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We did a lot of investigating and found several clarifications that I didn't have correct in my previous post. New summary of the problem:

It's a Siemens Type QAF 20 amp breaker, 2006-built home - the circuit has been labeled "beth plugs." We isolated the outlets that this controls, and they are several 2nd-Floor outlets as well as our TV/Cable box outlet on Floor 1.

There have been no trip incidents for the 3 years we've been here, and we have not added any new draws to that circuit.

The first time it tripped was Monday. We were watching TV while installers were putting radiant barrier up in the attic. They said they hadn't plugged anything in.

When this breaker tripped, I found that the GFCI outlet on the counter in the kitchen had also tripped. It is on its own separate "kitchen plugs" circuit, however, I was unable to reset the tripped "beth plugs" breaker until I reset the GFCI outlet in the kitchen.

This kitchen GFCI outlet and its associates are on the other side of the wall from the downstairs TV outlet controlled by the tripped AFCI breaker. It appears that both are served by wires dropped down inside that wall from 2nd floor crawl space.

Yesterday, my wife was at home watching TV (installers/equipment gone as job was finished Monday) and it happened again. Same outlet tripped in kitchen, same breaker tripped in garage.

What could be going on here? With no new equipment adding draw and the GFCI tripping as well? Some have suggested faulty GFCI receptacle tripping the nearby AFCI breaker, even though they aren't same circuit. Others have suggested faulty breaker. And others have said installers probably messed up a connection somewhere. Any clues?

I can't make the breaker trip for experimentation, which makes it very difficult to investigate. We went through the house using one of those wiring testers and all showed as good.

Thanks for any help at all.

  • Sounds like the installers put a staple/nail through a cable. Normally, you'd remove all loads from the circuit, and see if it still trips (eliminate misbehaving device as a cause). If it does still trip, you'd disconnect the load wire(s) from the breaker, and see if it still trips (eliminate misbehaving breaker as a cause). If it does not trip when the load wire(s) is/are disconnected, the problem is in the wiring. In your case, it sounds like it's not tripping consistently. That's going to make troubleshooting a lot more difficult. – Tester101 May 3 '18 at 15:33
  • I guess my problem here is that it's randomly tripping and can't be predicted. It's not immediate, and most of the time everything is running fine. I have no idea how I can even find a wire if they pierced it - everything is beneath radiant barrier sheathing now. – Cotillion19 May 3 '18 at 17:30
  • Could also be a sometimes arcing backstab connection or a loose wirenut. If that’s the case it will gradually get worse till you find it. – Tyson May 3 '18 at 19:58
  • Is anything connected to the load side of the GFCI? – Harper - Reinstate Monica May 4 '18 at 3:35
  • This is where I'm ignorant. Nothing has ever been plugged into the GFCI receptacle. There are other countertop appliances plugged into other normal receptacles that are commanded by that GFCI, though. – Cotillion19 May 4 '18 at 10:54
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AFCIs work by literally listening to the power line for the telltale sound of arcing. This is why they are new developments, it requires signal processing power akin to that seen in The Hunt for Red October.

The relevant thing is AFCIs can hear arc faults nearby on other circuits. So your arc fault may not be on the protected circuit. However a circuit cannot arc fault if its breaker is off. So if you can stand to have a circuit off for awhile, you can test whether it is the cause (or is not).

AFCIs were developed to protect from electric blanket fires, but mainly ended up detecting failed "backstab" wire connections. Backstabs are a cheap and fast method to attach wires to receptacles and switches. A tiny spring of metal clamps the wire, causing localized heating. Pushing everything into the box puts strain forces on the wire which makes the contact area even smaller than designed.

Most modern houses are full of them. Most of us here on diy.se have experienced them failing in scary and melty ways. Screw terminals don't do that as a rule, especially if properly torqued. So as a process of elimination, I would first get rid of all backstab connections on that circuit.

As for the kitchen circuit, Code requires that circuits powering kitchen countertop receptacles, power only them. So that circuit should go straight from the panel to the kitchen and nowhere else. If that doesn't go anywhere near your recent work, we can exclude that.

  • The kitchen counter GFCI outlet that has been tripping at the same time as the breaker is on floor 1, and I would guess it doesn't run all the way into attic where the stapling was going on. Is that what you're referring to there? Maybe my house isn't as up to code as I'd like? It seems like that circuit connects to downstairs plugs, bathroom and 2nd floor plugs as well as the kitchen counter GFCI. – Cotillion19 May 3 '18 at 18:10
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    It certainly sounds like code was ignored, bathroom circuits can't serve anything else either. Sounds like the first step is solve the GFCI trip. Is anything connected to the load terminals of the GFCI? – Harper - Reinstate Monica May 3 '18 at 18:14
  • I may just be dumb, but it seems like you're saying that AFCIs literally listen to sound, rather than electrical signals. Might want to clarify that. – Redwolf Programs Oct 25 at 22:01
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    @RedwolfPrograms Intended. There's a very, very close relationship between sound and signal. The devices that convert from one to the other are dog simple, and the signals look exactly the same. Electron flow vibrates instead of air, the differences end there. – Harper - Reinstate Monica Oct 26 at 3:25
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I personally would start but checking every outlet and switch on the line. Time consuming but free. A similar thing happened to me and I'd found a wire was a bit loose in a single outlet which was causing the GFCI to trip occasionally in my bathroom which flipped the breaker.

If that fails to solve the issue, I'd start replacing outlets on that line.

  • Is there a prescribed method of checking outlets? I'm a bit ignorant on a lot of this. Use a meter or dismantle and visibly look for loose leads? – Cotillion19 May 3 '18 at 14:46
  • There are some great videos/pictures online that do a better job than I could ever explain in writing. Example: familyhandyman.com/electrical/wiring-outlets/… – UnhandledExcepSean May 3 '18 at 14:48
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    Easy to "check" outlets, open them up, twist the wires out of the backstabs, strip a little more insulation, shape into a J-hook and put it on a screw terminal. Bonus points if you torque the screw to spec but even a mistorqued screw beats any backstab. – Harper - Reinstate Monica May 3 '18 at 16:40

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