The last several decades have seen an influx of home improvements designed to increase reliability and safety. One improvement that stands out is the introduction of the Ground Fault Circuit Interrupter (GFCI). Its design allows it to shut down the electric current at the outlet in fractions of a second.
GFCI is mandatory in many building designs as well as upgrades to previously built homes. They have been sensitive to tripping in the past, making these outlets bothersome for some appliances, such as refrigerators. Let’s take a closer look at the benefits and potential issues with plugging a refrigerator into a GFCI outlet.
What Is Ground Fault Circuit Interrupter (GFCI)?
In Canada and the United States, Ground Fault Circuit Interrupter (GFCI) also goes by Ground Fault Interruptor (GFI) or Appliance Leakage Current Interruptor (ALCI). In other parts of the world, such as England, this technology is called a Residual-Current Device (RCD) or Residual-Current Circuit Breaker (RCCB).
The Ground Fault Circuit Interruptor is a safety device. It acts to break a closed electrical circuit quickly. That helps to prevent a severe injury, or death, from an electric shock.
What is an “electrical circuit?”
An electrical circuit is a path for current and voltage to move. That path consists of a source for the electrons and a return. The load represents the point at which the electrons begin the return (in this case, your refrigerator).
Your home will have circuit breakers or fuses installed in an electrical box. They help protect loads along the electrical circuit by breaking or tripping, which opens the closed circuit and stops electricity from flowing. These prevent spikes that can damage appliances or electronics.
Traditional breakers and fuses can protect you from shocks, but they are not as sensitive or as quick as GFCI. Ground Fault Interruptor protected circuits limit injury and death from electrical shocks.
What causes electrical shocks?
When an electrical circuit flows through damaged wires or a faulty load, you can receive a shock. Your body becomes the return, and electrons flow through your body. Electric current can hurt or kill you and often exists in high voltage circuits.
You can be shocked by your refrigerator by becoming the path that completes the electrical circuit. The point that you touch becomes the start of the return for electrons, flowing from the contact point into the ground.
What Causes A Refrigerator To Shock You
Most electrical shocks you will receive from your refrigerator are caused by:
- Wiring issues
- Damaged insulation
- Component damage
Older home outlets accept two-prong plugs. New electrical outlets use three-prongs that include a ground wire. That can be a source of issues, especially with extension cords added to the electrical circuit.
If your wires on the refrigerator kink at a severe angle, they can lose insulation protection. Wire insulation can also become damaged by cuts or from heat from surges. Damaged wire insulation can produce shocks.
Damaged components will also produce shocks if the damage affects the electrical circuit flow. Age, debris build-up, and improper maintenance are the most common causes of refrigerator component damage.
How Does A GFCI Work?
The Ground Fault Circuit Interruptor design works by detecting changes in the current within the electrical circuit. The current levels from the source and return should match.
Differences as small as four to five milliamps will trigger the GFCI, which results in power interruption to the electrical circuit. The time between sensing the current loss and tripping of the GFCI is under 1/10-second.
Where is GFCI installed?
You will find Ground Fault Interrupters located:
- Circuit breakers
- Wall outlets
Some installations include GFCI installed in the breaker box. These are common in older Ground Fault Installations and protect the entire run.
The most common design is GFCI wall outlets. You will see these in modern installations and remodels of older homes.
Certain products (for example, hairdryers) may come with a GFCI installed. It is usually located on the appliance or tool’s power cord but may fit into its housing.
Construction workers sometimes use portable GFCI on job sites. The devices can be separate or part of an extension cord.
What electrical circuits or wall outlets use GFCI technology?
For North America, GFCI began service in the late 1960s. Locations requiring GFCI protection include areas where electrical devices are near water. Outlets or circuits in outdoor settings, basements, bathrooms, and kitchen countertops require GFCI protection.
Can You Plug a Refrigerator Into a GFCI Outlet?
The advantage of plugging any appliance, including a refrigerator, into a GFCI circuit is protection against electrical shock. Ground Fault Interrupters can also protect against surge damage, but most circuit breakers and fuses will do this at the box.
A GFCI outlet installed on a remodel can be advantageous. Old outlets used a two-prong design that today’s refrigerators do not use. The Ground Fault Interrupters include a ground wire that you can plug into without the need for an adaptor.
There are some disadvantages to plugging your refrigerator into a GFCI outlet you need to consider, though.
You might find that a GFCI outlet is in a spot that makes it difficult to use. That will mean using an extension cord that can restrict or fluctuate current, causing nuisance trips.
The outlet may be on a circuit that is longer than 100-feet. Longer wire runs can create conditions that make it easy to trip a GFCI circuit with a current loss.
A potential GFCI outlet can be part of a multiple outlet run. These can trip easier than a single outlet electrical circuit.
You will find that your appliance’s electric motor creates nuisance tripping. The potential for this increases with age and poor upkeep.
The disadvantages of plugging a refrigerator into a GFCI-protected outlet outweigh the advantages for most homeowners. Refrigerators and other appliances with permanent motors tend to generate lots of nuisance trips on the electrical circuit.
If you do not notice the trip right away, or you are away from the house when it happens, the food within can spoil. Frequent circuit trips can potentially cause problems with the compressor or electric control panel as well. For these reasons, it is better to avoid using a Ground Fault Circuit Interrupter to power your refrigerator unless the GFCI updated an old two-prong wall outlet.