If you live in North America, you’re probably
familiar with electrical outlets that have a test and reset button. Older ones would have red and black buttons,
but newer ones are usually matched to the color of the receptacle. If you’ve ever messed about with one of
these and pressed the TEST button, you’ll have noticed it sort of POP with the RESET
button sticking out a bit, and now the outlet is dead. To be fair, it told you to test it. But now you have to exert quite of bit of
force to shove that reset button back in place before the outlet will work again. What is this for? Why are they usually only found in kitchens
and bathrooms? Will I ask a fourth question? And how are they, as the title suggests, life-saving? Well, this is called (in Americaspeak) a ground-fault
circuit interrupter, or GFCI. Sometimes they’re just called Ground-Fault
Interrupters, or GFIs. The rest of the world calls them Residual
Current Devices, or RCDs, and usually they aren’t found in the bathroom but in the
service panel protecting the entire circuit (and sometimes the entire house). These simple devices use a fundamental principle
of electricity to detect when an electric shock might be in progress, and can nearly
instantly cut power to the circuit to stop said electric shock. The US electric code requires these outlets
to be fitted when they are within a certain distance of a water source. That’s why they’re usually found in the
kitchen and bathrooms, though electrical outlets found in other potentially wet locations,
such as exterior outlets or those in a laundry room or garage, will usually require protection
as well. The theory is that you’re much more likely
to experience an electric shock near water, ‘cause water tends to conduct electricity
pretty well and thus if your hands are wet or a power cord is wet, you’re at a significantly
higher risk of electric shock when touching anything remotely electrical. Anyway, how do these devices determine if
a shock might be happening, and thus how do they know they need to break the circuit? Well, part of the answer is in the name. The Americaspeak version, ground-fault circuit
interrupter, suggests it can detect some problem related to the ground. The most-other-places name, Residual Current
Device, suggests current is going somewhere it shouldn’t. I’ve always felt that both of these names
compliment the other and make the issue easier to understand, but on their own they’re
somewhat inadequate. Residual current is kinda the result of a
ground fault, but what does that even mean? Well, in any ordinary circumstance, the current
flowing out of one side of the outlet will exactly match the current flowing back into
the other. There should always be a balance in an electric
circuit between the hot supply and the neutral return. If you plug in a toaster, then for every unit
of current flowing towards the toaster in this wire, there is an equal unit of current
flowing away from it in the other. The same holds true for the reverse polarity
of the A/C cycle. But if I were to get an electric shock from
the toaster, perhaps by being a complete fool and sticking a knife down there like you should
never ever do, kids, then some of the current coming from the outlet gets diverted through
my body. Now, the current leaving the outlet is greater
than the current returning, because some of it doesn’t actually return. There is now an imbalance between the current
flowing out of the hot wire and back through the neutral wire. This fault condition is, from the outlet’s
perspective, a ground fault. Some of the current is not returning to ground,
or the neutral side. Somewhere outside the circuit, there is residual
current. See, both names work, but they describe the
problem differently. With a ground-fault detected, With residual
current detected, the device needs to interrupt the circuit. So it’s a ground fault circuit interrupter. So it’s a residual current device. As a side note, I like the term ground-fault
circuit interrupter better because it describes both what it detects and what it does. Even the 25% discount term, Ground Fault Interrupter,
describes both the problem and the action. Residual current device is a little incomplete
in describing its mission, but I will grant that residual current seems like a less-technical
description than ground-fault. But whatever. Now, I’ve always found the best way to show
how devices do what they do is to tear one apart. Off to the hardware store! I’m back! So let’s take a look at this thing. Like any electrical outlet, is has terminals
for incoming hot and neutral, as well as a separate ground. But these ones here are a little interesting. See, most standard outlets have two pairs
of terminals as well, but they’re connected by this little tab. This electrically joins the two halves together,
so connecting just one pair of wires powers both sides of the outlet, and you easily can
daisy-chain outlets together within a circuit. However, if you break the tabs off, now each
outlet is wired separately. This is often done so that one pair of plugs
can have two functions, with one side on a light switch for a lamp, and the other on
all the time. But the second set of terminals on a GFCI
is protected by its internal circuitry. That’s why they are labeled LINE and LOAD. Incoming power goes into the LINE terminals,
and any outlets farther down the circuit that are attached to the LOAD terminals will also
become ground-fault protected. The practical upshot of this is that in a
chain of outlets on one circuit, only the first needs to be a GFCI receptacle. The rest downstream will all get protection,
though there is a limit to how many you can string along depending on national and local
electric codes. One little curiosity is that most outlets
of this type can interrupt 20 amps, so although this is only a 15 amp receptacle, it can be
placed in a 20 amp circuit and provide protection for other 20 amp receptacles. So, let’s open it up. With everything removed we find the four screw
terminals mounted to a circuit board. These braided copper wires are carrying current
from the line side through to the load side, and the top pair of switch contacts would
normally energize the pins of the actual receptacle, which when assembled lie far above the circuit
board. This nylon bracket can move back and forth,
and it forms the actual switch that will break the circuit in a fault condition. It rests in the closed condition with the
help of a latch, and a spring down below will keep it in the open position once enough force
is exerted on it to overcome the latch. Now, this black cylinder piece is a tightly
wound coil of wire called a solenoid, and when current is passed through it it creates
a magnetic field which will force an iron plunger out of it in this direction. This plunger isn’t visible but it is what
breaks the circuit. When the electronics detect a ground fault,
they divert power into the solenoid which will push the plunger forward and thus kill
the power. But how does it detect current leakage? Well, look closely at the path the electricity
takes from the line connections through to the switch contacts. It goes via these busbars through a round
doo-dad, and if we move this varistor out of the way we can see that inside is a coil
of wire. This is the sense coil, and if you look on
the bottom you find that this is what is being monitored. You can see that IC1 has its pins connected
to the output of the coil, with some support components peppered in. And now we go back to school for a moment. You were likely taught that when current passes
through a wire, it generates a magnetic field. Likewise, when a magnetic field encounters
a wire, it induces a current in the wire. Basic stuff, but this is exactly the principle
that makes the GFCI work. See, in a normal condition, whatever unit
of current is going up through this side is also going down through that side. The current going to the toaster as before,
goes up this side, and the current coming back from it goes down that side. Of course that’s constantly switching back
and forth due to the fact that we’re dealing with A/C electricity, but they are always
opposite directions. Both bus bars generate a pretty sizeable magnetic
field around them depending of course on the load, but because they are going in opposite
directions the fields cancel each other out. That means that normally, no current is actually
induced in the sense coil. Even though there are two magnetic fields
being generated, they are of equal amount and opposite polarity, so the net result is
zero. But if there’s any imbalance at all between
the current going up one side and down the other, now the magnetic fields are no longer
in equal opposition and they don’t entirely cancel out. A tiny imbalance generates enough current
in the sense coil for the electronics to detect, and as soon as they do so the solenoid fires
and disconnects the circuit. Most devices like this are designed to break
the circuit in 30 milliseconds or less, and in the US they are designed to trip with only
5 milliamps of leakage current. So what’s the real-world use of this? Let me show you. A word of caution for the following demonstrations. What I’m doing is pretty dangerous. Energizing exposed terminals at line voltage
is not something you should casually do. Let me do the dangerous stuff, and please
don’t try this at home. I’ve wired up this naked GFCI to a plug
and I’ve put a few of things on its output. First, a standard light socket with a standard
bulb. Second, the same light socket but with an
adapter for an itty bitty bulb, and this one’s wired correctly. And third, the same light socket and adapter,
but this time it’s wired incorrectly. So right now, everything looks good. The current exiting the plug always matches
the current returning, so the electronics don’t intervene and the light stays lit. Now I’m going to screw this little 5 watt
bulb into the top light socket. Nothing happens, it just comes on. But now I’ll tighten the light on the bottom. As soon as it makes contact, the electronics
in the GFCI intervene, firing the solenoid, and breaking the circuit. But why? Well, the second light socket was wired with
a deliberate ground fault. I attached its hot wire to the monitored output
of the GFCI just like the the first one, but its neutral wire was hooked into the supply
neutral of the outlet, therefore bypassing the sense coil. This meant that the current that flowed out
through this wire and into the bulb didn’t take the same path back to the outlet. It leaked out somewhere (in this case just
to here), and the outlet could detect the resulting current imbalance through the sense
coil. Even though this lamp is really small, passing
only 41 milliamps when it’s lit, the GFCI could immediately detect the fault and broke
the circuit. The second lamp is analogous to someone getting
an electric shock. Current flowed out of the outlet, but it didn’t
make its way back in. If this were a human body rather than a light
bulb, said human could be in for a shocking experience. But thanks to the GFCI, the fault condition
was immediately detected and the current flow was stopped. Let me show you how fast this happens. I’ve disconnected the return wire so I can
just push it against the contacts. If I go to this contact nothing happens because
the current is taking the correct path to ground. The current returning from the bulb goes through
the sense coil. But if I just barely brush against the incoming
neutral connection, causing the return current to flow outside the sense coil, it detects
the imbalance imperceptibly quickly. And that’s why these are life savers. Imagine you’ve plugged your hair dryer into
the outlet in your bathroom, and the cord is frayed. You might have never noticed it, but if you
touched that wire with a wet hand you’d be in for a nasty shock. But if plugged into a ground fault interrupter,
almost immediately the current flow would be stopped and your life may very well have
been saved. And that’s why most modern devices that
are going to be used in the bathroom, like a hair dryer, are required to have a GFCI
built into their power plugs here in the US. There are plenty of older homes without GFCI
equipped receptacles, and for these your-hands-will-definitely-be-wet scenarios, it’s better safe than sorry. And now, some other things! First, in the US, these generally are NOT
circuit breakers. OK, yes they are, but I mean they don’t
protect against short circuits or excessive current. They are not a replacement for a traditional
circuit breaker but are instead a supplement to them. They do not duplicate the overcurrent protection
of your standard circuit breaker or fuse. Many GFCI receptacles here in the US have
an LED to indicate… something. The state that is being indicated is entirely
nonstandard. Many, such as these, have a light indicating
that it’s working. Presumably that light would go out if the
protection has failed. But I’ve also seen plugs where the light
is normally out, but comes on when the outlet has tripped! And these ones in my kitchen are normally
green and are off when tripped, but when you reset them, they briefly illuminate red. So probably, they would light up red if the
protection circuit had failed. Which does happen. That’s why they are all labeled “TEST
MONTHLY”. And the neat thing about the test is that
this actually creates a ground fault! You might have noticed this resistor apparently
randomly sticking up from the circuit board. This resistor creates a path to the incoming
neutral, and pressing the TEST button shunts this resistor to the monitored hot. So by pressing the TEST button, you are for
real testing its ability to detect a ground fault because you actually are creating a
ground-fault internally. Even better, the resistor is sized to roughly
match the minimum leakage it’s designed to detect. So definitely test these periodically, especially
since leaving them in the non-tripped position for a couple of dozen years might make them
mechanically seized up and prevent them from doing their job should the need arise. You might be wondering why we in the US put
these in outlet boxes when others put them in service panels. Well there’s pros and cons to each method. Doing it in the US fashion makes it obvious
if any installation is up to code, as a lack of GFCI outlets in a bathroom or kitchen means
an obvious fail. It also probably encourages testing if the
device is easy to access rather than being part of a circuit breaker panel. However, there is a benefit to having this
protection in all areas of the home. Sure, an electric shock is more likely in
wet places, but it’s not like no one has ever received a shock in their bedroom or
whatever. Plus, in many countries, residual current
devices are combined with circuit breakers, forming one device called an RCBO, for Residual
Current circuit-Breaker with Overcurrent protection. But putting the protection in the service
panel makes troubleshooting a whole lot harder. If something malfunctions and causes a ground
fault anywhere in the circuit, you might be spending a long time determining what device
is actually causing the fault. Putting the protection at the outlet makes
it rather obvious. One thing that I discovered when tearing this
apart is that the internal contacts are able to accomodate a NEMA 5-20 plug. Normally US devices that require 20 amps will
have this plug where one pin is sideways, thus preventing you from plugging it into
a 15 amp circuit. The fact that this device has internal pins
capable of accepting this plug, plus the fact that it can break 20 amps as most GFCI outlets
can, means the only thing preventing this receptacle from actually being a 20 amp receptacle
is the shape of the holes on the plastic faceplate. Which means that, in the case of this particular
model anyway, they charge you $3 more for the same product with a slightly different
piece of plastic on the front. Yay. And finally, though these are super helpful
at reducing the chance of injury or death due to an electric shock, they shouldn’t
be seen as an excuse to be reckless around electricity. They are a very effective safety net, but
why risk falling in the first place? That said, if you’re a tinkerer who likes
to work on electronics, installing one of these in your workshop might be a very good
investment. At the very least, it might spare you the
pain of a zap. Thanks for watching, I hope you enjoyed the
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