For this week and next week’s blogs, I will be looking at GFCI outlets. I will discuss how they work, why they are needed, where they are needed, and how you can test GFCI outlets in your home.
Before we jump into GFCI outlets, we need to talk a little bit about wiring. In an electrical system, there are 2 wires that normally carry current. One of the wires makes the connection to the earth. This wire is considered a grounded conductor (not to be confused with the ground wire) and the other wire is considered an non-grounded conductor. The grounded conductor is (usually) the white wire and is referred to as the “neutral” wire. The non-grounded conductor can be any color other than white or green, although it is usually black. It is referred to as the “hot” wire.
Electricity’s goal always has been and always will be to find its way back to the earth. This is what causes lights to illuminate and other electrical devices to function. Electricity travels from the “hot” wire through a light or other electrical device and back to earth through the “neutral” wire. This inherent property of electricity is also what makes it a safety hazard.
Electricity can’t differentiate between a light bulb and a human being. If you provide electricity a path to ground through your body, it will pass through it just the same as a light bulb. When electricity finds its way to ground in a manner that it wasn’t supposed to, such as through your body, this is known as a ground fault. Wet areas in the home such as the kitchen and bathroom are prime locations for shocking experiences. A wet hand holding on to a faucet while another part of the body comes into contact with faulty wiring could spell disaster. This is where the GFCI outlet proves its worth.
A Ground Fault Circuit Interrupter, GFCI for short, is an electrical safety device designed to prevent fatal electrical shocks due to ground faults. A GFCI device monitors the electricity coming in and compares it to the electricity going back out through the grounded conductor. When the GFCI outlet senses a difference of as low as 5 milliamps (.005 amps), it shuts down or “interrupts” the circuit within milliseconds as a ground fault is most likely occurring. It’s not so fast that you won’t feel a shock at all, but it will prevent a fatal electrocution.
GFCI outlets requirements in the residential setting first appeared in 1971. They were first required to be installed near swimming pool equipment. Fast forward to today, and GFCI outlets are required to be installed in the areas of the home where shocks are most likely to occur, wet areas and areas where ground contact opportunities are best. This includes garages, exterior outlets, bathrooms, kitchen countertops/islands, basements, crawlspaces, and outlets within 6 feet of plumbing fixtures. Click here to see a great chart that illustrates when GFCI outlets became required in each respective area of the home.
That's a good stopping point. Next week I will talk about different types of GFCI devices, common installation practices, and how you can test the GFCI outlets in your home.
In my first post, "Aluminum Wiring: Why Is It A Concern?", I talked about the differences between aluminum and copper wiring, the problems associated with aluminum wiring , and the solution for those problems. In this post, I continue by talking about where aluminum wiring is still commonly used today, requirements for using aluminum wiring, insurance companies, and what you should do if your home has aluminum wiring.
Making A Better Aluminum
With all the problems discovered shortly after aluminum wire’s introduction to the home building industry, wire manufacturers searched for a way to improve aluminum wire and “stop the bleeding” if you will. In the early 70s, they came up with a higher quality alloy that worked much better in electrical applications.
Too Little Too Late
This new and improved aluminum wire proved to perform much better than previous iterations. However, by the time these improvements were made, aluminum wire’s reputation was so tarnished that nobody was buying it. The late 1970s was the end of the road for solid strand aluminum wire.
While most manufacturers have ceased production of solid strand aluminum wire, aluminum wire can still be found widely used in the multi-strand form. Multi-strand aluminum wiring is commonly used to supply power to power hungry appliances such as stoves and HVAC units. It is also used for service entrance conductors into the home.
Now let’s look at a couple requirements for aluminum wire still in use.
A special paste was developed for use at the connection points of stranded aluminum wire. This paste or “joint compound” prevents oxidation (rusting) of the wires and is also electrically conductive.
No Push-in Connections
Testing has proven that aluminum wire performs much better when used with screw connections rather than push-in connections. The screw connection involves wrapping the wire around the screw and tightening the screw down. The push-in connection, sometimes called a quick connect or “stab” connection relies on spring loaded contactors to make the connection. For this reason, push-in connectors are not permitted for use with aluminum wiring.
What About Insurance?
Home insurance companies are very well aware of aluminum wire and the worst case scenarios its malfunction can result in. Some insurance companies refuse to insure homes that have aluminum wire present. Other insurance companies may require a certificate from a licensed electrician or power company which states that all aluminum wire connections have been inspected for proper installation.
The Big Question: What To Do?
Your certified professional home inspection has revealed that your current home or prospective home has aluminum wire present. What should you do? There are several options available for dealing with aluminum wiring.
The fix that many people automatically gravitate towards is a complete rewire of the home with copper wiring. This is the most costly option as a complete rewire can cost upwards of $10,000. A complete rewire is something you can try to negotiate for with the seller if you are buying the home. While a rewire is without a doubt the most permanent solution to aluminum wiring, in most cases I believe it to be impractical.
Install Approved Devices
Another option, which I am a proponent of, is to have all of the outlets, switches, and other connection points upgraded to those approved for use with aluminum wiring. This is still a costly option, however it is much more realistic than a complete rewire.
A third option would be to have a licensed electrician come in and “pigtail” all of the aluminum wires with copper wire using copalum crimps. This process involves a special tool that crimps or bonds the 2 wires together. This would allow you to safely continue to use the outlets and switches already installed. Below is a video showing the COPALUM connector installation.
The last option is to do nothing and hope for the best. While I believe this would be a very bad idea, I understand that money doesn’t grow on trees and large scale repairs may not be financially viable. In this case, it is imperative that you have functioning smoke detectors installed in all the proper locations. You should also stay vigilant in watching for any of the signs of electrical issues discussed here.
Aluminum branch circuit wiring has has its share of problems, but significant improvements have been made. While many people call for complete rewiring of the home, neither electricians nor electric authorities believe it to be necessary. A licensed electrician should inspect all connection points and replace or correct them as necessary.
Colin is a Certified Professional Home Inspector as well as a licensed MS Residential Builder. He has been remodeling homes since he was 14 and even built his own house by hand from the ground up. Colin is also the owner of Wilson Home Inspections.