22

Yeah, so the building inspector redflagged a bunch of outlets for not being GFCI. Before I understood how the LOAD terminals work, I just replaced every single one with a GFCI outlet. Most had a second cable for onward power, so I just attached them to the LOAD wires (didn't read the warning tape). Big problem, though.

It's super hard to reset GFCIs, because when one trips, all the upstream GFCIs also trip, and you have to reset them in the right sequence. I also have other circuits with no GFCI protection at all and I'd like to put these redundant GFCI devices to good use.

So how do I identify which GFCIs are useless so I can reclaim them? Let's assume I am perfectly competent at replacing receptacles.

  • 4
    Just out of interest, which country are you from? Here in Austria we have the GFCIs in the central fuse box, usually one for the whole house and then one for each room. I never even heard of GFCI outlets. – Michael Nov 11 at 7:47
  • 9
    @Michael GFCI receptacles are a common sight in the US (and likely elsewhere). – TooTea Nov 11 at 9:43
  • Have at least kitchen and bath protected from distribution box, especially for lightswitches and lamps that’s something a receptacle does not protect. If you then use GFCI receptacles or not is not that important (however I am not sure what’s your specific building code demands, in Europe you don’t use FI receptacles normally) – eckes Nov 11 at 21:17
  • Basically you need to map out the circuits. You can probably do this by determining which outlets are shut down by tripping a given breaker. – Hot Licks Nov 12 at 3:03
24

There's more than one type of GFCI

Aside from the ubiquitous GFCI receptacle, there are also

  • GFCI circuit breakers
  • GFCI standalone devices (called "deadfronts" as they look like a GFCI recep with no holes)
  • GFCI switches (the GFCI is the switch; it's a deadfront rated for daily switching)
  • GFCI switch-receptacle combos (a plain switch and a 1-socket GFCI receptacle)
  • etc.

All of them have "LOAD" terminals. Any load attached to them is in a protected zone that protects the entire downstream circuit (as well as any sockets on the GFCI itself).

GFCI Roundup

Here's how to get rid of that redundant "Yo Dawg" daisy-chaining and get those GFCIs back.

  • Reset (turn back on) every GFCI device in the house (switch, recep, breaker, deadfront, any of them).
  • Put some sort of appliance on every GFCI receptacle; that will show you if it's powered.
  • Push "Test" on any GFCI device.
  • Did any other GFCI receptacles now lose power? If so, they are in the protected zone of the GFCI you just tripped. They are redundant. Replace them with plain receptacles and a "GFCI Protected" sticker.
  • Repeat all this for each GFCI device.

A lot of people install unnecessary GFCIs because the last guy failed to install the sticker. First, they didn't know the outlet was GFCI protected. Second, the sticker actually is mandatory, and that's why the inspector wrote it up. (if you don't want a blue sticker, mark it any way you please; I use white outlet covers and white tape from a P-Touch label maker).

Sometimes you need to have multiple GFCIs on the same circuit because you can't protect the downline, e.g. if the last receptacle on the circuit is a refrigerator, radon pump, furnace in the snow belt, or other safety system where a nuisance trip would cause serious problems. In that case, attach all wires to LINE.

In fact, you should never use LOAD at all, unless you actually intend to protect the downstream circuit. Most GFCIs have screw-and-clamp which will allow 2 wires on LINE.

Installation gotchas

If one is giving you problems, stop. Break it into two sub-problems.

Hook up one cable to only the LINE side of the GFCI, turn the breaker back on (I assume you turn off breakers when changing wires) and test it. If the GFCI powers up, tests properly, successfully powers loads etc., then you have the LINE wiring right. Lock it down. and don't disturb it again.

Power off the breaker again and attach LOAD. If doing so breaks it, there is a problem on the LOAD side wiring. Most likely a multi-wire branch circuit, crossed neutral, or imbalanced (hot or neutral in the GFCI protected zone, but not the other). The latter is especially a problem in bathrooms with a plain switch next to a GFCI. Work the problem as best you can; you might have to inspect the next downline circuit. Crossed neutrals or imbalance are genuine defects that endanger your house. Multi-wire branch circuits are safe and legal if done correctly, but are a special snowflake that doesn't play nice with GFCI receptacles.

If you are forced to give up, then attach all wires to LINE and fit another GFCI at the next receptacle. Unfortunately this is one case where you might wind up with a GFCI at every outlet on the circuit; that's par for the course for MWBCs.

Why do you need the sticker?

Think about it. Why did you (or the last person) overinstall the GFCIs in the first place? Because the person who installed the upline GFCI (the one you are keeping) didn't use the stickers. (no one does). Your inspector quite correctly red-tagged the outlet. If the stickers had been used properly in the first place, none of this would have happened.

  • 2
    "I assume you turn off breakers when changing wires" - and if the OP doesn't, they probably aren't going to come back and complain. – Martin Bonner supports Monica Nov 11 at 17:56
  • 1
    Does anyone ever actually put on the stickers, and for that matter do inspectors check for them? I don't think I've ever in my life seen such a sticker/indication of a downstream protected outlet. – whatsisname Nov 12 at 8:03
  • 1
    @whatsisname do people actually put them on? Never. Do inspectors write it up? Constantly. These two are the direct cause for people fitting GFCI receptacles to places already protected. – Harper - Reinstate Monica Nov 12 at 16:04
  • Electrical Inspectors in my state only require stickers on two wire circuits. – NoSparksPlease Nov 12 at 18:56
12

There's one caveat to be aware when you daisy-chain GFCIs: they might not all trip when tested by a tester. It's time for a story...

When I bought my current house, we were showing it to my in-laws (before the purchase) and all the lights in the back half of the house were out. We were baffled, as no breakers were tripped. Towards the end of that visit, I noticed the GFCI in the bathroom next to the panel was tripped. Resetting it turned on the lights. Somehow, that bathroom's outlet had been tied into the light circuit halfway across the house. In fact, as I would come to learn, that circuit had become a "go-to" circuit for adding new electrical things.

My next bit of fun came one night when my wife and kids were all taking showers. With lots of lights on, plus 3 exhaust fans running, my wife plugged her hair dryer up to one of the outlets by her (she has two, strangely enough) and all the lights went out. Stranger still, the outlet next to this stayed on. Investigating this yielded a free-floating junction box above the GFCI on my side of the bathroom, which lead back to the attic lights... which were on the same circuit with the strange GFCI. Oh, and my new tankless water heater with electric ignition pulled the same stunt.

The GFCI was sized wrong in the first place (20A outlet on a 15A circuit), so I bought a new 15A GFCI to replace it. I used my outlet tester on the GFCI next to my sink and found that, while it killed the circuit, the GFCI next to my sink didn't trip but the one on the other side of the house did. Go figure. I decided to add another 15A circuit, since the light circuit was clearly overloaded. That new circuit fed those two outlets (and the water heater) so GFCI problem solved along with overloading.

I now had another oddity: my wife's second outlet by her sink. I added a GFCI there (aluminum wire so I had to splice), but found the same problem. When testing her outlet, it tripped the one in the hallway bathroom. Oh, and my master bedroom is downstream from both. Yay. As such, I replaced the 20A GFCI in that bathroom with a spliced-in 15A. While that circuit does have two GFCI outlets, neither can cut off the other, since they are their own branch now (i.e. neither used the LOAD side), nor can they cut power to the bedroom. When I later needed a night-light outlet in the hall bath, this actually benefited me, in that I had the free LOAD side to connect to (because that outlet does need GFCI protection as well)

1

I would find the first one on each branch circuit, keep that one and reinstall the old outlets on the others on that circuit. Most GFCI’s require power to reset so you may have already figured out the first one with the sequence to reset. A simple outlet tester with a GFCI trip button is a handy tool to have for about 10$

  • 2
    Can you elaborate more on how you would identify the first one in the circuit? – Harper - Reinstate Monica Nov 10 at 17:06
  • The GFCI won’t reset and light up unless it is the first one I believe the op figured this out in the question. – Ed Beal Nov 11 at 14:58
  • I found that a tester is needed to reliably trip the upstream, the test button on the receptacle doesn't send current on the ground (otherwise a two wire gfci wouldn't trip). After tripping a GFCI the only receptacle that will reset will be the first on the circuit. – NoSparksPlease Nov 12 at 19:09

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.