Even if you don’t understand the function of a GFCI outlet, or know what “GFCI” stands for, there’s a really good chance you’ve seen at least one (and probably a few) in your home. This is what a GFCI outlet looks like:
GFCI stands for Ground Fault Circuit Interrupter, and that’s precisely what it does: it stops the flow of electricity to the outlet by opening (interrupting) the circuit if it senses any abnormal current flow to the circuit’s ground, thereby preventing a possible electric shock to anyone using a device that’s plugged into the GFCI outlet.
You probably have a GFCI outlet in your kitchen, as well as in each bathroom in your house, as they’ve been required in potentially damp locations for many years. And if you have any outlets outside your house, it’s been a US requirement since 1973 that they be connected to a GFCI-protected circuit.
You’ve also probably had to “reset” at least one of your GFCI outlets at some point by pressing its RESET button (shown in red in the above photo) after it was tripped by a power surge, storm, or an overloaded circuit. But other than when you discover something’s not working and have to reset it, you probably don’t give your home’s GFCI outlets a second thought… which could be a dangerous mistake.
GFCI Outlet Service Life
GFCI outlets save thousands of lives each year by preventing electrical shocks due to dampness, improper use of extension cords, etc. But depending on the vintage of your home and/or its GFCI outlets, they may no longer be protecting you like you believe they are. GFCI outlets have an average service life of only 10 years, so if your home is older than that, there’s a good chance your GFCI outlets aren’t fully protecting you. And if you live in an area more prone to storms or power surges, it’s not uncommon for a GFCI outlet to wear out in 5 years or even less.
Testing your GFCI Outlet
The best way to see if your GFCI outlet is still doing its job is to test it. Keep in mind that the outlet must be powered (meaning its breaker in your electrical panel must be on) in order to be properly tested. An unpowered GFCI outlet can’t be tested, and it won’t allow you to reset it until it’s powered.
The simplest way to test your GFCI outlet is to press its TEST button, which interrupts the flow of electricity and pops out the spring-loaded RESET button. You can then press the RESET button reconnect the circuit and resume normal operation. The most common GFCI outlets have a red TEST button and a black RESET button as shown in the first photo, though newer outlets have gone away from those colors and the buttons tend to not stand out as much.
If you press the TEST button and the GFCI outlet doesn’t trip (and you’re certain it’s powered), replace it as soon as possible. If your test causes the outlet to trip but the RESET button won’t reset it, that means it’s reached the end of its service life and needs to be replaced (it probably wasn’t protecting you anyway). Again, verify that the breaker isn’t tripped before determining that the GFCI outlet is faulty, since a GFCI outlet can’t be reset if it’s not getting “upstream” power.
As crazy as it might sound, you should test your GFCI outlets monthly. If that’s too often for you, you should test them at least quarterly at a bare minimum. Every six months or once a year is nowhere near often enough. I know it’s extra work, but it really could save your life.
Using a Test Device
While pressing its test button is better than nothing, the only true way to test a GFCI outlet is with a test device that actually creates a ground fault, such as this Triplett Plug-Bug:
At under $7 on Amazon, it’s extremely cheap insurance to protect you and your family from hazardous electrical shocks. Just plug it in the outlet, press the button on the tester (not the outlet), and see whether your GFCI outlet trips. Indicator lights on testers like this one can also be used to show whether any outlet (it works on both GFCI and standard) is wired properly by identifying common problems such as an open ground, open neutral, open hot, or reversed wires. I recently used my tester on a kitchen GFCI outlet at our cabin, and discovered that it had been improperly wired for many years. The outlet would trip when I tested it with its own test button, but additional “downstream” outlets were still receiving current. I was able to re-wire the outlet properly, and I now use a tester to check my GFCI outlets instead of pressing the outlet’s test button. Again, for under $7, I recommend you do the same.
Replacement GFCI Outlets
Because they’re a wear item that will need replacement, I save money by buying GFCI outlets in 3-packs. I use (and recommend) these 15A GFCI outlets by Eaton. Eaton has a great reputation for quality, but the feature I really like is that these GFCI outlets run a self-test periodically. A blinking red LED indicator means they’ve reached the end of their service life and need to be replaced. So if you don’t think you’ll remember to manually test your GFCI outlets monthly, using these self-testing versions are a good option. They’re available in a number of colors to match your existing outlets and switches.
Testing your own GFCI outlets is definitely something any homeowner can (and should) do. Replacing a GFCI outlet that has reached the end of its service live is something most homeowners can do… but it’s important to follow basic electrical safety procedures such as shutting off the circuit at the breaker and testing all wires in an outlet box before touching anything. This is particularly important in multi-gang boxes (boxes that contain more than one outlet and/or switch). Never assume that a wire is dead just because the one next to it is (ask me how I know). Always use an electrical tester before touching anything. If you don’t have one, you can pick up a circuit tester in a set along with a GFCI outlet tester for less than $15. Again, it’s cheap insurance that every homeowner should have.
It probably comes as a surprise that the GFCI outlets in your home are designed to wear out after a few years (much like your home’s smoke and CO detectors), and that there’s a very good chance that some or all of your GFCIs are way past their intended service life. Using inexpensive tools, you can regularly and safely test your home’s GFCI outlets to identify potential problems before you encounter a serious injury (or worse). If replacing your own GFCI outlets is outside your comfort zone, hire an electrician… or better yet, invite a handy friend over for some barbecue. 🙂
Just like testing your expansion tank or flushing your water heater, testing your GFCI outlets is something all homeowners should do on a regular basis… though most don’t even know they’re supposed to. Add a monthly GFCI outlet check to your household maintenance calendar, and sleep better knowing they’re doing their job.
As always, I welcome your questions, comments, and feedback below.