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I had an electrician install AFCI/GFCI breakers at the panel for some outlets in the kitchen. One of them works fine and trips when tested from the outlets, but the other does not. It provides power to all of the outlets on the circuit, and the test button on the breaker itself works, but when I test the outlets the breaker will not trip.

Does anyone know what causes this? Maybe it's a bad breaker, but I would think the test button on a bad breaker would not work either.

I need to call an electrician out to fix this and I'd like to understand as much as I can ahead of time. The guy who screwed it up but didn't test it properly should do it, but I don't trust him now.

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    Are the outlets actually grounded? Jul 18, 2022 at 17:17
  • The tester says they are and at each outlet on the circuit they are connected. But the first outlet box in the circuit is way too small, and I haven't inspected the panel itself.
    – Mike
    Jul 19, 2022 at 1:14
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    If the outlets are grounded, and the tester trip button is inoperative, then either a) the tester is defective or b) the grounds are bootlegged. Bootlegged grounds past a GFCI largely defeat the purpose of GFCI protection. Jul 19, 2022 at 2:11
  • The tester definitely works. I'm not seeing a bootlegged ground in the outlets (neutral connected to the ground screw), but that's why I'm concerned about the overpacked box - maybe there are crossed wires in there. Is there any chance it could be on the breaker panel? Like the ground isn't connected there?
    – Mike
    Jul 19, 2022 at 12:32
  • Well, there's supposed to be a neutral-ground bond at the service point (first disconnect past the meter). If it's on the source side of the GFCI it won't affect the GFCI. We're concerned with ground being taken direct off neutral post-GFCI. Jul 19, 2022 at 19:24

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Ignoring AFCI for this answer. AFCI is a more complex technology and I don't know how any AFCI-specific tester actually works. While in some areas, for new circuits, AFCI may be a requirement for kitchen receptacle circuits, the general requirement for many years is GFCI as that is a life-safety issue near water (such as kitchen sinks). In your case, you have AFCI and GFCI at the breaker. Most of this answer is the same for GFCI/receptacle as for GFCI/breaker or AFCI+GFCI/breaker (your situation).

The TEST button in a GFCI/receptacle or GFCI/breaker uses an internal mechanism which should work whether there is a ground connected or not. That is important as one of the key dangerous modes which a GFCI protects against is where some of the power goes through a person (typically due to water in the wrong place or damage to an appliance) to the physical, actual ground, such as through a barefoot person standing on a wet floor or touching a grounded metal-case appliance (stove, oven, refrigerator). 12A in on hot, 11.99A out on neutral, 0.01A (10 milliamps) through the person to physical ground is enough to trip a GFCI - and save a life.

However, the TEST button on a Magic 8-Ball Tester, a.k.a. three-light tester such as this one from Amazon:

Klein tester

works by sending that 10 milliamps to the ground pin of the receptacle. If that ground pin is not connected properly due to a break in the grounding system, including the possibility of no ground present in the receptacle box at all due to old wiring and no metal conduit then that TEST button will have no effect because it can't complete a circuit.

If indeed that is the case, there are a few options:

  • Check the cables going into the panel. If they have black/white/ground then make sure the ground wire is connected properly. With a GFCI/breaker, neutral will be going to the breaker (and from the breaker to the neutral bar on a separate wire, unless it is a plug-on neutral breaker) but ground should be going to a ground bar. If they are black (or some other color) and white inside metal conduit then the metal conduit should provide the ground as long as you have metal conduit everywhere and metal boxes for the receptacles.
  • Fix a problem within the receptacle box. It may be as simple as a plastic box (because with metal boxes normally grounding to good quality receptacles happens automagically) with a ground wire in it that was never connected to the ground screw of the GFCI/receptacle.
  • Label the GFCI/receptacle, and any down-stream receptacles, to indicate that there is no ground. That is code-legal provided the circuit is an older circuit that pre-dates the requirement for a ground at every receptacle.
  • Retrofit ground. It is now generally OK (depends on NEC version) to retrofit ground by running a ground wire from an unprotected receptacle to a protected receptacle or back to the panel. So if you have one circuit in the kitchen that has ground and one that doesn't, a jumper (green or bare wire, minimum 12 AWG) from a receptacle on one circuit to a receptacle on the other circuit should do the trick.
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    Thanks very much. With respect to the second potential problem (within the receptacle box) would the three-light tester not show an open ground? Mine shows "correct" at the receptacle.
    – Mike
    Jul 18, 2022 at 15:17
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    If a receptacle is wired with ground connected to neutral then a 3-light tester would show "correct". That should never happen, but could happen if, for example, someone didn't have grounded receptacles and decided to put them in to satisfy a home inspector prior to sale. An ordinary tester would not indicate the problem, but it would not provide any safety. And yes, some people will do that - either to save money or because they have no clue. Jul 18, 2022 at 15:23
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    I went through the circuit and found the first outlet, which branches off in three directions. The first outlet won't trigger the GFCI breaker when tested with a three-light tester either. One obvious problem is that first outlet is a single-gang box, maybe 20 cu.in., with an absurd number of wires (1x12gauge in, 3x12gauge out, receptacle, and 3 pigtails to the receptacle = 15 wires + receptacle). I can't believe he did that. Maybe there's a problem in there, or maybe he didn't ground it properly at the panel? (I didn't see any miswiring, like ground to neutral)
    – Mike
    Jul 19, 2022 at 1:09

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