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Is it ok to use a GFCI breaker instead of a GFCI receptacle for ungrounded receptacles?

Is there a downside to protecting the entire circuit of non-grounded receptacles with a GFCI breaker, including any lights that may be using this circuit? Or is this practice limited to the receptacles only? It seems the simple solution would be a GFCI breaker in the panel. Any "trips" could be easily located in the panel as opposed to moving furniture to look for the GFCI receptacle (in the "chain") that has tripped.
  • June 15 2012 - US
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Answers (9)

Best Answer

Profile picture for Blue Nile
1) A GFIC breaker is fine to use for the entire circuit, but is a nuisance to trip if lighting is on it, and is harder to recognize that GFIC protection is provided.
2) It typically doesn't save any money.  A GFIC breaker runs around $80, and a GFIC receptacle runs between $4 and $12.
3) If the desire is to change 2 wire receptacles to 3 wire receptacles but leave the ground "open" (instead of using those "plug adapters" every time one had a 3 wire grounded plug on a device to plug in), one has to do the labor to change the receptacles anyway, so why skimp on the receptacles?
4) Yes, you can daisy-chain the receptacles on one device, but it is a lot easier to reset the device if you have individual GFI protection.
5) If you have crawl space or attic space, it might be easy and practical to replace the knob & tube wiring with Romex
6) If you use a GFIC receptacle, you need to make sure it is designed to trip at 5mA fault current, and not 100mA or higher.  It needs to be "personnel" Ground Fault Interrupter, not "equipment" Ground Fault Interrupter.  They often are not adequately labeled in the stores.
7) if you do 3-wire receptacles on ungrounded 2 wire systems, you are "required" to label it "NO GROUND" (on each receptacle plate) AND you legally cannot change to 3 wire receptacles on ungrounded 2 wire systems if you don't add the GFIC personnel protection.
8) Outdoor outlets and outlets within 6 feet of sinks require GFIC protection, even if you have a ground wire.
9) GFIC protection DOES work on 2 wire ungrounded systems, especially near sinks.  The cold water pipes are required to be grounded.  Old cast iron drain pipes are also essentially grounded.  If the device detects a difference in the current between the phase and neutral conductors, it "assumes" the difference in current is taking an alternate path, such as through the water-pipe, in other words a "ground fault".
10) 5mA through the heart is enough to stop the heart, and wet hands are not good insulators, thus it is easy to get 5 mA through the heart, even if no ground, so why would one not want to have GFIC protection where code required?
11) Arc-fault protection does not meet the code for the 2 specific applications being discussed, and will not provide the protection needed.
  • June 16 2012
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Profile picture for user535102
In Canada, you must use a GFCI receptacle for ungrounded 2 wire receptacle you are replaceing if on its own, or if there are receptacles downline they can be protected by the first GFCI receptacle on the circuit .  you cannot put a GFCI breaker on the branch circuit wiring at the panel and then put a regular grounded receptacle in place of the ungrounded one.   RULE 26-700 (8) of the OESC
  • July 21 2012
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Profile picture for Blue Nile
Found another typo...

6) If you use a GFIC receptacle, you need to make sure it is designed to trip at 5mA fault current, and not 100mA or higher  -->
If you use a GFCI *breaker*, you need to make sure it is designed to trip at 5mA fault current, and not 100mA or higher
  • June 16 2012
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Profile picture for Blue Nile
Yes, the Neutral is required to be bonded to ground at the service panel (NOT sub-panels).  Some homes over 100 years old don't have that still.  If that is the case, it is unlikely to get a new occupancy permit without that being corrected.  drive the ground rod, bond the neutral to the ground rod and to the cold water pipe.  It is a safety issue.

As far as the "overkill"?  If one has attic space or crawl space it is fairly straight forward and easy to replace the Knob & Tube with Romex.  If run between floors and no attic access, it may not be worth opening the walls to correct.  And if 2 wire overhead to the garage?  It may or may not be easy to "correct".  If you are going to be using those 3 wire to 2 wire plug adapters frequently, you might as well replace the polarized 2 wire receptacle with a GFCI receptacle and label it "no ground".  (Not recommended for Window Air Conditioners nor Microwaves that are labeled "grounding required").

By the way, a ground is required for the bathroom receptacle, and present codes require the bathrooms to be on circuits only used for the bathroom receptacles.  Most older homes do not comply with this code requirement.
  • June 16 2012
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Gfci circuit should be grounded either at the outlet( best way) or in the panel via bonded neutral. It is best( and recommended) to do both. Here in Ca it is required as well as arc faults in living spaces. If I were tasked with this fix, I would run new romex with a ground install the gfci, bond the neutral at the panel and install an afci breaker since its in a living space. My reasoning is that if your going to fix something, fix it all the way. Gfci protects against electrocution by measuring the difference between line and neutral, afci protects against electrical fire caused by arcing between line and neutral, between line or neutral to ground or high resistance that occurs because of a Brocken wire. bonding the neutral ensures that your return path is grounded. So yes technically you can use a gfci without the receptacle being grounded(labeled as such), but you should at least bond the neutral in the panel. My repair might seem like over kill but this is how my father( and electrical contractor) taught me to do things.
  • June 16 2012
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Profile picture for Blue Nile
Sorry for my dyslexic typing... GFCI...
(I usually just mark it GFI; they all know what it refers to).
  • June 16 2012
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Profile picture for user2232009
I wondered about the AFI's but to my knowledge aren't they for arcing and not personal protection? The NEC says GFCI's for ungrounded receptacles.
  • June 16 2012
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A GFCI breaker will not work on a un grounded receptacle. GFCI stands for Ground Fault Circuit Interrupter . You shouldn't have ungrounded receptacles, but if you have no choice, use an AFI breaker (Arc Fault Interrupter). I would recommend having an electrician redo the wiring and run a ground wire (if there is not one) and use grounded GFCI receptacles, with AFI breakers. There are GFCI receptacles that do not trip, but still work under the principle that the receptacle will not work if there is a ground fault detected. 
  • June 15 2012
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I have been told by home inspectors that the GFI breaker is fine and covers the entire circuit that way. I have one on my shelf to install someday.
Of course it may be smart to check with and have the electrician do the work....
  • June 15 2012
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