Two of the most common electrical safety products on the market today are Ground Fault Circuit Interrupters (GFCI) and Arc Fault Circuit Interrupters (AFCI). These electrical components have gained popularity over the years due to their effectiveness in making the electrical service in your home safer. In fact, these products are so effective that they are required by the National Electrical Code (NEC) in all newly constructed homes.

Unfortunately, most of us simply don’t understand exactly what each of these electrical safety products does, what electrical hazards they are designed to protect us from and which product is recommended in a given application. As a result, many homeowners either choose not to install these lifesaving electrical safety products in their homes or they inadvertently install the wrong electrical safety component for their particular application. This can leave the home vulnerable to electrical hazards and the homeowner with a false sense of security. To help ensure your home’s electrical service is as safe as possible, it is important to know the difference between GFCI and AFCI electrical safety products and when to use one or the other, or both.

Understanding The Differences Between Ground Fault and Arc Fault Circuit Interrupters

Ground Fault Circuit Interrupters

GFCIs were first introduced in the 1960s and first required by the NEC as early as 1968 for use on circuits for underwater lighting, specifically swimming pools. Designed to help prevent electrical shock, burns, and electrocution, a GFCI includes a special sensor that helps it to detect an electrical short, also known as a ground fault, allowing it to interrupt the flow of electricity to a circuit before it can cause any harm. GFCIs can be used in two different ways.

  • GFCI Circuit Breakers GFCI circuit breakers are used in your home’s electrical panel and can protect against circuit overload and ground fault for every outlet, lighting fixture or appliance on the circuit it supplies.
  • GFCI Outlets GFCI Outlets are standard duplex outlets that include a GFCI breaker that cuts power to the outlet when it senses a ground fault. Unlike the GFCI circuit breaker, a GFCI outlet only provides protection for the electrical devices plugged into it or other outlets “downstream” from the GFCI outlet in the circuit.

Since water is an excellent conductor of electricity, the NEC now requires that GFCIs be used in areas such as bathrooms, kitchens, laundry rooms and garages where water and electricity could potentially meet.

Arc Fault Circuit Interrupters

Unlike GFCIs, AFCIs are a relatively new electrical safety product. Invented in the 1980s, the AFCI was first included in the NEC in 1999 as a requirement in all electrical circuits that fed outlets in all bedrooms. Able to detect even the most minute electrical arcs in a circuit, an AFCI interrupts the flow of electricity to the circuit when it senses an unintended electrical arc capable of causing an electrical fire, something that conventional circuit breakers, fuses and even GFCIs are unable to do. As with GFCIs, AFCIs can be used in two forms.

  • AFCI Circuit Breakers Used in your home’s electrical panel, AFCI circuit breakers monitor the circuit of unintentional electrical arcs which can generate enough heat to melt the insulation on your home’s wiring and cause an electrical fire. When it senses an arc it cuts the flow of electricity to the circuit.
  • AFCI Outlets An alternative to AFCI circuit breakers, AFCI outlets also provide protection from electrical arcs that can lead to electrical fires, however, they only provide protection for items plugged into the outlet versus the entire circuit. AFCI outlets are typically used in situations in which the homeowner wants protection against electrical arcs and fires, but installing AFCI circuit breakers is not an option.

In recent years, the NEC requirements for GFCIs and AFCIs have changed considerably, and in some cases, both may actually be required on a specific circuit. Due to these ever-changing NEC requirements and the experience required to properly install GFCIs and AFCIs, it is highly recommended that homeowners hire a licensed electrician when installing these electrical safety products.

This is a guest post article by John Oxford a master electrician and the owner of APower Electric Service. Their team of knowledgeable, experienced and friendly electricians is dedicated to ensuring your home’s electric services are as safe and dependable as possible.