I'm a new homeowner with plenty of theoretical background in electrical engineering but until now, zero practical experience in home wiring. I recently replaced a few 2-prong outlets with 3-prong outlets and GFCIs. I plugged in my receptacle tester, and the rightmost two lights illuminated, showing a reading of Correct. When I press the Test button on the GFCI or receptacle tester, the outlet goes dead, and turns back on when pressing Reset. Is that reading of Correct all I really need to know to tell me that I did the job correctly? It's my understanding that there are ways to "fool" a receptacle tester to give a Correct reading even though the wiring isn't actually correct.

Are there any common pitfalls that would cause a Correct reading despite incorrect wiring? Or does that usually result from deliberate miswiring that would be unlikely to do by accident? I'm reasonably confident I did the job correctly, but am wondering if the receptacle tester output can give a false sense of security.

  • Does your receptacle tester have its own GFCI test button? If it did, and things behaved as expected then it would indicate that there probably isn't any neutral/ground bootlegging going on. Ofc this is only effective on GFCI-protected outlets.
    – brhans
    Commented Feb 28, 2019 at 21:15
  • @brhans Yes, both the receptacle tester GFCI test button and the built-in GFCI test button behaved as expected. Commented Feb 28, 2019 at 21:17

1 Answer 1


We like to call those 3-light testers "magic 8-ball" testers because their legends are often comically wrong and misleading. The lights are great, though, and are very useful.

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Now, many things about mains electrical can be surprising to EEs. It is wired as an isolated system with discrete current returns (not backplaned) because of the need to avoid overloads and keep currents equal in all cables (so magnetic fields cancel; since it is AC, eddy currents are a big deal). There is also a safety shield called "ground" (not GND) that must never carry current.

To keep the AC voltage on the isolated system from floating, one conductor has an equipotential bond to safety ground. This "grounded conductor" is called neutral. The bond is in precisely one place and should flow 0 amps.

So your center yellow measures between hot and neutral.

The end yellow measures hot to safety ground, which connects back to neutral via the official ground bond. This detector cannot detect an exchanged neutral and ground, but if you have good assembly skill that should be rather unlikely. It also cannot detect a shorted neutral-ground, nor either one bootlegged from the other.

The red lamp connects neutral to ground. You are most likely to see this in a lost ground situation, when H-G and G-N lamps are now in series with each other.

The GFCI does not interact with ground in any way. It simply compares the current outbound on one conductor to the current returning on the other conductor. The only way currents could not be equal is if something is storing a tremendous number of electrons (cyclotron?), or if current is leaking out of the loop somehow.

Your tester needs ground to create an alternate route for current to leak into.

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