Though many individuals may not know what a Ground Fault Circuit Interrupter is just by its name alone, chances are most people will recognize the three-holed electrical outlet (two vertical slots and a small round hold centered beneath them) that has become commonplace in Canada and the United States over the last few decades.
And while it may be a common site at your home or workplace and something you probably now take for granted, it’s interesting to know that before the GFCI was so widely used and was the exception rather than the rule, the rate of death by electrocution in this country was about four times higher than it is today.
What is a GFCI plug?
A ground fault circuit interrupter does just what the name implies. This protective device will “interrupt the circuit” any time there is an imbalance between the outgoing current and the incoming current. As such, it protects wiring and receptacles from overheating and helps avoid fires.
But the main purpose of a GFCI plug is to protect individuals from electrocution, which once killed hundreds each year in Canada before the use of this type of plug was instituted. Here’s an example of how it helps avoid the tragedies that result for an electrical accident.
If you use a blow dryer each day, chances are that you plug it into a GFCI outlet in your bathroom, likely close to your bathroom sink. When you plug it into the wall socket, the GFCI can measure how much power is going out to the device. If you accidentally dropped it into a sink full of water, the GFCI can deduce the immediate change in current, and power to that outlet will stop, saving you – the user – from electrocution, which often results in death or – at the least – severe injury.
How does the plug work?
On a standard GFCI plug, you’ll see two slots – one slighter larger than the other – as well as the hole below them. The left slot (the larger one) is called “neutral” while the slightly smaller right slot is called “hot” in electrician language. (Bet you didn’t know that!) The hole that is centered beneath the two slots is called “ground”.
When you plug in any type of appliance, such as your toaster or vacuum cleaner, if it’s working correctly all the electricity for that appliance will flow between the two upper prongs, hot and neutral. The GFCI, in the meantime, monitors the current that is flowing between hot and neutral. If it detects any sort of mismatch – even a very small amount – it reacts to this imbalance. As a matter of fact, it reacts in just one-thirtieth of a second or at about 4 millilamperes. (A millilampere is one-thousandth of an ampere (amp), which is the measure used for small electric currents.)
Why so fast? Well, science shows that at about 10 milliamperes human muscles will freeze due to electrical overload. Now go back to our example about the hair dryer. If you are holding onto that hair dryer when it falls into the water, if there was no GFCI plug, your muscles would stop working due to the electrical current in your body and you’d be unable to let go of that hair dryer. Holding onto that dryer for just two seconds at 10 milliamperes or more would result in instant death from electrocution.
Upgrading your outlets to GFCI plugs
If you look around your house or workplace and notice that a lot of your outlets have not been upgraded to GFCI plugs, then it’s time to take care of that. It’s necessary for your safety and the safety of all who live and work in that location. This is especially essential if the outlets are located near water, such as in a bathroom or kitchen.
While you might be tempted to do it on your own to save money, working with electricity is best left to certified electricians. Installing GFCI plugs is not costly and is money well spent. Furthermore, it’s not a job that will take hours upon hours to complete, so the labor costs will not be overwhelming and the material costs are minimal as well.