Difference between an GFCI & AFCI Outlet
By Carl Heywood
A GFCI (ground fault circuit interrupter) or GFI (ground fault interrupter) outlet/breaker is an electrical surge protector which protects against electrical shock by cutting off electrical current when the flow of the electricity is misdirected away from its normal path. GFCI outlets are typically required to be installed in wet areas such as kitchens, bathrooms, unfinished basements, garages, outdoors, and anywhere else near water.
GFCI protection is available in one of two options, an electrical outlet or a circuit breaker. The GFCI outlet has two buttons on its face, a test, and a reset button, the test button is used to check if the electrical outlet is working properly. The GFCI outlet monitors the current going into the hot slot in the outlet (smaller vertical slot) and coming back out the neutral slot (larger vertical slot). If there is any fluctuation in amperage (as little as .004-.005 milliamps) the GFCI will trip, cutting off the electrical current to the outlet. As little as 30 milliamps of current can stop your heart, but a GFCI protected outlet will trip at a much lower amperage, protecting you from electrical shock. One GFCI outlet will protect all the other outlets in the circuit that are wired from it (downstream), preventing electrical shock at these receptacles too.
GFCI outlets can also be used to protect circuits that are not bonded (non-grounded) back to the electrical panel and earth. Today’s building standards require all the electrical circuits to be grounded/bonded back to the electrical panel for personal safety. What is bonding/grounding? Electrical bonding is the practice of intentionally electrically connecting all exposed metallic items (washer, dryer, lamp, TV) not designed to carry electricity in a room or building as protection from electric shock. For example, if a wire became loose or damaged inside an appliance it could energize it and shock or kill anyone who touches it.
Electrical panels in homes built before 1960 were grounded to the earth via the water supply piping, however, these outlets (2-prong outlets) were not bonded back to the panel. One option would be to rewire the entire house, but that is expensive. Another less expensive option would be to install GFCI protected breakers in the panel. GFCI protected breakers will not bond the circuit to the panel but will trip and provide protection if there was an electrical short in the appliance.
What is an AFCI Outlet/Breaker
An AFCI outlet (Arc Fault Circuit Interrupter) is an outlet that provides protection from arc faults caused by damaged house wiring or damaged wiring in electrical appliances. (E020) An arc fault is essentially the unwanted discharge or electricity in a circuit and is one of the causes of residential electrical fires. The discharge produced from the fault produces heat, which will damage the wire sheathing, making it more susceptible to an electric fire. By detecting these arc faults, the AFCI breaker trips, turning off power to the circuit and reducing the risk of an electrical fire.
Arc faults can occur anywhere in the home; for example, at loose/damaged wiring connections in the walls or appliances. The AFCI breaker can determine whether the arc fault is hazardous to the wiring system and responds accordingly, removing power if necessary. AFCI's have been required per U.S. and Canada electrical codes since the beginning of the 21st century. Since 2014, AFCI breakers have been required on almost all housing circuits by the National Electric Code (NEC). Today, the required circuits for AFCI breakers are almost every room in the house
There are currently 2 different types of AFCI; a branch/feeder as well as a combination AFCI. Both offer overcurrent protection, and both protect against arcing. The difference between the two is the branch feeder is intended to dissipate the high current arcing faults in the circuit occurring from parallel arcing (line-to-neutral) whereas the combination AFCI is a breaker in the electrical panel which provides protection against series arcing (loose, broken, high resistance wires) ground arcing (line-to-ground) as well as overload and short circuit protection.
Remember, a home inspection is not a code inspection. We are not inspecting your future property to make sure it is code compliant. Code changes every 3 years, homes built 50 years ago will not meet the required building codes of today’s homes. We are inspecting the property for functionality and safety, GFCI & AFCI outlets can improve the safety of your home and should be considered as future upgrades. As always, we suggest consulting with and using a qualified electrical contractor to make any upgrades to a home’s electrical system.
By Carl Heywood
Horizon Point Inspections