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Do All Outdoor Outlets Have To Be GFCI?


The holidays are coming. Soon it will be time to start hanging lights. Of course, there are safety hazards for anything you plug in outdoors. You might have heard of GFCI outlets and their use in outdoor electrical safety. What is GFCI? Is it necessary for all outdoor outlets? Here's what you need to know.

Understanding Ground Fault Currents

Anything outdoors needs to be weatherproof. Water and electricity don't mix, so an outdoor outlet must be able to withstand the rain. Likewise, the outlets in your bathroom and kitchen, particularly the ones near the sinks, need to be able to guard against water splashes. That's where GFCI comes in.

GFCI stands for Ground Fault Circuit Interrupter. Electricity flows from your outlet to the device plugged into it, via insulated wires. If those wires wear out, becoming frayed or otherwise faulty, then they're exposed and can no longer contain the electricity - particularly if the wires get wet. The current flows to the ground via its own path, causing a sudden surge of electricity. This is called a ground fault. Anyone in the path of the ground fault gets shocked, causing potential injury and even death. It can likewise damage the appliances plugged into the outlet.

What GFCI Outlets Do

A GFCI outlet is designed to detect even minor variations in electric current and shut appliances down before they can cause harm. It's similar to your circuit breaker. However, a GFCI outlet has its own internal switch, which kicks in before the current reaches the circuit breaker.

The GFCI outlet's job is to interrupt that electrical current as soon as a surge is detected. You might still receive a shock from a GFCI outlet, but it will be a quick one. The current will be interrupted before it can cause serious damage. These outlets are specifically designed for areas and situations where using electricity can be hazardous, such as your kitchen, your bathroom, and of course, outdoors.

GFCI Outlet Requirements

Any 15-amp, 20-amp, or 120-volt outdoor outlet, must have GFCI protection. There needs to be at least one at the front of your house, and one in the back, no higher than six feet, six inches off the ground, to accommodate your electrical needs. Furthermore, if you have a balcony, deck, patio, or other space designed for outdoor lounging, there must be at least one GFCI outlet in that area that's also accessible from the inside.

There are similar outlet requirements for kitchens and bathrooms. Anywhere electricity might be used near water and/or flame, GFCI outlets are at least recommended, if not required, in order to guarantee your family's safety.

Other Tips for Safe Outdoor Lighting

GFCI is only the beginning when it comes to outdoor lighting safety. You also need to ensure all your light bulbs and extension cords are specifically rated for outdoor use. Never use an indoor cord in an outdoor outlet, never plug two extension cords into one another, and never buy a bulb that exceeds an outlet's maximum wattage.

If you've kept your holiday lights, and/or your extension cords, in storage all winter, inspect them thoroughly before plugging them in, making sure they aren't frayed, worn, or otherwise damaged. If they are, throw them out and get new ones.

There are a lot of great things you can do with outdoor lighting - as long as you stay safe. For help installing GFCI outlets, or other electrical safety needs, contact us today.