In typical Costa Rican housing, standard two-prong electrical outlets without a grounding circuit are common. These outlets, also known as receptacles or plugs, serve to provide ready-to-use electricity for all devices and they deliver power through wiring for everyday items such as appliances, lamps, and computer equipment. Electrical wiring is available in different sizes, and electrical devices consume different amounts of amperage, and the electrical specifications for homes are the responsibility of an electrical engineer. In Costa Rica, before the new electrical code was implemented, many homes were constructed by people who were not qualified professionals and construction plans were created without the proper design of licensed electrical engineers. Quality electrical installations include three-prong outlets, allowing the hot, neutral and ground wires to all be connected to the individual outlets.
In most new construction, standard electrical outlets supply the electricity that the average person needs and takes for granted. The technology of electricity distribution in dwellings takes place behind the electrical outlets, inside the walls and ceilings to deliver the electrical current in wiring to the individual outlets. Electrical wiring is usually installed inside of PVC tubes from the electrical breaker panel to each individual outlet, with stops at other outlets or lighting fixtures along the way. For an outlet to function, the hot wire (usually a black or blue wire) will leave the panel and bring the power to the outlet, while a second wire, the neutral wire (usually a white wire) returns the power from the outlet to the electrical panel. The electricity is delivered to each outlet and then circles back to the panel, and this is where the term electrical “circuit” comes from. In Costa Rica, a lot of existing homes were not built to quality standards, and the two wires are all that you get when you buy one of these homes. In better quality construction, a third wire is installed from the breaker panel to each outlet in the same PVC tube as the other two wires, (typically green in color) and it serves as the grounding wire. If this grounding wire is not connected to a copper grounding rod, installed deep in the ground outside the dwelling, the grounding circuit will not function properly and you and your electrical devices are at risk of getting shocked.
In quality construction, GFI electrical outlets should be installed near water outlets for bathtubs and sinks, etc. GFI stands for ground fault interrupter, and these important outlets, which are standard in North America and most of the world, are extremely sensitive and prevent the homeowners from being electrocuted, as they will turn off a circuit breaker if more electricity is coming into the hot wire than leaving through the neutral wire.
According to the new 2012 Costa Rican Electric Code, ground fault circuit interrupters (GFCI) are required for electrical circuits near water outlets, and in Spanish, they are called “Circuitos de Falla a Tierra.” In addition, the new Code establishes that facilities that hold more than 100 people (hospitals, schools, clubs, etc.) are subject to review every five years, but not for single-family homes. According to the new code, in Spanish called “Código Eléctrico de Costa Rica para la Seguridad de la Vida y de la Propiedad”, the electrical engineer that created the construction plans for the electrical system is the responsible professional to ensure that the GFCI circuits have been installed properly.
The actual GFCI electrical outlets that have the small buttons for reset can be installed in existing homes if there are already three electrical wires installed from the breaker panel to each outlet. The ground wire should be connected to a grounding circuit with a copper rod installed in the soil outside the dwelling. According to the new electric code for new construction, all circuits from the breaker panel must be grounded and those outlets near water sources must have GFCI breakers.
Understand that 99% of the time, GFCI circuits prevent electrical shock by cutting off the electricity before it comes into contact with a person. The other 1% of the time, a person can actually begin to get shocked, and the GFI trips the power off before the amount of electrical current becomes dangerous.
Now that you have a better understanding of how electrical circuits are supposed to work and that many homes in Costa Rica do not have grounded electrical systems, you can anticipate the additional costs for upgrading the electrical system in the home you may be considering to purchase.
The writer, Tom Rosenberger has lived and worked in Costa Rica since 1993, inspecting homes and condominiums for clients who are considering the purchase of existing housing in Costa Rica.
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