The FYI on GFCI, GFI, and AFCI

What they are, where you need them, and how they can save your life or property

What’s the difference between a GFCI and GFI outlet?

Trick question! There really is no difference. Ground fault circuit interrupters (GFCI) and ground fault interrupters (GFI) both refer to the same exact device. The terms are interchangeable, so we felt we should clarify that in case you’ve heard both terms and wondered what might be different about your particular outlet; nothing.

What about AFCI outlets, are they also the same thing?

Close, but different. Arc fault circuit interrupters (AFCI) work in the same way as GFCI/GFI devices, but protect users from a slightly different electrical hazard.

Now that we have cleared that up, we will refer to the outlets as GFCI for the purposes of this article. GFCI is also the term more commonly used by electricians in the industry.

What benefit do GFCI and AFCI breakers and outlets provide?

GFCI breakers and outlets detect energy leaks as small as a thousandth of a milliamp and then shut down the circuit. This, in turn, prevents the person operating the outlet, or the item connected to it, from experiencing a potentially lethal shock. You’ve heard of the term “grounding” a wire so it won’t accidentally shock you with errant electricity? This is what GFCI breakers and outlets do 24/7. Arc fault circuit interrupters (AFCI) will deactivate if it senses an electrical arc fault. The arc fault generates an incredibly high amount of heat that can spark a fire. This is most common when wires get frayed or damaged, leaving wires exposed and raising the risk of errant electricity and an arc fault. In the simplest of terms to make it easy to remember, GFCI breakers and outlets prevent fatal shocks, AFCI breakers and outlets prevent arc fault fires.

You will know a GFCI or AFCI outlet visually by the two buttons it has; reset and test.

AFCI                                                              GFCI

Not all GFCI breakers and outlets have red/black buttons and not all AFCI breakers and outlets have all white buttons, but generally, they have this design.

GFCI is recommended in all wet or damp areas of the home such as the kitchen, bathroom, crawl spaces, wet bar, and laundry room. AFCI is recommended on all 120-volt, 15-amp or 20-amp circuits. (It’s always a good idea to check the National Electrical Code (NEC) for the most up-to-date guidance.)

GFCI: If the red RESET button pops out, and won’t stay IN when you push it, check the breaker. This indicates there is something wrong with the circuit that needs to be addressed. If the circuit breaker for that outlet is tripped/flipped in the main electrical panel, then reset it before coming back to reset the outlet. If you notice it happening when a certain appliance or device is plugged into that outlet, then there is a problem with that appliance or device. Good news all around, however, your GFCI is working exactly as intended.

AFCI: Since AFCI outlets are designed to trip in a fraction of a second when it detects a possible arc fault fire hazard, they may trip more than a GFCI because small appliances such as vacuum cleaners generate small, periodic arcs when in operation. This is sometimes called “nuisance tripping” because the AFCI is (rightfully) highly sensitive to the smallest disruption in the circuit. Still, it’s always to better to be safe than sorry, so if you have an outlet or breaker constantly tripping, let On Time Electrical conduct a quick inspection to ensure your home and family are safe.

Both GFCI and AFCI outlets and breakers should be tested monthly, here’s how to do that properly:

For GFCI outlets:

  1. Press RESET button.
  2. Plug in a lamp on that circuit.
  3. Turn lamp ON.
  4. Press TEST button.
  5. Light should turn OFF.
  6. Press RESET button.
  7. Light should turn back ON.
  8. If pressing TEST did not turn the lamp OFF, let On Time Electrical conduct a quick safety check.

For GFCI breakers:

  1. Locate your home’s main electrical panel and the circuit you want to test.
  2. Hit the TEST button, which will turn off the breaker.
  3. Use the lamp again to plug into that circuit and ensure it stays OFF.
  4. Here is where it is different from the outlet, there is NO RESET button on the breaker, so you must manually turn the switch back on, just like you would do for any non-GFCI breaker in the panel.
  5. Lamp should turn ON and you’re good to go.

For AFCI outlets:

  1. Unplug all electric devices on a circuit before testing so they are not inadvertently damaged (especially home computers and gaming systems).
  2. Press the TEST button on the outlet, you should hear a clicking sound as the outlet turns off due to the test’s arc fault.
  3. Plug in a lamp and try to turn it ON. It should NOT work as there should be no power in that outlet. Unplug the lamp.
  4. Hit the RESET button.
  5. Plug lamp back in, it should turn ON.
  6. Repeat these steps for every GFCI breaker you want to test.

For AFCI breakers:

  1. Locate your home’s main electrical panel and the circuit you want to test.
  2. With breaker in ON position and lamp plugged into that circuit, hit the TEST button.
  3. Lamp should turn OFF.
  4. Breaker should trip and move to OFF position (or middle “TRIP” if there is one).
  5. Flip the breaker back to the ON position (if it went to middle TRIP, put it back to OFF. before turning all the way back ON.)
  6. Repeat these steps for every AFCI breaker you want to test.
  7. If a circuit does NOT trip, contact On Time Electrical and we’ll safely replace it.

“This all seems pretty straightforward, can I change out GFCI and AFCI outlets and breakers myself?”

We recognize that some DIYers have electrical experience and this may be a relatively easy and safe task for you. However, electrical codes, regulations, and consequences are serious business and we always recommend that you leave it up to the professionals who take on the responsibility, accountability, and liability for a job done right.

On Time Electrical customer service is available 24/7 at (704) 820-4803. You can also visit us online anytime at www.itselectriccharlotte.com. Check out our weekly and monthly specials, plus we waive the service call fee on ANY repair! Locally owned and operated, we’re On Time Electrical. It’s electric!

Categories