ground-fault circuit interrupter [GFCI, GFI]

In by Mark Goodman

A special device that is intended for the protection of personnel by de-energizing a circuit, capable of opening the circuit when even a small amount of current is flowing through the grounding system.

ground-fault circuit interrupter (Wikipedia)
Typical GFCI receptable found in North America

A residual-current device (RCD), or residual-current circuit breaker (RCCB), is a device that instantly breaks an electric circuit to prevent serious harm from an ongoing electric shock. Injury may still occur in some cases, for example if a human falls after receiving a shock.

Also Known As:

- United States and Canada: the device is more commonly known as a ground fault circuit interrupter (GFCI), ground fault interrupter (GFI) or an appliance leakage current interrupter (ALCI).
- United Kingdom: these are better known by their initials RCD, and a combined RCD+MCB (miniature circuit breaker) is known as a RCBO (residual-current circuit breaker with overcurrent protection).
- Australia: they are best known singularly as a Safety Switch or otherwise known as an RCD.

An earth leakage circuit breaker (ELCB) may be a residual-current device, although an older type of voltage-operated earth leakage circuit breaker also exists.

These electrical wiring devices are designed to quickly and automatically disconnect a circuit when it detects that the electric current is not balanced between the energized (line) conductor(s) and the return (neutral) conductor. Under normal circumstances, these two wires are expected to carry matching currents, and any difference can indicate a short circuit or other electrical anomaly is present, such as leakage. Leakage can indicate a shock hazard (or shock in progress) which is a potential danger to a person. Current leakage can result in harm or death due to electric shock, especially if the leaking electric current passes through the torso of a human. A current of around 30 mA (0.030 amperes) is potentially sufficient to cause cardiac arrest or serious harm if it persists for more than a small fraction of a second. RCDs are designed to disconnect the conducting wires quickly enough to prevent serious injury from such shocks, commonly described as the RCD being "tripped".

An RCD does not provide protection against unexpected or dangerously high current (called spikes or surges) when current is in the usual wires in the circuit, therefore it cannot replace a fuse or protect against overheating or fire risk due to overcurrent (overload) or short circuits if the fault does not lead to current leakage. Therefore, RCDs are often used or integrated as a single product along with some kind of circuit breaker, such as a fuse or miniature circuit breaker (MCB), which adds protection in the event of excessive current in the circuit (the resulting RCD with overcurrent protection called an RCBO). RCDs also cannot detect the situation where a human accidentally touches both conductors at the same time, since the current through an expected device, an unexpected route, or a human, are indistinguishable if the current returns through the expected conductor.

RCDs are usually testable and resettable devices. Commonly they include a button that when pressed, safely creates a small leakage condition, and a switch that reconnects the conductors when a fault condition has been cleared. Depending upon their design, some RCDs disconnect both the energized and return conductors upon a fault, while others only disconnect the energized conductor and rely upon the return conductor being at ground (earth) potential. The former are commonly known as "double-pole" designs; the latter as "single-pole" designs. If the fault has left the return wire "floating" or not at its expected ground potential for any reason, then a single-pole RCD will leave this conductor still connected to the circuit when it detects the fault.

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