Ask the Home Inspectors: GFCIs can save your life

March 7, 2012 at 4:01 p.m.
Updated March 6, 2012 at 9:07 p.m.

Imagine the electrical wiring inside your toaster becomes loose and touches the unit's metal casing, thus energizing it.

You stroll into the kitchen for breakfast, drop two slices of bread into the toaster and brush the side of the unit with your hand. Chances are, you could get shocked or worse - especially if the toaster is plugged into a receptacle that lacks GFCI protection.

One of the most common deficiencies we find during home inspections, in fact, is the lack of GFCI receptacles where they're required.

If you don't know what a GFCI receptacle is, it's the variety with the "Test" and "Reset" buttons.

If functioning properly, these devices should protect people from serious shock or electrocution.

GFCI stands for ground-fault circuit interrupter. A ground fault occurs when a current-carrying wire comes in contact with ground. This can occur in a faulty appliance, such as if a loose interior wire touches the metal case and that case is grounded.

If you touch an appliance in this scenario, and you are also grounded - by standing barefoot on the floor, for example, or by also touching a grounded surface - you'll get zapped.

You can be injured by even relatively small levels of current running through your body. It takes from 100 to 200 milliamps to kill you, said Wayne Rogers, a 52-year electrical industry consultant, master electrician and teacher.

"A GFCI will trip at 4 to 6 milliamps," Rogers, who lives in Houston, said. "It offers tremendous protection. You might still get hurt, but you're not likely to be electrocuted."

GFCI receptacles work by measuring the current on the hot wire with current returning on the neutral wire, Rogers said. Under normal circumstances, the current is equal on both.

When a ground-fault occurs, the current goes to ground via an alternate route and thus the current on the hot and neutral wires is no longer equal. GFCIs detect this and stop power to the receptacle and the appliance.

According to the Texas Standards of Practice, the rules that govern inspectors, GFCI protection is required for all receptacles:•  In bathrooms.

•  On kitchen countertops.

•  In garages.

•  Outdoors.

•  In crawl spaces and unfinished basements.

Protection is also required in all laundry, utility and wet bar sink receptacles located within six feet of the outside edge of a laundry, utility or wet bar sink.

Luckily, the devices are affordable - no more than $15, typically - and electricians can quickly install them. They can also install GFCI breakers in your electrical subpanel. These breakers protect all receptacles, switches and fixtures on a particular circuit. In this scenario, you don't need to replace each receptacle.

In this region, we inspect a great many homes in which the original two-wire system is in place. As opposed to new three-wire systems - which have a hot, neutral and ground wire - two-wire systems do not include a ground wire. If your home's receptacles are two-pronged, it's likely a two-wire system.

GFCIs still work in a two-wire system, Rogers said. They don't need a ground wire to function. As noted, they measure current on the hot and neutral wires.

We recommend you test your GFCI receptacles to ensure they're working OK. Simply plug a lamp into the receptacle, and push the "Test" button. You should hear a click and the lamp's light should turn off. Push "Reset" and the light should turn back on.

If both don't happen, call your electrician.

I gather many people don't give much thought to GFCI receptacles. I've lived in homes that lacked the devices and I was never injured.

Still, they are cheap insurance for you, your family or your renters and there's no good excuse to live without them.

Gabe Semenza, TREC Lic. No. 20,326, is owner of Semenza Inspections. Joe Hanselka, TREC Lic. No. 1,166, is owner of Crossroads Inspection Services, and Semenza's professional sponsor. If you have questions about inspections, contact the real estate inspectors at 361-676-1480 or 361-576-6429 respectively.



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