The kitchen, laundry room, bathrooms, garage, and exterior of the home all are locations in a house that have potential water sources. They are also all areas that have electrical outlets. Water and electricity are not a good combination.
Water will conduct electricity and if you have contact with water, you can become the path electricity follows, and get a harmful or deadly shock. (Just a bit of weird science thrown in… while water will conduct electricity, “pure” water will not. It is the minerals that dissolve and are present in water that conducts electricity. Pure water does not exist in nature, however, so always be aware that water will conduct electricity!) At Nest Egg Home Inspections, we often find GFCI receptacles that do not trip when tested, will not reset after they are tripped, or, in older homes, not present.
With the danger of water and electricity, builders install GFCI receptacles. GFCI stands for Ground Fault Circuit Interrupter. These receptacles are designed to “trip,” or stop electrical power, in the event of a fault – a current leak or a drop in current (in electricity, a fault is any deviation in the normal flow). A leak or drop in current can occur because of damaged or loose wiring in the receptacle itself, or a faulty cord on an appliance (such as a toaster or coffee maker), or a tool (such as a saw or extension cord). In these cases, electricity takes an unintended path to the ground due to the damaged wiring allowing electricity to ‘escape’ its normal route. If water is along this unintended path, it will conduct the electricity, causing electrical shock and harm to anything (or anyone) in the water. That is why GFCI receptacles should be installed in areas of a potential water source.
A GFCI receptacle contains an internal sensor that monitors the flow of electricity. Normally, electricity flows at a steady rate. If anything causes that rate to fluctuate, the GFCI receptacle will shut off the electricity to the outlet. An extremely small amount of fluctuation will cause the receptacle to trip – in a time of about 1/10 second. That is enough time to possibly get a shock, but not enough to cause serious harm or death.
If an outlet in one of these locations does not work, it has probably been tripped and needs to be reset. GFCI receptacles have “test” and “reset” buttons. The test button does just that – tests to make sure the outlet operates. The reset button restores power to the outlet after it has been tripped. When the receptacle itself has the buttons on it, reset is easy. However, GFCI receptacles are often ‘linked’ together so that one GFCI receptacle protects several others in a chain. The main GFCI receptacle (the one with the test/reset buttons) is located “upstream” from the outlets it protects. “Upstream” refers to the location as being closer to the source of electricity in the house – the electrical panel. So, if the GFCI receptacle is first in line, every outlet ‘downstream (further away from the electrical panel) will be protected.
The GFCI receptacle will have a test and reset button on it, while the others it protects look like normal receptacles. They will often have a small sticker on the outlet cover that states “GFCI protected.” This is a normal and safe method of installing GFCI outlets. If a ‘normal’-looking outlet has the ground fault, the GFCI receptacle will sense the flow fluctuation, trip, and stop power to the receptacles downstream.
How are these chained receptacles linked? Often kitchen outlets will have one or two GFCI receptacles (with the test and reset button on it) along the counter. The remainder of the kitchen outlets will be protected by that one or two. Usually, all bathrooms are protected by one GFCI receptacle located in one of the bathrooms. The garage outlets are usually linked together to one GFCI located in the garage. Exterior outlets are usually linked together to a GFCI located in the garage (they are sometimes on the same chain as the garage outlets).
Home inspectors are not code inspectors or enforcers but are aware of a basic timeline of GFCI installation changes. While not exact, this does provide an idea of the progress of GFCI installation in new construction. In this timeline, existing homes were not required to retrofit outlets when changes occurred. GFCI outlets were first installed on the exterior of new construction homes in 1973. Bathrooms were added in 1975 and garages in 1978. Outlets within six feet of a kitchen sink in 1987 (modified in 1996 to include all kitchen countertop outlets) were added, basements in 1987, and crawl spaces in 1990.
GFCI receptacles (test/reset outlet) should be accessible, not be blocked by appliances, tools, or stored items. It is important to locate the main GFCI receptacle for each protected/downstream outlet so that they can be reset if they trip. Older homes without GFCI protection can upgrade and replace the existing outlets. This can be a valuable safety addition to a house. In existing homes, GFCI receptacles should be replaced if they do not trip or will not reset. A qualified licensed electrician can help with this job.