June 1994 Edition

What Are GFCI Outlets?

I have seen funny looking outlets in other people’s houses and would like to know what are they and how do they work?


What you have seen are GFCI or Ground-Fault Circuit Interrupter outlets. These outlets are installed in new homes to prevent a fatal shock. The GFCI senses the flow of electricity through a circuit. If more current is flowing through the hot wire than the neutral wire, there is a current leakage. The GFCI, which can sense a ground leak of as little as .005 amps, will shut off the current in 1/40 of a second, which is fast enough to prevent injury. In other words, you may feel a shock, but it will not be lethal.

 Even if a system is properly grounded, minor faults in a circuit can cause a dangerous shock to a person using an electrical appliance in a damp location or near water. For this reason, the National Electrical Code now requires a GFCI to be connected to every bathroom outlet, at least one garage and one basement receptacle, kitchen counter outlets within 6 feet of the sink, and all outdoor receptacles with direct access to the yard or a swimming pool. If you do not have GFCI’s, it is a good idea to add them to your home. The cost of the outlet is around $7.00 each.

If you do have Ground-Fault Circuit Interrupters, it is recommended that you test (and reset) them monthly. When you push the test button, the reset button should pop out, shutting off the circuit. If it doesn’t, the breaker is not working properly and the unit should be replaced. If you do not test them once a month, the breakers have a tendency to stick, and may not protect you when needed.

Aluminum Wiring?

What is the problem with aluminum wiring and how can it be corrected?

Most solid electrical wiring is made of copper. Nevertheless, some homes built or remodeled between the early 1950’s and 1979 were wired with solid aluminum. Such wiring can be identified by the letters AL or the word ALUMINUM stamped on the plastic covering or cable. In some very early cases, the aluminum wiring was in a steel metal jacket, and therefore must be carefully examined to verify that it is aluminum.

 Aluminum wiring can be hazardous because of its tendency to oxidize and its incompatibility with fittings designed for other metals used in the electrical system. Improper connections can create electrical resistance, which in turn cause overheating and fire.

A house with aluminum wiring may not need to be completely rewired, but may require “pig tailing” of each wire with copper, the only method approved by the Consumer Products Safety Commission.           

Warning signs of unsafe aluminum wiring include:

1. Unusually warm or warped outlet and switch cover plates.

2. Smoke or sparks coming from outlets and switches.

3. Strange odors in the areas of outlets and switches.

4. Periodic flickering of lights.

5. Untraceable problems with plug-in lights and appliances.

Only a licensed electrician should be allowed to evaluate and repair these potentially dangerous situations.

Improper Breaker Size?

During a recent home inspection, the inspector noted that one of my electrical circuits had an improperly sized breaker. Why is this a problem?

When too much current flows through a wire, the wire gets hot, sometimes hot enough to destroy the insulation and cause a fire.

The National Electrical Code specifies the maximum current or amperage which can be carried safely by each size and type of wire used in a home. Therefore, fuses and breakers must be the correct amperage in order to properly protect each circuit.

If your are planning to add an electrical circuit to your home and are not familiar with the current codes, always obtain assistance to insure proper wiring.

Service Ground?

I have noticed a bare copper wire running to the outside of my house and anchored into the ground with some sort of rod. Since this is a problem when mowing the grass, can I remove it?

Absolutely not. What you are seeing is the service ground for your electrical system.

Every electrical system must be grounded so that, in case of a faulty appliance, worn insulation, or a voltage surge caused by a lightning strike, the electricity will be harnlessly discharged into the earth, rather than into the house system or  a person.

System grounding is achieved by connecting the neutral wires from all of the electrical circuits to a metal strip in the main service panel called the neutral bus bar, which is in turn connected by a wire to a rod driven into the earth, or to the metal cold water supply pipe which goes into the earth.

It is always a good idea to check the wire occasionally to be sure that it is still properly connected to the ground rod.

Electrical Safety Rules

1.         Never work with or near electricity when hands or feet are damp.

2.         Never remove service panel covers unless you are familiar with panel boxes.

3.         Don’t use outlet multiplier plugs to connect additional lamps and appliances whose amperage totals more than the capacity of the circuit.

4.         Avoid using extension cords whenever possible. Make sure the one you use is at least the same size as the appliance you are connecting.

5.         Never replace blown fuses with larger amp fuses.

6.         Do not cut the grounding (3rd) prong off a plug to fit into a two-hole receptacle.

7.         Keep electrical appliances (e.g. hair dryers, radios, shavers) away from bath tubs, sinks and showers, unless the outlet is GFCI protected.

8.         Do not pull cords out of receptacles by the wire. Hold the plug and pull.

9.         Replace worn or frayed lamp and appliance wires.

10.       Do not try to extinguish small electrical fires with water. Use baking soda or a Type “C” household halon extinguisher which is rated for electrical fires.

11.       Always disconnect a circuit before making repairs on it or installing a light fixture.

12.       All electrical work done in a house should be inspected and approved by the local authorities.

13.       When in doubt, call a licensed electrician.

If you have a question, change of address, comment, home tip or would like to send Home Tips to your clients, send your letter to Home Tips, Christian Building Inspectors, Inc., 3697 Habersham Lane, Duluth, Georgia 30096. You can E-Mail your questions to us at rodharrison@christianbuildinginspectors.com. We reserve the right to edit questions for length.

Quote of the Month

“Success is a journey, not a destination.”

- Ben Sweetland

A Tip Of The Hat To:

Tammy Park

Metro Brokers Real Estat

Tucker, Georgia

**** Thank You****