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We moved into a condo in 2012 and have had issues on one of the circuits. The circuit serves the outlets in our great room and sun room. Initially, we would trip the breaker when using the vacuum cleaner. We have not had issues for a year or two. Last night, it tripped 3 times. We had two lamps on, the TV, cable box, wifi router, and several strands of the mini Christmas lights. When we were first complaining about tripping (with the vacuum), the electrician said that GFI breakers are very sensitive. Last night was a pain with the 3 trips during a football game. Question is, why do I have GFI breakers in these locations in the first place? No sinks or water sources near any of the outlets. A pic of my box should be attached. I understand why 20 and 21 are protected, but why 16, 17, and 19? Thanks in advance for your replies.

Electrical box

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    What do you mean by "sun room"? By any change does it have a tile floor with a drain? – user19474 Dec 21 '15 at 21:07
  • It's an open floor plan, and the great room and sunroom are connected by a 6' opening. The sunroom is basically a four season room. Windows all the way around except for the wall that adjoins the great room. We are on a slab, but there is no floor drain. – Brian Dec 22 '15 at 20:34
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Given the locations for these breakers and source of trips, I'm guessing they are actually AFCI breakers. AFCI are designed to detect an arc fault, e.g. a failing extension cord that is at risk of causing a fire. They are required in bedrooms in newer electrical codes. Vacuums frequently trip these because the motor itself gives off a lot of noise in the line that resembles arcing (or perhaps there is some arcing inside the motor).

Since you are seeing it now, look for anything that may have changed, like your holiday lights. Try leaving those lights off for a while to see if the trips stop, and if so, inspect the wiring. Twinkling lights would be another suspect as they turn on and off with a heated element that is likely generating a small arc as it does so.

  • Thanks for the reply. The Christmas lights are on this circuit, whereas they were not a few weeks back. They are not twinkling. I believe you are correct about the AFCI. I was not aware of this type of breaker. I checked the box and they do look like the Square D HOM AFCI breakers on the internet. Is there an issue with swapping this breaker out to a standard breaker? – Brian Dec 22 '15 at 20:48
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    Swapping out the breaker for a non-AFCI would take you out of code compliance. If it's tripping, there's a good chance it's trying to save you from a fire, so try unplugging any recent additions and swapping out extension cords or other components to narrow down the specific cause. If you can't find a cause, then you may want to replace with a newer AFCI since the technology is improving. – BMitch Dec 23 '15 at 1:29
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Please do not remove the AFCI breaker. BMitch is correct is pointing out that breaker may be saving you from a fire, and removing it is certainly a violation of code.

I had a similar experience wiring a new receptacle onto a circuit protected with an AFCI. After the new receptacle was installed, every time I switched on a steamer plugged into any receptacle on this circuit the AFCI would trip, even with no other loads on the circuit. This nearly drove me crazy until I discovered some paint on the ground conductor under the screw terminal of the wire on the new receptacle. I cleaned the paint off, and the AFCI ceased tripping. That's how sensitive (three cheers for this) AFCIs are to serial and parallel "arc faults", which have been shown to be the cause of the majority of electrical home fires.

So start by removing your loads one by one, and seeing if the nuisance tripping ceases. When it does, you've identified the culprit appliance, which probably has a bad/corroded/oxidized connection in it, or in the cable or plug.

If you remove all the loads, and the tripping still occurs, then check every wire connection to every receptacle and every wire nut on that circuit. Make sure the wires are clean, and the terminal screws/wire nuts are tight.

If you still get nuisance tripping, then you may have a problem in the actual concealed building wiring, like a squirrel or other rodent having chewed through the wire insulation in the attic or inside the walls, and the conductors starting to arc. This is a serious fire hazard, and your AFCI is gonna save your life if this is the case. Call an electrician to diagnose.

Or, if you feel like you're a competent debugger, start disconnecting portions of your circuit, piece by piece, starting from the most distant (from an electrical circuit perspective) outlets. If the nuisance tripping stops after disconnecting a segment, you know the fault is in the just-disconnected segment. Fixing it could involve running a new cable for that segment, finding the arc fault (if rodent-chewed cable in an open attic, for example) and repairing with a new junction box, or pulling a new cable to replace the damaged one.

Even though the AFCI has by now caused you hours of diagnosis and frustration (if you've gone through all the steps above), thank your AFCI for potentially saving your (and your family's) life, not to mention your house.

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