by Nick Gromicko, Ben Gromicko and Katie McBride
According to the Electrical portion of InterNACHI’s Home Inspection Standards of Practice, Section 3.7, “An inspector shall inspect all ground-fault circuit interrupter receptacles and circuit breakers observed and deemed to be GFCIs using a GFCI tester, where possible… and [inspect] a representative number of switches, lighting fixtures and receptacles, including receptacles observed and deemed to be arc-fault circuit interrupter (AFCI)-protected using the AFCI test button, where possible.” Home inspectors should familiarize themselves with the following information to further understand how to conduct a proper and thorough inspection of GFCIs and AFCIs.
To understand GFCIs and AFCIs, it’s helpful to know a couple of definitions.
- A device is a part of an electrical system, not a conductor wire, that carries or controls electricity. A light switch is an example of a device.
- An outlet is a point in the wiring system where current is accessible to supply equipment. For example, a dishwasher may be plugged into an outlet inside the sink cabinet. Another name for an electrical outlet is an electrical receptacle.
What is a GFCI?
A ground-fault circuit interrupter, or GFCI, is a device used in electrical wiring to disconnect a circuit when unbalanced current is detected between an energized conductor and a neutral return conductor. Such an imbalance is sometimes caused by current “leaking” through a person who is simultaneously in contact with a ground and an energized part of the circuit, which can result in lethal shock. GFCIs are designed to provide protection in such a situation, unlike standard circuit breakers, which guard against overloads, short circuits and ground faults.
What is an AFCI?
Arc-fault circuit interrupters (AFCIs) are special types of electrical receptacles or outlets and circuit breakers designed to detect and respond to potentially dangerous electrical arcs in home branch wiring. As designed, AFCIs function by monitoring the electrical waveform and promptly opening (interrupting) the circuit they serve if they detect changes in the wave pattern that are characteristic of a dangerous arc. In addition to the detection of dangerous wave patterns (arcs that may cause fires), AFCIs are also designed to differentiate safe, normal arcs. An example of this arc is when a switch is turned on or a plug is pulled from a receptacle. Very small changes in wave patterns can be detected, recognized, and responded to by AFCIs.
2015 International Residential Code (IRC) Requirements for GFCIs and AFCIs
Please refer to Section E3902 of the 2015 IRC that relates to GFCIs and AFCIs.
GFCI protection is recommended for the following:
- 15- and 20-amp kitchen countertop receptacles and outlets for dishwashers;
- 15- and 20-amp bathroom and laundry receptacles;
- 15- and 20-amp receptacles within 6 feet of the outside edge of a sink, bathtub or shower;
- electrically-heated floors in bathrooms, kitchens, and hydromassage tubs, spas, and hot tubs;
- 15- and 20-amp exterior receptacles, which must have GFCI protection, except for receptacles not readily accessible that are used for temporary snow-melting equipment and are on a dedicated circuit;
- 15- and 20-amp receptacles in garages and unfinished storage buildings;
- 15- and 20-amp receptacles in boathouses and 240-volt and less outlets at boat hoists;
- 15- and 20-amp receptacles in unfinished basements, except receptacles for fire or burglar alarms; and
- 15- and 20-amp receptacles in crawlspaces at or below ground level.
GFCIs and AFCIs must be installed in readily accessible locations because they have test buttons that should be pushed periodically. Manufacturers recommend that homeowners and inspectors test or cycle the breakers and receptacles periodically to help ensure that the electrical components are working properly.
AFCI protection is recommended at 15- and 20-amp outlets on branch circuits for bedrooms, closets, dens, dining rooms, family rooms, hallways, kitchens, laundry areas, libraries, living rooms, parlors, recreation rooms, and sun rooms.
Similar rooms or areas must be protected by any of the following:
- a combination-type AFCI installed for the entire branch circuit. The 2005 NEC required combination-type AFCIs, but before January 1, 2008, branch/feeder-type AFCIs were used.
- a branch/feeder-type AFCI breaker installed at the panel in combination with an AFCI receptacle at the first outlet box on the circuit.
- a listed supplemental arc-protection circuit breaker (which are no longer manufactured) installed at the panel in combination with an AFCI receptacle installed at the first outlet, where all of the following conditions are met:
- the wiring is continuous between the breaker and AFCI outlet;
- the maximum length of the wiring is not greater than 50 feet for 14-gauge wire, and 70 feet for 12-gauge wire; and
- the first outlet box is marked as being the first outlet.
- a listed AFCI receptacle installed at the first outlet on the circuit in combination with a listed overcurrent-protection device, where all of the following conditions are met:
- the wiring is continuous between the device and receptacle;
- the maximum length of the wiring is not greater than 50 feet for 14-gauge wire and 70 feet for 12-gauge wire;
- the first outlet is marked as being the first outlet; and
- the combination of the overcurrent-protection device and AFCI receptacle are identified as meeting the requirements for a combination-type AFCI.
- an AFCI receptacle and steel wiring method; and
- an AFCI receptacle and concrete encasement.
In summary, to ensure that circuit breakers and receptacles are working properly, homeowners and home inspectors should periodically cycle or test the electrical components for proper function. A recent update of the IRC requires specific GFCI and AFCI protection for 15- and 20-amp receptacles. Home inspectors should familiarize themselves with these new guidelines to ensure proper testing and inspection of GFCIs and AFCIs.