GFCI Outlets Explained – The Un-Shocking Truth

Date Published: November 14, 2017

We’ve all seen those outlets with the little “test” and “reset” buttons on the face of the outlet.  These are called “GFCI” outlets.  The “GFCI” stands for Ground Fault Circuit Interrupter.   But what does that mean? And why are these types of outlets necessary?

The Shocking Details

Perhaps at some point in your life you have experienced a mild shock from an outlet while plugging in a cord. Or at some point in your childhood, you pushed something metallic into an outlet, possibly at a devious sibling’s prompting.

When this happens, the electricity travels quickly through your body, looking for a path to ground.  You essentially become the wire that the electricity travels through.  These types of shocks can be very jarring.

Thankfully, most of the time minor shocks don’t result in injury or death.  However, there is a real possibility that a person could suffer burns, tissue injury, or even heart failure and death from electric shock on a standard 120 volt circuit.

GFCI Outlet

There are various factors that can determine the outcome or severity of a shock.   These factors are:

  1. The strength of the voltage
  2. Your resistance as the conductor (wet skin is much less resistant than dry)
  3. The path that the electricity takes through your body (through the heart is a bad path)
  4. The duration of the electric shock.  If the amperage running through your body is high enough, your muscles can lose function or spasm, causing your body to freeze in place.  You may not be able to release your grasp on the item that is causing the shock.

It’s impossible to predict exactly how mild or severe an electrical shock will be, as these factors can come in a variety of combinations.  Contact with water is a key ingredient that should always be avoided, as it can cause you and your surroundings to become much more conductive.

But we can all agree that it’s best to try to avoid shock hazards entirely.

The Un-Shocking Solution

A GFCI outlet can greatly reduce this risk of life threatening electrical shock.  The GFCI outlet was designed with the sole purpose of protecting people from electrical shock.

This is completely different than the protection a breaker provides at an electrical panel: A breaker protects the structure from damage or fire.  The breaker will trip when too much current is running through a circuit, protecting the wiring from overheating.  But if you

are being shocked, the breaker may not trip quickly enough to save your life, or may not trip at all.

Enter the GFCI outlet, which is essential to protect people.  The GFCI outlet measures the amperage of the current flowing to and from the outlet.  If more power is going to the hot side of the outlet than is returning back through the neutral side, it will detect that difference, and interrupt the flow of electricity almost instantaneously.

This means that if you become a conductor for electricity to travel through your body, the outlet detects that less current is returning on the neutral side (because it is going through you), and it will shut off the power through the outlet within a fraction of a second.  This could very well save your life.  As explained earlier, when water is part of the equation, you can become a much better conductor, and the risk increases.