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    What Is A Ground Fault? The Definition And How To Address

    Ground Fault Circuit Breakers

    The consequences of a ground fault can be devastating. However, there are things we can do to prepare and stay safe against them. What is a ground fault, and why does it happen? A ground fault occurs when electricity takes an unplanned path to ground. The current drastically increases and causes the breaker to trip. A ground fault can be caused by damaged appliances, incorrect wiring, or worn wire insulation. What are some steps that we can take to prevent and stay safe from a ground fault? Continue reading to find the answers to this and more!

     

    Understand Grounding First

    To truly understand what a ground fault is, it is crucial to know how an electrical circuit works. In a circuit, we know we have a hot and neutral wire that, when connected to devices properly, allows electricity to flow through from the source to the load and back again in a continuous cycle. An additional grounding wire connects the device to the earth through a grounding rod or another type of ground. When everything is running smoothly, it can seem like this grounding wire is kind of useless. Do NOT be mistaken! If a ground fault occurs, the grounding wire steps up to save the day and is no longer just a backup plan!

     

    Before electricians used grounding wires, many people were experiencing shock from coming into contact with an electrical box or device that had malfunctioned. The electrical current surged so quickly but had nowhere to go, and that person became the path of travel to the ground. Now, that additional grounding wire provides an easy path for any escaping electricity to travel to a ground. It provides electricity with an "emergency exit," you might say! This solution helps protect us from shock and protects structures from damage or fire.

     

    What is a Ground Fault

    A ground fault happens when electricity strays to an unplanned path to the ground. This path is unrestricted as there is no longer resistance and the flow of charge increases dramatically and quickly. Ground faults are most dangerous in areas that tend to experience high moisture, such as bathrooms or garages. Sometimes the chosen path to the ground could be the outside of an appliance, where when someone unknowingly touches it, electrical shock occurs. Shock is the most common danger, but fires and burns are also a high risk. 

     

    Is a Short Circuit and a Ground Fault the Same?

    A short circuit is often confused with a ground fault, which is understandable for those unfamiliar with electrical work. A ground fault and short circuit have many things in common such as:

    • Both short circuits and ground faults result from the electrical charge traveling through an unplanned path outside the circuit. 
    • Both scenarios experience a significant change in resistance, which increases the flow of electricity by an uncontrollable amount. 
    • Short circuits AND ground faults both cause breakers to trip and the flow of power to be interrupted. 
    • Both are dangerous and lead to shock or fire hazards!

     

     For us sparkys though, even though a ground fault can be considered a type of short circuit, they are not the same. In a short circuit, the electrical current takes a quicker alternative pathway back to the source. In a ground fault, the flow of electricity seeks an alternative and most accessible path to earth or ground.

     

    The Dangers of ground faults

    There are a few common hazards that can occur due to a ground fault, including:

     

    Electrical shock: This is the biggest and most common danger, especially in wetter areas like a kitchen or bathroom. 

     

    Fire: The heat generated by this uncontrolled surge in the flow of electricity can quickly start a fire and become the scene of a disaster.

     

    Burns: Because of the heat generated by the massive increase in the flow of electricity, unknowing individuals may come into contact with objects, such as extremely hot appliances. The result of this contact is possible severe burns.

     

    Common causes of ground faults

    • Water, which is a conductor of electricity, leaks into an electrical box. Water leaking into conduit or standing in the area around appliances could also be a cause.
    • Worn or damaged wires. With time, insulation on wires can become worn down, and maybe they just haven’t been checked in ages. There could also be missing insulation from being stripped back too far or damage from rodents and bugs chewing where they shouldn’t be. 
    • Loose connections, for instance, a hot wire not being properly secured in a terminal.
    • Miswiring can cause the flow of electrical charge to connect with another pathway to ground.
    • If appliances or tools are damaged and do not have proper insulation, it could cause a ground fault.
    • Debris in a receptacle box, believe it or not, this could even include a build-up of dust!

     

    Staying safe against ground faults

    How can you stay safe from ground faults? Now that we discussed some factors that may cause a ground fault, let’s talk about what measures we can take to prevent them from happening in the first place!

     

    First, make sure to keep appliances away from water and resolve any moisture issues BEFORE using them! Always use high-quality wiring to reduce the risk of malfunction and poor insulation. Take the time to double-check any outlets or boxes for damaged wires, debris that needs to be removed, and any loose connections. Also, make sure they have that additional ground wire so that any straying current has a safer alternative path to take! 

     

    A GFCI, or ground fault circuit interrupter, is a very simple (yet excellent) solution to preventing and staying safe from a ground fault occurrence. There are GFCI outlets as well as circuit breakers, and both are very effective. GFCIs monitor the electrical load that passes through the circuit and then automatically interrupt the flow of electricity if a ground fault is detected. Electrical code requires these ground fault circuit interrupters to be placed in any areas where water may be present. From what we read earlier, we know that ground faults can happen anywhere, but the danger in these wet areas is more prominent. Keep in mind that GFCIs do not last forever either; they need to be replaced after some time, usually many years! With that being said, if you know your GFCIs are many years old, it may be wise to take a closer look, make sure they are functioning correctly, and replace them as needed.

     

    Conclusion

    Ground faults happen when electricity strays on an unplanned path and travels to the earth or ground. Ground faults and short circuits are often confused because they share many similarities. They both result from electrical current escaping on an unplanned path. Because there is little to no resistance when this happens, it causes an enormous surge in the electrical current flowing through the conductor. The difference between a short circuit and a ground fault is where the electricity travels once it escapes. In a short circuit, the electrical current takes the quickest alternative route back to the source, while in a ground fault, the electrical current takes an alternative route to a ground. Ground faults can be caused by water leaking into a breaker box, damaged wires or appliances, poorly insulated or damaged wires, or even a build-up of debris within a box. Ground faults can lead to disastrous results such as electrical shock, fire, or burns. It is wise to resolve any moisture issues before using an appliance, use high-quality wire, and double-check boxes for debris or any loose connections. A simple yet great measure to stay safe against ground fault problems is adding a GFCI (ground fault circuit interrupter) to your electrical circuits. The benefit highly outweighs the risk of any hazards due to a ground fault, wouldn’t you agree?