When homes first started being wired for electricity, an unintended but informative science experiment began. Grab a bare wire while standing on the ground… zap. Have a wire break or develop a loose connection… fire. Once people had been zapped enough or had their homes burned down enough and we began to understand the causes, greater and greater levels of protection began being built into our electrical systems.
Have you ever wondered what those funny looking outlets with test and reset buttons were? They are called GFCI outlets, or Ground Fault Circuit Interrupter outlets. Their purpose is to protect people from getting zapped.
Electricity will always find the shortest route to ground. In a normally operating circuit, that route is back along the wire to the home’s electrical panel, and from there to the ground connection – literally a connection to the earth. But, if you are unlucky enough to somehow come in contact with an energized bare wire, it is likely you have now become the shortest path to ground, resulting in the electricity passing through you on its way. GFCI outlets are designed to detect that rerouting in milliseconds and shut off the electricity before you can be hurt.GFCI protected outlets are now required in kitchens, bathrooms, garages, and at exterior outlets. You should also be aware that one funny looking GFCI outlet can, depending on how the home is wired, actually provide protection for many regular looking outlets… it’s quite common to have one GFCI outlet in one bathroom of a home protecting all of the outlets in all of the bathrooms of a home. So if you can’t figure out why an outlet isn’t working, start looking for a GFCI outlet elsewhere that has been tripped.
What are those funny looking breakers in your electrical panel that also have test buttons on them? They are AFCIs, which are fundamentally different from GFCIs. AFCI stands for Arc Fault Circuit Interrupter, and their role is to help protect your home from electrically caused fires. If a wire breaks or cracks or has a loose connection somewhere, electricity can arc, either along one wire or between two wires, literally jumping across the gap. The result is simple – arcing causes heat and heat causes fire. AFCIs that are working properly detect arcing and immediately shut down the circuit.
AFC’s were first required in new homes in 2002 for the protection of bedroom outlets. The thinking was that bedroom outlet fires were particularly dangerous, but starting in 2009 they are also required for almost every outlet in the home.
What should you do if a GFCI outlet or an AFCI breaker trips and shuts off the electricity? Simple… hit the reset button or reset the breaker. If it trips again? Call an electrician. You may have just saved yourself from being part of an experiment.