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I turned on my vacuum cleaner and the power on that circuit immediately went out. The breaker wasn't tripped, but just outside the panel there's an AFCI receptacle that's tripped. I just recently bought this house, but this AFCI outlet was likely put there to meet new requirements during a renovation.

I unplugged everything on that circuit and turned off all fixtures, but the receptacle still won't reset. The Reset button doesn't stay in at all, it pushes back out immediately.

Additional info:

  • If the breaker is on at the panel, the AFCI makes an audible "click" as the button moves back out. It doesn't do this if the breaker is off.
  • I plugged a receptacle tester into the AFCI outlet; it doesn't light up at all and nothing down-line from the AFCI turns on, even while I push the reset button.
  • Down-line from the AFCI there are:
    • 2 bathroom fans
    • 2 light fixtures
    • 2 GFCI receptacles
    • 6 regular receptacles

Does it sound like the problem is down-line from the AFCI, at the panel, or the AFCI itself?

EDIT: I disconnected the wires from the LOAD side of the AFCI receptacle, so the circuit consisted only of the AFCI wired to the breaker. The AFCI would still not reset in this configuration.

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    If you disconnect the load-side wiring from the AFCI and turn the power back on, does the AFCI stay reset at that point? Dec 27, 2023 at 3:15
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    Have you tried cycling the breaker?
    – DoxyLover
    Dec 27, 2023 at 3:15
  • Yes, I've cycled the breaker several times, the only noticeable difference is the AFCI doesn't make a "click" sound when the breaker is off
    – Billiam
    Dec 27, 2023 at 4:12
  • I haven't tried disconnecting the load-side, I didn't know the AFCI could be reset with no load. I'll try that tomorrow
    – Billiam
    Dec 27, 2023 at 4:13
  • Is the breaker new enough to be the kind that reports why it has tripped? And importantly, have you tried unplugging the vacuum cleaner? Can you plug the vac into any other AFCI circuits? Dec 27, 2023 at 4:23

2 Answers 2

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AFCI detects "noise" that can be an indication of arcing, which can lead to fires. This can happen due to something that is plugged in (e.g., frayed wires on an appliance or an appliance motor that is having problems) or a problem with the wires themselves (nail through a wire but not enough to cause a full short circuit, or failing but not totally failed insulation) or a problem with a connection.

My hunch here is a connection. Backstab connections are notorious for problems, but screw connections and wire nut connections can also have problems if they are not done properly or are loose. A large load (such as a vacuum cleaner) can be the straw that broke the camel's back - i.e., heating of a connection from using it could at some point cause a connection to fail in a way that an AFCI would detect as a problem.

Your circuit is wired breaker -> AFCI -> fixtures and receptacles, so that the AFCI will protect the entire circuit. That is relatively uncommon but is allowed and a likely scenario is:

  • AFCI now required in your area for particular types of circuits
  • Homeowner wanted to add a receptacle or fixture where one did not previously exist but which didn't need a new circuit (so the AFCI requirement kicks in - it would not normally apply when an existing receptacle or fixture is replaced)
  • Breaker panel either does not have room for an AFCI breaker (they often require "full" spaces where many panels are stuffed with "half size" breakers), or panel is an older type that does not have AFCI breakers available for it

and in this situation an AFCI installed next to the panel is the proper solution.

To fix it, start with the receptacle where you plugged in the vacuum cleaner. Open it up (with the breaker off for safety, do not rely on the AFCI to keep you safe) and see if there are any loose connections - wire nuts, screws or backstabs. If there are backstab connections (whether they appear loose or not), move them to screws. Tighten any screw connections - and in particular make sure the wire loops are in the correct direction and no insulation goes under the screws. Tighten (and replace wire nuts if there is any indication of arcing or burning or melting) any wire nuts. If the receptacle itself shows signs of arcing, burning or melting then replace it. Put everything back together, turn the breaker on and try to reset the AFCI. If it still doesn't work, work backwards through each receptacle between the AFCI and the vacuum cleaner receptacle. In the common setup, current from any downstream receptacles flows through the boxes of other receptacles (and depending on setup, often through the receptacles themselves) so a loose connection anywhere can cause problems.

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  • Thanks for the suggestion. I didn't find anything that looked wrong, everything was tight and the wires looked fine. I tried disconnecting the wires from the LOAD side of the AFCI receptacle, turned on the breaker, and the AFCI still won't reset. So I think that rules out anything down-line from the AFCI receptacle as the problem, unless these receptacles somehow can't be reset without anything connected to the load side?
    – Billiam
    Dec 27, 2023 at 18:44
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Replacing the AFCI receptacle fixed my problem.

After checking connections on the load side of the AFCI receptacle, I disconnected the wires from the load side entirely, so that the AFCI receptacle was the only thing on the circuit. I turned on the breaker and confirmed that 120V was coming in to the receptacle. It still wouldn't reset, so this confirmed that the problem was with the receptacle itself.

These receptacles perform an internal self-test; if it ever fails, the receptacle will not allow itself to be reset again.

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