It looks like there has been some bad wiring done in the old house we just bought. Yesterday, I was installing a low-wattage LED nightlight in a 3-gang box on a GFCI circuit, when the whole circuit lost power. I cannot find a reason for the loss of power. I rewired the way it was when I started, but that did not fix the problem.

This circuit has a GFCI breaker. There also are (or were) three GFCI outlets on its circuit, two of which have no load. The one with a load is outside and I believe protects an additional outside outlet. I read that the circuit breaker is all that is needed and that additional GFCI outlets are not only not necessary but can be a problem, especially as they age. So, I am replacing the GFCI outlets with standard outlets. Doing so, however, has not helped.

I suspect that the GFCI breaker is faulty. When I switch it on, there is no power. When I test for power between its hot connection and neutral, there is no power. When I press the test button, nothing happens.

I can replace a breaker (I think) but I am not sure if that is what should be done.

  • 1
    They do go bad. Were the ones you removed on the load side of upstream ones? Sometimes they're installed on the same circuit, but separately, to limit the scope of outages.
    – isherwood
    Jun 23 '20 at 17:45
  • Only one has a load. I have not removed it yet. My hunch is that it is not causing the problem because it is on the far side of the house and exterior. None of the others have a load.
    – BigBlonde
    Jun 23 '20 at 17:49
  • I completed replacing the old GFCI outlets, except for the exterior one that I just disconnected and capped the wires. There is no change. The breaker still acts like it is bad. I cannot imagine how what I was doing could have damaged it, so I am thinking that maybe it was just its time to die.
    – BigBlonde
    Jun 23 '20 at 18:12
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    Well, you might do well to fill out your question with some detail about the rewiring you did. Maybe something's wrong there. I'm not sure what else we can do for you otherwise.
    – isherwood
    Jun 23 '20 at 18:18
  • Wait, you worked on the electrical with the power on? I’d agree removing the GFCI receps is a good play, but you surely understand that a GFCI is a safety device that detects certain safety faults. Your new circuit modification is a wildcard; you may have created one of those faults. If the circuit is faulty, you can hardly blame a GFCI for tripping. Jun 23 '20 at 18:24

I gather you have the panel cover off?

First, you cannot test any GFCI device while anything is plugged into it or on the LOAD terminals. All wires must be removed from the LOAD terminals.

Once that’s done, we can now do a clear test of the GFCI. For a breaker, turn it all the way off, then all the way on. Don’t try to go straight from “tripped” to “on”, that will not work. Once it is on, then you press the TEST button and see if you get a trip. Then to OFF then to ON, to reset.

If the GFCI breaker responds correctly when you do that, then the breaker is not faulty. It is doing its job, tripping due to a fault in wiring or devices. Now you divide and conquer.

The trick with “divide and conquer” with GFCI is that you must isolate BOTH hot AND neutral. Simply breaking hot is not enough.

You must also be very careful in boxes that have multiple circuits in them. For instance, sometimes a multi-light switch box has circuit 1’s power coming into it to run some switches, and then a switch loop for a light from circuit 2. Goober says “I want to put a smart switch on that switch-loop”, so uses the always-hot and switched-hot from the switch loop, and steals neutral from circuit 1. GFCIs won’t tolerate that.

  • Thank you!!! That was very helpful.
    – BigBlonde
    Jun 23 '20 at 18:47
  • Yes. The panel cover is off.
    – BigBlonde
    Jun 23 '20 at 18:48
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    @BigBlonde Yeah, that “thinking” right there... “I removed all the load but I need to lift the neutral wire” - you have to learn the new way of thinking with GFCI, it’s not just about interrupting hot anymore. Hot+neutral must be handled as a matched pair, for GFCI troubleshooting. The breaker not turning off is alarming: I’d push really hard, but if it just won’t go, I’d take it to a dealer for your panel type and see what they say. (Electrical supply house not Home Depot). Jun 23 '20 at 19:38
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    @BigBlonde Yeah I agree, it sounds like that GFCI breaker is done. Well, being that old you’ll get better technology on the new one. Try to get one with LEDs, but the most important thing is get one that is UL-listed to match your panel, i.e. don’t cross brands. They seem to fit, but the bus stabs are the wrong shape. Jun 23 '20 at 20:12
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    Oh yeah, and when disconnecting circuits from a GFCI breaker, leave the pigtail connected. That powers the GFCI itself. Just take the load hot and neutral off. Though your breaker is certainly beyond that... Jun 23 '20 at 20:13

I have it working now. The problem was the breaker. At the end of the day, I went to the panel and used as much strength as I could to move the lever to the reset position. It finally gave. The circuit is live now.

While troubleshooting, I removed all of the GFCI outlets that were served by the GFCI breaker. I understand their presence is not recommended.

I left the outside outlets disconnected because I plan to install new exterior fixtures. The existing outlets are old, mismatched and ugly. There also was bad corrosion on some of the connections, so I will fix that and seal them better when I install the new hardware.

That breaker is still worrisome. I plan to replace it soon. I worked it back and forth till it moved better, but as hard as it was to move the lever, it may not trip properly when it should. It does trip when tested, though, so that's reassuring.

In addition to the help provided here, which is sincerely appreciated, I found this site to be very helpful: http://www.electrical101.com/index.html

  • A) thanks for coming back to post your solution. B) Replacing that breaker sounds like a Good Idea™ to me! One of the big-3 electricians may suggest you don't have to, but I doubt it. (That would make for a good question of its own - "should I replace a breaker if the trip handle is hard to move?")
    – FreeMan
    Jun 24 '20 at 15:54
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    I don't mind spending a few dollars for the peace of mind of knowing I can trust a breaker. Given that this is a high humidity area and that I found corrosion on some of the connections, I suspect there may be corrosion in the breaker, as well. It would explain why it was hard to move. So, my main issue now is how to replace a breaker. I have no experience doing so. There was some advice here about that, but I still have misgivings. I guess I'm not supposed to ask about that in a comment, though. I will do some research. I'm sure The Google has information about it.
    – BigBlonde
    Jun 24 '20 at 16:08
  • If not, ask a question about "how do I remove this breaker" and include good, focused pics of the breaker, the panel as a whole, and any labels inside the panel
    – FreeMan
    Jun 24 '20 at 16:10
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    I can do that. The original panel label was horrible, but you might get a good laugh when you see it. In my first two months of living in this house, a significant project has been fixing the electrical. The basic wiring seems fine, but the tinkering done by a former occupant is amazingly bad. I am opening every box to look for problems and I am finding many. For example, instead of capping two hot wires together, they were attached to the same side of a non-operational switch. It gets worse...
    – BigBlonde
    Jun 24 '20 at 16:20
  • @BigBlonde -- yes, please do ask a new question about the breaker replacement, and please provide make/model info and/or photos of the electrical panel in question while you're at it Jun 25 '20 at 0:11

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