) has a built-in sensor that is highly sensitive any small changes in the line source current and ideally will trip the breaker inside a GFCI outlet if anything irregular is detected.
Most GFCI outlets in use today come with two buttons: one black and the other red. The black button is for testing the outlet, and the red is for resetting the internal breaker after it has tripped. A quick way to tell if your outlet is working correctly is to press the test button and listen for an audible “snap.” This usually means the circuit is broken, but just to be sure, plug some device like a lamp into the outlet to see if indeed the power is off. If this is the case, the device left plugged into the outlet should come to life after the reset, or red button is pushed.
Ground fault interrupter outlets manufactured after 2006 are often designed with no external test buttons. These type of outlets should be tested with a separate plug-in circuit tester with its built-in GFCI. Whether dealing with either button or non-button types, this circuit tester is an excellent way to tell if something inside the outlet is causing the break.
Don’t ignore occasional GFI trips in your home, but don’t get too concerned that it’s the fault of just one outlet, either. There can be any number of reasons for these breaks that sometimes originate far beyond the outlet in question, such as distant line surges and accidental current leakage. Often, a faulty appliance “downstream” will cause any of the GFI outlets in your home to trip.
Like most things electrical, GFCI outlets do have a life expectancy. The industry standard for change-outs is typically every 10 to 15 years, but you really should have a qualified electrician inspect any outlet that has been exposed to excessive UV light, heat, moisture, or chemical vapors, as all these factors can cause a ground fault interrupter to fail prematurely. If the internal circuit is still working, one tip-off that you have a worn-out GFI outlet is when it continually trips when you try to use an appliance.
You should test any GFCI outlet you have outside your house at least once a month. Even if they are carefully protected from the elements, the constant exposure to nature makes them more vulnerable than those indoors. Pay particular attention to the outlets that are near swimming pools and hot tub/spas, as the inherent danger of these features is often amplified by the use of radios and other plug-in devices around the area.
While there are a few genuine GFCI protected power strips on the market today, most are just glorified extension cords, and will not block any surge in voltage or current unless they have a built-in breaker. Careful thought should be utilized when giving the GFCI powerstrip an amperage load. Just because the device is protected doesn’t mean it’s immune from misuse.