A GFCI outlet provides a level of protection that a regular outlet or a circuit breaker does not. But is that reason enough for you to use it everywhere? Can regular outlets be replaced with GFCI? And how do you tell both of them apart?

GFCI outlets are distinguished from conventional outlets by their greater size and front-facing buttons. However, they aren’t always the best choice, even though you can easily replace any regular outlet with a GFCI. Before choosing which outlet to install, I must consider factors such as cost, maintenance, location, safety and space.

In this article I’ll discuss everything you need to know about the differences between a GFCI and a regular outlet. So, sit tight and read the full article thoroughly.

Differences Between A GFCI And A Regular Outlet

What Is A GFCI Outlet?

GFCI is short for Ground Fault Circuit Interrupter. These outlets are designed to protect human beings from being shocked. Whereas regular outlets and circuit breakers are usually designed with the well-being of the household and the appliances in mind.

By monitoring electrical current and cutting power or ‘tripping’ when the outlets detect an excess current flow through an unwanted direction, GFCI outlets avoid significant electric shock and lessen the danger of electrical fire.

GFCIs are designed to respond before electricity can affect your heartbeat – in as little as one-thirtieth of a second –and will even work in outlets that aren’t grounded. They achieve this by being highly sensitive and having a fast response time.

Fig-1: A GFCI Outlet

How can you tell if an outlet is GFCI?

The bigger size along with the additional face buttons (test & reset) should be a straight giveaway. Even though they may come in many shapes and forms, the test and reset buttons are always a constant feature.

How Does A GFCI Outlet Work?

The GFCI works by detecting the imbalance between the monitored current flow immediately and shuts off the electricity to the outlet as well as any outlets downstream from the circuit. Imbalances usually occur because of a ground fault.

Ground Fault:

A ground fault occurs when electricity mistakenly leaves a confined channel and flows directly to the ground (ground). Electrical wiring in our homes is protected by insulated sheathing. When foreign things come into touch with an electrical circuit, electricity will try to find an unexpected way to the ground.

These outlets are exceptionally quick to respond. Small imbalances as low as 4-5 Milliamperes may be detected, and the circuit can be tripped in a fraction of a second. You may feel a tiny squeeze during that brief period, but the GFCI will prevent any sustained exposure to the potentially fatal electrical shock.

How Does A GFCI Outlet Work
Fig-2: Circuits Protected by Ground Fault Receptacle

What Are the Differences Between GFCI and a Regular Outlet?

There are several key differences between a GFCI and a regular outlet apart from the excess safety features. Time to take a look.

GFCI VS Regular Outlet

FeaturesGFCI OutletRegular Outlet
AppearanceLarger in size.Comparatively smaller.
Testing ButtonsPresentAbsent
Shock ProtectionYesNo
Fire ProtectionYesNo
Preferred Location of InstallationPlaces where water and vapor are more prevalent, such as kitchens and bathrooms,All over the household, where water is not expected to come into contact with the outlet. E.g., Living room, Dining etc.
CostCosts more than regular outlets.Costs less due to the simplification of design.
Required SpaceDue to its size requires more space.Requires less space, as size is comparatively small.
Monthly MaintenanceRequired.Nor required.

Can I replace a GFCI outlet with a regular outlet?

Yes, it is completely possible to convert all of your regular outlets to GFCI.

But, should all outlets be GFCI?

Even though GFCI outlets have a significant number of advantages over regular outlets, they aren’t always the best choice.

However, to link multiple GFCI in series connections, you have to first know how to wire a GFCI outlet in series.

These key factors contribute to the decision-making strategy of whether to install a GFCI, or to opt for a regular outlet.

  • Cost: GFCIs cost significantly more than a regular outlet. Even though they provide more safety, it makes sense to save time and money by installing regular outlets in bedrooms, hallways, and living areas.
  • Maintenance: As GFCI outlets require frequent testing, their maintenance requirement is pretty high. To make sure a GFCI outlet works perfectly, you must performa monthly test using the “Test” and “Reset” buttons on the outlet.
  • Safety: GFCI plays a critical role in preventing electrical shock and house fires from short-circuits.Thus, if the outlet doesn’t require excess safety, a GFCI can be avoided.
  • Space: Due to the larger size of the GFCI, it cannot be installed in cramped spaces.In cases like these, you cannot but install a regular outlet.
  • Location: As discussed above, GFCI outlets are mostly preferable for kitchens and bathrooms.For other areas of the household, a GFCI can be excluded.

So, technically speaking, even though the GFCI leaves the regular outlet biting the dust, it is not always the best strategy to use them in every socket of the household.

However, if you do decide to install a GFCI outlet, first you should know whether it contains either 3 wires, or 4. Depending on the number of wires you have, you can follow either this guide (How to wire a GFCI outlet with 3 wires) or this one (How to install a GFCI outlet with 4 wires).

Summary

Now that you’re more knowledgeable about the differences of GFCI vs regular outlets, you’ll be able to make calculated decisions on which one to use for your specific need.

GFCI provides safety at the cost of a higher price and constant maintenance. Hence, my suggestion would be to use GFCI specifically in the kitchen and bathrooms, and regular outlets in other areas unless you require the need for an extra safety measure.

References:

  1. https://homeinspectioninsider.com/how-gfci-outlets-work/
  2. https://mrelectric.com/blog/what-s-a-gfci-outlet
  3. https://www.serviceone.com/blog/article/gfci-versus-regular-outlet
  4. https://www.familyhandyman.com/project/how-to-install-gfci-outlets/
  5. https://www.wikihow.com/Wire-GFCI
  6. https://help.dockingdrawer.com/kb/safety/can-i-wire-my-gfci-outlets-in-series-with-another-gfci
  7. https://www.buildmyowncabin.com/electrical/wiring-multiple-gfci-outlets.html

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