Why do I need that, he asked when I was showing him the two sets of GFCI circuits in his kitchen. During another inspection, I was perplexed when I tripped the circuit in the children’s bathroom. I thought that the reset would be in the Master Bedroom, but I found it downstairs in a bathroom off of the kitchen. The seller did not know that there was a reset, or what the outlets were for, so he was curious about my discovery too. Realizing that this technology is misunderstood, I thought a quick post about these outlets may be helpful.
GFCI stands for ground fault circuit interrupter; AFCI means arc fault circuit interrupter; they handle two different issues with an outlet. GFCI outlets will shut down the power to a circuit when a ground fault occurs. An example of this will be a radio plugged into the outlet falls into the water of a sink or tub causing a short. Serious injury is hopefully prevented by cutting the power during this circumstance. One outlet for a circuit protected by the GFCI will have two buttons. One is a test button to see if the circuit works by imitating a ground fault, while the other button is the reset. All outlets on a circuit should be marked with a tag stating that it is GFCI. Generally, all bathrooms would be on one circuit, which should be controlled by an outlet overseen by the parents. Exterior outlets, unless in the soffit, should be GFCI protected, and these would be controlled by an outlet in the garage. Finally, the kitchen will have its outlets on one or two circuits controlled by outlets there in the kitchen. The refrigerator is never on this circuit. If the power is shut down accidentally, and not restored, the items in your refrigerator could spoil. Inspectors use a device to imitate a ground fault to test these circuits.
AFCI outlets do not stand out as GFCI outlets do. The test and reset buttons for this circuit are on the breaker in the service panel. To understand what this unit does, my best example would be from a science class or the movies. Think about a power cable which has bare wires on the end. When charged, the bare wires will spark to a piece of metal, so you see the electricity jump from the wire to the metal like lightening. This is the arc. The wires that attach to your outlet to charge it have bare ends. If they are loose, an arc could occur between the wire and another piece of metal in the outlet. Eventually this can cause a fire as the metal heats up. I do not see many of these units installed on homes yet during my inspections. They are commonly placed on bedroom circuits to prevent a fire from starting in those rooms while the occupants are sleeping.
You can buy GFCI circuits at the home improvement center, and they are easily installed. The wiring is just like any outlet. You will have to check the instructions of the unit if you wish to protect an entire outlet. For safety, always turn off the power when working on replacing an outlet. AFCI breakers are a bit more difficult, so I would suggest a qualified electrician to install it. I just do not feel comfortable encouraging people to work on their breaker box, because it is not always the safest thing for the average do-it-yourselfer.