Ask the Expert: Why is a GFCI Outlet Important?

Sean Moss
April 21, 2015

Q: We’re buying a home and we heard we need to check for GFCIs on our power outlets. What is this and why is it important?

A: The term GFCI stands for ground fault circuit interrupter.

A GFCI receptacle is very different from a conventional outlet. When activated, or during a ground fault (where electricity takes the path of least resistance and passes through one’s body to the ground), the GFCI will quickly trip and stop the flow of electricity to the outlet. So essentially, it is a safety device that prevents injury from electric shock.

Since approximately 2009 they are required in kitchens, bathrooms, laundry rooms, garages or any outside locations, such as patios, balconies and decks. Simply put, they should be installed in close proximity to any water source.

GFCI outlets can be identified by the “TEST” and “RESET” buttons in the centre of the receptacle. Most people carry out their lives without ever testing these outlets.  However, it is a good idea to test all GFCIs at least once a month by pressing the TEST button. When it clicks or trips press the RESET to restore power to that outlet.  

There are GFCIs on breaker panels as well. They have one rectangular button (usually orange, blue, red or white) and are connected to a breaker. When the “TEST” button has been tripped or tested, the breaker moves to the middle. It must then be manually pushed back into the original position to restore the power.

If it does not “reset” or restore the power then the GFCI will need to be replaced.

Note: It is important to know that a GFCI receptacle offers no protection against circuit overloads, shocks or short circuits. This means that you can still be shocked if you touch a bare wire (one that is not protected by sheathing) while standing on a non-conducting surface, such as wood floor. So always be careful when working around electricity.

Good luck and be safe.

Sean Moss
Sean Moss is a home inspector focusing primarily on residential properties with specialized knowledge in mold and building envelope science. He has been featured in Vancouver Magazine, Richmond News and The Jewish Independent and he also shares his knowledge through articles and workshops. Call Sean on 604-729-4261, visit his website homeinspectorsean.com and see his rating on review website HomeStars.