The National Electric Code (NEC) and all local building codes require GFCI (ground-fault circuit interrupter) protection for many outlet receptacles throughout the house and in outdoor locations. The requirements exist to protect users against the possibility of shock in the event of a ground fault, a condition in which electrical current accidentally flows outside the established circuit. This protection is generally required wherever an outlet is in proximity to the earth or to water sources that can create a direct path to earth.
This required protection can be provided either by a GFCI circuit breaker or GFCI receptacles. There are advantages and disadvantages to each approach, depending on the installation. Also, keep in mind that the local electrical code—the rules you must follow to pass electrical inspections—may have specific requirements for how to provide GFCI protection in your jurisdiction.
Basically, a GFCI circuit breaker does the same thing as a GFCI receptacle, so making the correct choice requires that you weigh various advantages and disadvantages of each.
What Is a GFCI Receptacle?
You can tell if a receptacle is a GFCI one or not by the way it looks. The GFCI is integrated into an electrical outlet and it typically has a red (or possibly white) reset button on the outlet's faceplate. The outlet monitors how much energy is going into it when in use. If the receptacle senses any sort of an electrical overload or imbalance, it is designed to trip the circuit in a fraction of a second.
GFCI receptacles are generally used instead of a standard outlet receptacle to offer protection to a single outlet location. However, GFCI receptacles can be wired in two different ways to offer two different levels of protection. Single-location protection offers GFCI protection only at one receptacle. Multiple-location wiring protects the first GFCI receptacle and every receptacle downstream of it (including standard receptacles) in the same circuit. However, it does not protect the portion of the circuit that lies between itself and the main service panel. For example, if the GFCI receptacle wired for multiple-location protection is the fourth receptacle in a circuit that includes seven outlets, then the first three outlets will not be protected.
Resetting a receptacle is typically more convenient than going all the way to the service panel to reset a breaker, but remember that if you wire a circuit for multiple-location protection from a single GFCI receptacle, that receptacle controls everything downstream. If there is any wiring issue downstream, you will have to backtrack to find the GFCI receptacle to reset it.
What Is a GFCI Circuit Breaker?
GFCI circuit breakers protect the entire circuit. GFCI circuit breakers are simple: By installing one in the service panel (breaker box), it adds GFCI protection to an entire circuit, including the wiring and all devices and appliances connected to the circuit. In cases where AFCI protection is also called for (increasingly common), there are dual function GFCI/AFCI circuit breakers that can be used.
GFCI circuit breakers make more practical sense in situations where all outlets on a circuit require protection. For example, let's say you're adding a receptacle circuit for a garage workshop or a large outdoor patio space. Because all of these receptacles require GFCI protection, it is probably more efficient to wire the circuit with a GFCI breaker so that everything on the circuit is protected.
When to Choose a GFCI Receptacle Over a GFCI Circuit Breaker
When a GFCI breaker trips, you must go to the service panel to reset it. When a GFCI receptacle trips, you must be able to reset it at the receptacle location. The National Electrical Code (NEC) requires that GFCI receptacles must be in readily accessible locations, ensuring there is easy access for resetting the receptacle if it trips. Therefore, GFCI receptacles are not allowed behind furniture or appliances. If you will have receptacles that need GFCI protection in these locations, use a GFCI breaker.
GFCI receptacles are easier to install. Sometimes the decision comes down to a question of efficiency. For example, if you need GFCI protection for just one or two receptacles—say, for a bathroom or laundry room—it probably makes the most sense to simply install GFCI receptacles at those locations. Also, if you're a DIYer and are not familiar with working on a service panel, adding a receptacle is a simpler and safer job than replacing a circuit breaker.
GFCI receptacles have much larger bodies than standard receptacles, so in some instances, the physical space within the wall box may affect your choice. With standard-size boxes, there may not be enough room to add a GFCI receptacle safely, making a GFCI circuit breaker the better choice.
Cost can also be a factor in the decision. A GFCI receptacle often costs around $15. A GFCI breaker might cost you $40 or $50, versus $4 to $6 for a standard breaker. If money is an issue and you only need to protect a single location, a GFCI outlet might a better choice than a GFCI breaker.
Finally, there's the local electrical code, which may have particular GFCI requirements that are different than those suggested by the NEC. Consult your local building code department for details.
Install in basement, near pool or spa, utility room, attached garage, and outdoors
Do not install behind furniture
Do not install behind refrigerators, freezers, or other appliances
Install near meter/box, outside disconnect, and service mast extending up through roof
Install in easy-to-service area
Do not install in bathroom or clothes closets