What is a GFCI and how can it save your life?

Is your home equipped to protect you and your family from electrocution? A Ground Fault Circuit Interrupter (GFCI) is a special type of outlet designed to trip when it detects that current is flowing along an unintended path – through a human body or water for example. Using a GFCI can prevent serious electric shock, which can stop the heart or cause serious burns. They can also prevent a fire from occurring when a live wire touches a metal conduit. GFCIs should be installed in kitchens, bathrooms, laundry rooms, garages and outdoors – or anywhere appliances or power tools are used in close proximity to water. This is because water or wet objects are able to conduct electricity very easily and increase your chance of shock. While GFCIs are required by code in new kitchens, bathrooms, unfinished basements and outdoor receptacles, owners of older houses can retrofit GFCI receptacles at those locations.

Test your GFCI
Because lightning and other power surges can damage a GFCI’s delicate circuitry at any time, GFCIs should be checked monthly. How can you test it? Push the “Reset” button of the GFCI outlet to prepare the unit for testing. Plug in a night light and turn it on. Then push the “Test” button on the GFCI. The night light should go OFF when the “Test” button is pushed. If the light stays on, the GFCI needs to be replaced. Contact a licensed electrician to check the GFCI and correct the problem.

Temporary or portable GFCIs can be used for construction or outdoor projects; however they should be tested before each use. They should not be used as a permanent alternative to a regular GFCI.

If the plug doesn’t fit …
Modern electrical outlets are grounded to help prevent shocks. They accept three-pronged plugs and polarized ones, with one prong wider than the other. Never alter a plug by clipping off the round grounding prong and never file down the wide polarized prong. They are there to protect you from severe electrical shock and protect equipment from damage. When replacing old ungrounded outlets, have a licensed electrician upgrade your wiring system to accept grounded receptacles.

Prepared by Linda Carter, PHEc
Manitoba Hydro