I recently moved into this house. I have a GFCI-protected outlet on an island in the kitchen (on the right in the picture): it is protected by a GFCI outlet on the wall (left of the stove in the picture). When I plug my vacuum cleaner into the outlet on the island and start the vacuum, the outlet trips within about a second and I have to go push the reset button on the outlet on the wall. I plugged the same vacuum cleaner into the wall outlet and was able to run it for 15 seconds or so without problem (I didn't try to run it longer).

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What can I do to diagnose where the problem lies? Can I fix it myself (I can do straightforward stuff like turn off the circuit and change the outlet, matching the existing wiring) or do I need to call an electrician? Is it a safety issue if I choose not to fix anything and put outlet covers on the island outlet so it doesn't get used?

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    Don’t test with a vacuum cleaner. Use something simple, like a lamp with a standard incandescent bulb. The vacuum may well have a ground fault. (Also, some types of motors and GFCIs don’t play well together—especially if it’s an old vacuum). The narrative of what the inspector did adds a lot of confusion to your question, but eliminate the vacuum to determine if this circuit works as expected. – Tyson Sep 11 '18 at 10:42
  • Just a suggestion...if the island outlet is loose, and back stabs were used, you could have a loose wire in the box that is causing you problems. Easy to check. – Jeff Cates Sep 12 '18 at 5:22

First and foremost, keep in mind that as long as that GFCI is tripping, it is doing it's job and keeping you safe. Whatever hazard exists, if any, is mitigated as long as the GFCI trips. If it turns out the GFCI is faulty and is tripping when it shouldn't, it's a nuisance, but not a hazard.

That said, before I'd go any further, I'd confirm that the results you're getting are consistent and repeatable. It sounds like you just tested twice with the vacuum, once in the island recep, once in the GFCI recep. I'd repeat the tests several times.

I'd also plug an extension cord into the GFCI, and the vacuum into the extension cord, and see what happens.

I'd also test with something other than the vacuum - a toaster or something with a significant load but not a motor.

Assuming the results are consistent, consider two possibilities:

  1. There's a ground fault in the island receptacle wiring that's causing the GFCI to trip when you use the vacuum on the island receptacle.

  2. The GFCI is faulty; the fault doesn't affect loads plugged in, but does affect downstream loads on its line side terminals.

Number 1. will not be surprising; getting wires into an island can be a bit tricky. It's not like setting a box in a hollow wall. Someone may have abused the wiring getting it in there, or may have failed to protect it from a drawer in the island, or any number of other things.

Of the two, 2. is much easier to test; just replace the GFCI with a brand new good quality GFCI receptacle. Use a good brand, one of the better models - might be labelled "commercial" or "heavy duty" or "industrial" or whatever. Buy something other than Leviton. Test it with both the test button and a receptacle tester with a GFCI test button.

receptacle tester with GFCI

Replace the receptacle, repeat the tests, and see if the recep was the issue. If not - the issue is unchanged - you have to conclude there is some fault in the wiring between the GFCI and the island receptacle.

If that's the case, first thing to try - longshot, but take it - replace the island receptacle with a standard receptacle, again use a high quality receptacle, and make sure all the connections are solid. Test.

Still no good? At that point the remaining options get quite a bit harder.

Testing the wiring with an insulation resistance tester (megger) may confirm that there's a wiring fault, but the megger may miss the fault.

Replacing the wiring may be a little work, may be a lot.

Taking the wiring out of service may be straightforward. If you open the GFCI box and find there's a cable that feeds the island and nothing else, you can label that wire, cap it at both ends, and blank off the island receptacle. The only problem may be when you sell the house, the next home inspector may note that the code required island receptacle is missing.

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    As an aside -- is Leviton having issues with their GFCI receptacles? Or is it that you simply do not trust that brand? (If you were to go with something not-Leviton, Eaton/Cooper would be my choice, btw) – ThreePhaseEel Sep 11 '18 at 15:17
  • @ThreePhaseEel - I have heard a lot of stories of multiple call backs on bad GFCIs. I'll try Cooper, I haven't tried them in a long time. – batsplatsterson Sep 11 '18 at 21:56
  • @batsplatsterson -- interesting -- who have you been rolling with on that front? – ThreePhaseEel Sep 11 '18 at 21:57
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    We buy 100+ GFCI’s a month.. all Leviton. Virtually none go back. – Tyson Sep 11 '18 at 22:54
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    Supply house. It’s the exact same part available at HD tho. (We buy a lot of Leviton, not just GFCI’s) – Tyson Sep 11 '18 at 23:25

If the GFCI trips with any electric item (> 1 Watt @ 120V and 8mA GFCI) that is connected with the island outlet and switched on, the protection earth (PE) wire might be swapped with the neutral wire somewhere in the cable connecting the stove outlet with the island outlet. This is the most likely reason for this issue, as nearly all vacuum cleaners have an insulated casing, i.e. have only 2 metal contacts at the plug - and no PE. It is assumed that the vacuum cleaner has not been used (or is meant) for fluids and the place near the island was not flooded and the air humidity is low and the condition near the stove outlet is similar.

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  • Would testing with a plug-in receptacle tester be diagnostic? – Jim Stewart Sep 11 '18 at 11:38
  • @JimStewart It depends on the type of tester and type of network. F.e. in a TN-C-S net, it can be "tested" with an upstream GFCI. "Tested" means, any electric item > 1W plugged in and switched on would trip the GFCI if neutral N and ground PE are swapped. It would trip more likely if there was a connection between N and PE downstream of the GFCI. PE and N must not be connected downstream of a GFCI. – xeeka Sep 12 '18 at 5:36

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