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Electricity and Water Do Not Mix: How to Stay Safe at Home with GFCIs

a GFCI outlet with a plug inserted

Reading time: 3.5 minutes

You might have heard – electricity and water do not mix. This can be a problem in your home where most appliances run on electricity and are often located near areas with water.

Since GFCIs, or ground fault circuit interrupters, were introduced in the 1970s, electrocutions have dropped significantly, but many people take this device and other electrical safety measures for granted. GFCIs can become damaged, creating a potentially hazardous or even deadly situation.

That's why we reached out to Brett Brenner, president of the Electrical Safety Foundation International. Brett shared with us important information you need to know about GFCIs and making sure your electricity and water do not mix in dangerous ways. 

What is a GFCI outlet and where is one needed in the home?

GFCIs can even be outside.

GFCIs have been a part of the National Electrical Code since the 1970s, and these circuit breakers shut off power to an outlet in the event of a "ground fault."

"The whole purpose of having GFCIs in the home is to make sure that you as a human are safe in your home when it comes to water and electricity meeting," says Brett.

GFCIs were first installed in the home in bathrooms and then made their way into the kitchens, laundry rooms, basements, and anywhere where water and electricity have the potential to mix. These outlets have helped to drastically reduce the number of electrocutions in homes.

"Less than 100 folks a year are actually killed by electricity in the home when it comes to GFCI protection," says Brett. "It's a big deal that we all accepted as second nature, but GFCIs have saved a lot of lives over the last five decades or so."

How do GFCI outlets work?

GFCIs can prevent electrocution.

The GFCI monitors the electricity the outlet is putting out and the electricity that's coming back in that circle. If anything interrupts that circuit, it'll cut off the electrical flow to prevent an electric shock.

"If you were to drop a hairdryer into a bathtub randomly – once that circuit is broken, the energy clicks off and you're safe," says Brett. "It's really there to protect you, the human, from coming in contact with electricity."

Do you need to test your GFCIs? 

Testing a GFCI takes a few minutes.

To ensure your GFCIs are working properly and keeping you safe, you should test your GFCI outlets once a month.

"The older your home and the older the outlet, or if you're not sure how old the outlet is, you should be testing it more frequently just to make sure you are protected," says Brett.

To test a GFCI outlet, follow these simple steps:

  1. Plug in a device that you can easily see turn on or off, like a nightlight.
  2. With the device plugged in and turned on, press the test button. The device should turn off.
  3. Press the reset button again. The device should turn on.

The entire test and reset process should take 10 to 15 seconds. If the device doesn't turn on or off while you're testing the outlet, it means that there's something wrong or faulty with the GFCI. Call a qualified electrical technician to investigate.

Even if you're just resetting your GFCI, always make sure to stay safe while performing electrical home projects.

"As you travel around the world and see electricity is not commonplace, you really realize how dangerous it can be if it's misused," says Brett. "We just happen to live in a place where it's second nature to us."

What if your older home doesn't have GFCIs?

Do you need GFCIs in your home?

GFCIs are recommended in all homes, but not all older homes are ready for GFCIs. A home's electrical system must be grounded in order to receive GFCI installation.

"I know that the house that I'm currently in, which is my in-laws, did not have a grounding system when it was built," says Brett. "You can't install something if it doesn't have another component to the system."

If you live in an older home, it's best to have a qualified electrician see if your home is prepped for installation. Plus, installing a GFCI is also best left to a qualified electrician.

Do GFCIs "go bad"? 

Always be on alert.

"Nothing lasts forever," says Brett, "though GFCIs, typical outlets, and switches usually last a couple of decades."

Some warning signs that you should have an electrician inspect your GFCI are:

  • Discoloration on the outlet cover.
  • An arc or spark when you plug in the outlet.
  • A burning smell coming from the outlet.
  • Something doesn't feel right in the outlet.

"Anytime you see something, smell something, or feel something, that's usually a good sign that something is wrong with the components," says Brett.

If a GFCI outlet keeps tripping or if a GFCI outlet won't reset, then you should call an electrician to investigate. The GFCI could be faulty or there could be other problems further up the circuit.

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