A ground fault is what happens when electricity escapes the wires it’s traveling through and takes the fastest path to the ground. That path can be through water or, for about 200 people in the U.S. every year, it’s through a person. A grounding accident like this can be fatal.
GFCIs are designed to prevent this from happening; GFCI stands for Ground-Fault Circuit Interrupter. They don’t function exactly like a fuse, but they serve a similar end. If a wire is damaged, an incredible amount of electricity flows through the circuit and it starts to heat up. When a circuit gets too hot and is about to catch fire, the fuse melts—with a GFCI it simply trips the circuit preventing a fire or electrocution.
A fuse is a thin piece of wire contained in a tube, which lives in a box on your wall so you can change it out. The wire is a lower grade than the wires that run through your house, designed to carry a smaller amount of electricity. If something goes wrong and too much electricity tries to pass through the wire it will melt and break the circuit—instead of lighting your house on fire. This only really happens if lightning strikes your house or you have a malfunctioning appliance.
GFCIs are more effective and a more subtle option. GFCIs can detect a difference between 4 and 5 milliamps and trip the circuit and cut off the flow of electricity instantly. They’re required by the National Electric Code for new kitchens, bathrooms, crawl spaces, and outside spaces, but really any space that has water should have a GFCI outlet. The GFCI outlets have three slots. The left and slightly larger slot is the “neutral” slot, the right smaller one is the “hot” or “live” one, and the bottom hole is the “ground”. When there is no damage and the appliance is functioning correctly, the electricity passes through the hot wire to the neutral wire. The third is for grounding wires, which provides a more expeditious path from the appliance to the ground than to go through you.
On all proper GFCI receptacles, there are two buttons in the middle: a test and a reset. The reset button is the one you use to turn the electric current back on after you’ve resolved the issue and are no longer in danger, and the test is to ensure that it’s functioning as it should be. The best way to test is to take a small appliance, usually a light, and plug it in. Turn the light or other appliance on and push the test button, if the light turns off the outlet is working correctly, if not it’s time to replace it.
Upgrading doesn’t cost that much, as little as $10 if you have a circuit breaker box GFCI breaker switches in the breaker panel. The GFCI breaker switches themselves run no more than $200 to put in to your main breaker panel. Which isn’t all that much when weighed against your family’s safety. GFCI receptacles will keep you and your family safe.