Summer is just about over but electrical contractors are still feeling the heat. There’s a deadline approaching on a lot of vital household repairs—ones that might have been long neglected but must now be rectified by experts.

Specifically, surges, corrosion and faulty wiring can affect the performance of ground fault circuit interrupters (GFCIs)—the small and inexpensive devices that help prevent electrical mishaps inside and outside of homes by shutting off power if an electrical current deviates from its path. Those gadgets must now be upgraded to endure harsher weather conditions and to indicate a problem if they are wired incorrectly—changes that have to be made by Jan. 1 if they are to receive certification.

“Because we have ultimate responsibility for the safety of products that bear our mark, Underwriters Laboratories (UL) feels that some additional requirements must be enacted if new GFCIs are to get certified,” says Dave Dini, senior research engineer for the independent Northbrook, Ill.-based firm.

If a person becomes the conduit for lost current that occurs with a ground fault, an injury or death could occur. Ground faults are often the result of damaged appliance cords or water getting into products. According to UL, if every home in the United States used GFCIs, then more than two-thirds of all residential electrocutions could be prevented. Right now, those safety devices are required for all new construction and specifically for all outdoor areas, bathrooms, unfinished basements and kitchen receptacles.

With about 400 million GFCIs now in the marketplace and roughly 25 million being installed per year, manufacturers agree that reliability enhancement is needed. The National Electrical Manufacturers Association conducted a national field test and issued the results in January 2001. It found that 14 percent of circuit breaker GFCIs and 8 percent of receptacle GFCIs were nonoperational.

As a reaction to that field test, the industry and UL, as well as other concerned parties, set out to improve performance. Three of the most important changes in the certification objectives are:

• Increasing the ability to withstand high-voltage impulses when lightning strikes. The UL test will be increased from 120 amps to 2,000 amps.

• Enhancing the ability to endure increased moisture and corrosion, particularly for receptacles that are placed outside and suffer three times more problems than those indoors. GFCIs are now tested after exposure to “high humidity” for seven days—a trial that will jump to 95 percent humidity over 10 days.

• Stopping power if the devices are improperly wired, although the receptacles will still work. GFCIs currently give no hints if they are not operating properly.

“Our position is that all three changes will result in better reliability,” said Bill Timmons, product manager for Pass & Seymour/LeGrand in Syracuse, N.Y. “It is unlikely that anything will take them out of service early. It is not cheap for us to make these changes but the whole industry has to bear the cost.”

The UL panel includes a broad spectrum of manufacturers, consumers and contractors. Some members thought the modifications too stringent while others thought them too weak.

In the case of added surge protection, for instance, much discussion occurred regarding what is a reasonable level of safety. After all, the product could be made to withstand any amount of voltage, but the cost would become prohibitive. Similarly, others thought that receptacles should be rendered unusable if there is a GFCI failure.

New York City-based Leviton said the certification process should be tougher largely because the threat to the public is still too great. Even if the malfunction rates drop by half, that would still leave millions of homeowners at risk.

“We think the certification changes should be significant in that it will improve the long-term reliability of GFCIs,” said Bill Grande, manager of Leviton’s safety products division. “But we don’t know by how much.”

It’s a position backed by Long Island City-based Cooper Wiring Devices, which applauds the new certification process but says that it could have been more hard-hitting, given advances in technology. Still, “if it increases safety, we favor it,” said Jim Knapik, vice president of marketing.

While manufacturers express differing opinions about what the solutions should be, they are unified that improvements must be made. The outcome will no doubt be good for all stakeholders. And all major GFCI producers say they expect to successfully implement the changes by Jan. 1. EC

SILVERSTEIN is a freelance writer based in Charleston, W.Va. He may be contacted at ken@silversteineditorial.com.