Last week, I introduced you to the GFCI (sometimes shortened to GFI) outlet. I talked about how they function, why they are necessary, and where they should be located. To summarize, they are safety devices designed to prevent fatal electrocution accidents and should be located in all wet areas and areas with good potential for ground contact (think exterior). This week I will go into the different types of GFCI devices, common installation practices, and how to test them.
Types of GFCI Devices
Two types of GFCI devices commonly seen in a home inspection are outlets and circuit breakers. GFCI circuit breakers are located at, you guessed it, the main breaker panel. These protect all of the outlets on the circuit and don’t require any GFCI outlets to be installed in the circuit. GFCI beakers are often used to protect jacuzzi tubs where the outlet for the pump is concealed inside the tub enclosure. This prevents having to disassemble the tub enclosure to reset the outlet in the event of it tripping. These devices have a test button just like the outlets; to reset them you simply turn the breaker back on. If your wondering, "What does a GFCI look like?", take a look at the pictures below.
The other type of GFCI device, which I have already talked a little about, is the GFCI outlet. You’ve probably already seen them around your house. A distinguishing feature of a GFCI outlet is the presence of two buttons, one which says “TEST” and another labeled “RESET.” We will discuss these buttons and their functions in a bit. Similar to the GFCI breakers, a single GFCI outlet can protect other non- GFCI outlets on the circuit as well. If you look on the back of a GFCI outlet you will see terminal screws labeled line and load. Power coming into the outlet should be wired to the “line” side of the outlet. Any outlets to be protected “downstream” of the GFCI outlet should be wired to the “load” side of the outlet. Many homes use a GFCI outlet located in the garage to control or protect all of the exterior outlets. They may also install a GFCI in one bathroom that protects all of the other bathroom outlets. Each house is different, but a thorough home inspector will note GFCI outlet locations and the outlets they may or may not protect.
Testing GFCI Devices
Just like smoke detectors and other home safety devices, GFCI outlets should be tested regularly to ensure they are functioning properly. As part of a your home maintenance plan, you should test GFCI outlets monthly. Luckily, it is a very simple process. All you have to do is push the test button. When you push the test button, you can have a few possible outcomes:
Now, suppose you want to find out which non-GFCI outlets in your house are protected by an upstream GFCI outlet. A simple way to test them, the way I test them during an inspection, is to use a GFCI outlet tester. The tester can be found at your local home improvement store for under 10 dollars. You simply insert the tester into the Non-GFCI outlet and press the test button. If the power goes out, you know the outlet is protected. The trick can be figuring out which GFCI outlet is protecting it. I recommend making sure the house is nice and quiet so you can listen for the GFCI outlet to trip so you can determine its location. There’s almost nothing more frustrating than a tripped GFCI that you can’t find.
I hope I’ve answered any questions you may have had about GFCI outlets. If not, drop me a comment below and I’ll answer it or make it a future blog post!
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.
Aluminum wiring is a controversial subject in the real estate world. I often have clients ask questions like, “Is aluminum wiring safe?” or “Does it need to be replaced?”. My short answer is yes it is safe, and no it does not need to be replaced. However, I need to elaborate on those answers, as aluminum wiring requires special considerations.
I often hear people say that aluminum wiring has been outlawed for use in residential construction. This is not true. It is still very much allowed when installed properly.
Traditionally, copper has been (and still is) the preferred conductor since electricity’s inception in the late 1800's. It wasn’t until the 1960's, at the height of the Vietnam War era, that aluminum wiring began to be used in American homes. Copper prices were sky high as it was being used to make munitions and other products for military use. Home builders had to find an affordable alternative. That alternative was aluminum.
Copper is Better
It is well known that copper is a better electrical conductor than aluminum. The manufacturers and rating agencies knew this and required aluminum wire be sized one gauge larger than copper wire to carry the same current. Where a branch circuit to a light fixture is traditionally ran with 14 gauge copper, it would have to be ran with 12 gauge aluminum. The smaller the the gauge, the larger the wire.
Problems began to arise a short time after aluminum wire became widely used. Issues included lights flickering, cover plates on switches and receptacles would be warm to the touch, and burnt wire insulation. These were all caused by the aluminum wire overheating for several reasons we will look at below.
Aluminum wire is softer that copper which made it much more susceptible to cuts and nicks when removing insulation to make connections. When an area of a wire is damaged, that place becomes a hot spot that will overheat.
When electricity passes through a wire, it heats up. When metal heats up, it expands, and, consequently. it contracts when it cools down. Aluminum has a higher expansion rate than copper. The expansion and contraction cycle due to heating and cooling would cause what is referred to as “creep.” When connected to outlets not approved for use with aluminum wire, the wire would literally creep out from under the terminal screw holding the wire down. This created a loose connection that would overheat.
As with any metal, aluminum will oxidize, more commonly known as rusting. The difference between copper and aluminum is that the rust formed on copper is still a good electrical conductor. The rust that forms on aluminum does not conduct electricity well at all. It creates resistance that will cause overheating.
The problems noted above all occurred at the connection points like those receptacles, switches, light fixtures and at the main panel. The way to prevent these issues was, and still is, to use special connectors approved for use with both copper and aluminum. There were receptacles, switches, wire nuts, breakers and other electrical devices designed for this purpose. They should be marked or labeled with one of three markings: CO/ALR, AL-CU, or CU-AL.
Building inspectors were not common at the time when aluminum wiring was being installed. As a result, aluminum wiring was installed in many homes without connectors approved for use with aluminum. This is where the problems occurred and are still occurring today.
Stay tuned for my next post in which I will discuss more issues associated with aluminum wiring, insurance companies, and what to do if your house has aluminum wiring.
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.