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I recently moved my old refrigerator into my garage next to my freezer. As soon as I plug in my refrigerator the GFCI pops. I have a 15 amp GFCI and a 15 amp breaker. The refrigerator and freezer are the only two items plugged into the five outlet circuit. They are plugged into separate outlets. The other three outlets are unused (including the GFCI).

I upgraded to a 20 amp GFCI and a 20 amp breaker. My refrigerator and freezer both run now without popping the GFCI. After some friendly advice as to check the gauge of wire I was using, I checked and sure enough it is 14 gauge wire. After reading in this forum it looks like 14 gauge wire is not to code with a 20 amp breaker and GFCI. Is this just a code issue or is this potentially a bigger problem of overheating and possibly causing a fire? Thank you so much for any help and or advice!

UPDATE: The refrigerator is currently unplugged until I can replace the 20a breaker back to the original 15a breaker.

I forgot to mention that the first thing I did was to replace the original 15a GFCI with a new 15a GFCI. It popped too. That is when I made the (wrong) decision to "upgrade" everything to 20a.

If I am having a grounding or other issue with my fridge, why did it pop the new 15a GFCI but not the new 20a GFCI?

Could I just remove the GFCI altogether and replace with a standard receptacle?

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On a receptacle branch circuit wired with 14 AWG wire, nobody cares if you use a GFCI+receptacle combo device that is rated 15A or 20A. 15A devices are thru-rated for 20A.

However, they care very much if you use a 20A breaker. That is illegal and unsafe, and you must promptly change it to 15A. I don't know what you were thinking. All breaker sizes cost the same, so the original installer already used the largest breaker that is safe. You must never "just upgrade a breaker".

However, you are not allowed to have a 20A socket (NEMA 5-20) which has the T-shaped neutral, on a 15A circuit. If that is what your new GFCI is, it has to go.

As for running a refrigerator and freezer in a GFCI-protected zone, it's legal, but stupid. These aren't the appliances GFCIs are intended for. You're not likely to drop one in a sink, nor are you likely to touch the hot parts no matter how much the unit fails. Grounding is more than adequate to protect humans. In fact NEC makes specific exceptions for refrigerators and freezers in areas that normally require GFCI protection**.

After all, this is a conflict between two safety systems. The refrigerator's job is to protect food, but it stands in conflict with GFCI's job to protect humans from shocks.

So your best path here is to remove the refrigerator and freezer from GFCI protection, by assigning them dedicated sockets and labeling those sockets "Refrigerator/freezer only". There are several ways to do that.

  • A home-run from either a) the panel or b) the LINE side of the GFCI, that runs only to the two dedicated fridge/freezer sockets.
  • Fitting a GFCI receptacle at each non-fridge/freezer outlet before the fridge/freezer, and using only their LINE terminals. Thus the onward cable will not be GFCI protected, and can deliver non-protected power to the fridge and freezer. However it is not an efficient use of GFCI devices.

Regardless, the socket must be dedicated. Normally, you must use a single receptacle. Like this.

enter image description here

This also looks good to the inspector.

Since you have both fridge and freezer, you need 2 sockets obviously. If they are right next to each other, you can use a common "duplex" receptacle, but it will be all the more important that you mark it as dedicated.

  • Re: GFCI exceptions -- it's really only for residential kitchens, and really more of an implicit exception than an explicit one. The single receptacle is a good idea, though – ThreePhaseEel May 23 at 2:43
  • @ThreePhaseEel I could swear we looked through that a year or so ago and found out it was possible. I could be wrong. – Harper May 23 at 2:50
  • One reason it might not be an official exception is: A kitchen will almost always have a refrigerator. Most people won't (unless they are remodeling their kitchen) decide to take the refrigerator out or plug it in elsewhere and then have an empty receptacle to use for a small appliance. But in a garage the next owner might easily not have a refrigerator and then use the receptacle for tools. Even more so with two - yes, I have (and plenty of other people I know) both a freezer and a refrigerator/freezer in my basement. But plenty of people don't and who knows what the next owner will do. – manassehkatz May 23 at 3:48
  • I was under the impression that labeling the receptacle was mandatory in the Code. If someone sticks a tool in a socket labeled "Freezer only" and gets shocked, that's on them! – Harper May 23 at 12:49
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The bad news: It is a real code and safety issue. While extremely unlikely to be a problem with your refrigerator & freezer - i.e., they normally use a small fraction of 15A and if they "go bad" and overload then they'd probably use far more and trip even a 20A breaker (i.e., very unlikely they'd end up "bad" at 16A - 20A), there is still a real problem. Let's say you decide to plug in some power tools that draw 12A (generally equipment designed for use with a 15A circuit will be designed to 80% of the capacity) and the refrigerator and freezer are running at the time (i.e., compressors actually cycle on) - now you'll end up close to 20A total but the breaker won't trip. Do that for long enough and your 14 AWG wires will overheat, potentially starting a fire.

The good news is there is an easy fix. Your problem was NOT that you needed a 20A circuit. Your problem could have been either "refrigerator with a real ground fault and the GFCI doing its job" or "old GFCI that had electronics that were a little too sensitive to the old refrigerator's not-a-ground-fault problems". Since replacing the 15A GFCI (relevant) and 15A breaker (not relevant) solved the problem, the solution is:

  • Put the 15A breaker back. That takes care of the main safety issue.
  • Replace the new 20A GFCI/receptacle with a new 15A GFCI/receptacle. Try to get the same brand/model (except 20A instead of 15A), as the difference might be that the old one was "old technology that couldn't handle the refrigerator properly" but might also be that the old one used slightly different technology from the new one, as each brand is a little different.

As far as why a new GFCI 15A didn't work either? I'll bet it was a different type. If the new 15A and 20A that you have tried so far (15A didn't work, 20A did) are the same brand and model (except for current rating) then there is something really strange going on. But the 15A was brand X and the 20A was brand Y then that could easily explain it.

Technically, the 20A GFCI is not in and of itself a problem because the overcurrent protection is provided by the breaker. But it needs to be replaced because the receptacles with the GFCI are 20A receptacles, which could lead a future user to plug in a 20A device (e.g., a heavy-duty power tool) and get either nuisance breaker trips (annoying but safe) or overload the wiring (not safe). So the 20A receptacles on a 15A (14 AWG) circuit are themselves a code violation.

As Harper noted, setting up dedicated non-GFCI receptacles is a reasonably safe and likely (but not guaranteed - AHJ-dependent) code-compliant solution.

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14 GA is rated 15 amp. 12 GA is rated 20 amp. Since you just replaced only the GFCI with a higher amp one and the problem went away, either your appliance is pulling more than 15 amps (industrial freezers can, check specs) OR the original 15 amp GFCI went defective aka kah-put. To be code compliant replace GFCI with a new 15 amp one, if no tripping occurs problem solved...peace

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    GFCIs don't have any ability to know how many amps are going through a circuit. A 15A GFCI won't trip if you pull 20A through it because GFCIs are not breakers and don't trip for overcurrent. Actually, 15A GFCIs are thru-rated for 20A! – Harper May 23 at 2:53

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