Do the switches on the wall and over the counter areas have to be on a GFCI protected circuit? As there is live power at the switch all the time, I would think this to be true, but I'm not sure.
As Paul points out, there are no requirements in the National Electrical Code (NEC) for Ground Fault Circuit Interruption (GFCI) protection on switches. If you understand the purpose of GFCI devices, and think about the differences between switches and other electrical devices you'll see why.
What is a ground fault?
In a normally functioning 120V single phase system, current flows out to devices on an ungrounded (hot) conductor (wire). The current does some work, and then flows to ground through the grounded (neutral) conductor. If for any reason (short, improperly functioning device, etc.) some or all of the current finds a lower resistance path to ground, a ground fault exists.
Why is ground fault protection needed?
Electricity flows from source to ground, and will always take the path of least resistance. In the case of your house, we always want the electricity to flow to the grounding electrode at the service entrance.
Lets say your refrigerator has developed a ground fault. In modern electrical systems, the chassis of the refrigerator will be bonded to the equipment grounding conductor, which in turn is connected all the way back to the systems grounding electrode (or should be). This gives the wayward electricity a safe, low resistance path back to ground. Everything seems fine and dandy. The electricity is flowing into the refrigerator , through its case, down the equipment grounding conductor, and safely to ground.
Along comes somebody who wants some food. Unaware there's anything wrong, they reach out and touch the refrigerator . The electricity now flows into the refrigerator , and through its case. This time though, instead of flowing to the equipment grounding conductor. It takes a lower resistance path, right through the person that touched the refrigerator and into the ground. ZAP!
If there was a GFCI device properly installed, the hungry person might still be alive.
How does a GFCI device work?
Ground fault circuit interrupters work by making sure that all the current that passes through on the ungrounded (hot) conductor, returns through the grounded (neutral) conductor. If the GFCI detects a difference as small as 0.05-0.06A, it will open the circuit and prevent the flow of electricity. These devices are designed to work fairly quickly, usually fast enough to prevent a fatal dose of electricity (though not always fast enough to prevent minor injury).
Great, but why don't I need this protection on switches?
Cord and plug devices (refrigerators, radios, hair dryers, toasters, etc.) allow you to extend the electrical system, hold it in your hand, and may put you at risk of becoming part of it. A receptacle is an open port to electricity, which allows anything to be connected to it. Devices can break, wear out, and are not always properly built/designed. Because of this, there is no way to guarantee every device will be safe.
In the case of a switch, which is designed to meet certain standards, and cannot be installed/sold if it does not meet these standards. It's far less likely; even if the device develops a fault, that a user of the switch will be put in harms way. Switches are designed and built; unless they are installed improperly, to mitigate the chances of users coming into contact with electrified parts.
- Ground fault circuit interrupters prevent you from being killed in the event of a ground fault.
- Receptacles offer a better chance of being exposed to ground faults.
- Switches are designed to prevent you from being exposed to a ground fault, even if one exists.
Arc Fault Circuit Interrupters
An important (or maybe just interesting) thing to pay attention to here, is the wording in the NEC.
210.8 Ground-Fault Circuit-Interrupter Protection for Personnel.
(A) Dwelling Units. All 125-volt, single-phase, 15- and 20-ampere receptacles installed in the locations specified in (1) through (8) shall have ground-fault circuit-interrupter protection for personnel.
210.12 Arc-Fault Circuit-Interrupter Protection.
(B) Dwelling Units. All 120-volt, single phase, 15- and 20-ampere branch circuits supplying outlets installed in dwelling unit family rooms, dining rooms, living rooms, parlors, libraries, dens, bedrooms, sunrooms, recreation rooms, closets, hallways, or similar rooms or areas shall be protected by a listed arc-fault circuit interrupter, combination-type, installed to provide protection of the branch circuit.
Notice, GFCI protection is only required for receptacles. Whereas AFCI protection, is required for all outlets in the mentioned areas. So while the light switch doesn't have to be GFCI protected, it does have to be AFCI protected.