Bad GFCI Receptacle: Can a GFCI Outlet Fail?

GFCI Outlet

Many safety advancements have been made in building construction in recent years. One such safety measure is GFCI outlets. But how reliable are GFCI outlets, and will they go bad eventually?

GFCI outlets and breakers can fail. GFCI devices will last about 10 to 15 years before starting to go bad or failing. GFCI outlets can go bad in as little as five years.

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I consider the GFCI outlets a life-saving necessity. They will protect you from electrical shock in cases of ground faults, provided they are working correctly. However, they won’t last forever. So, what can you expect to happen when they fail?

These are the essential questions that we will look at here.

How Do GFCI Outlets Work?

GFCI outlets protect from electrical shocks, and they can protect appliances from damage caused by electrical faults (like short circuit or ground fault).

A GFCI outlet has an in-built mechanism that monitors the current going in and out through the wires. If and when it detects an imbalance, it will automatically trip and stop any electricity in the outlet, thus preventing any hazards.

GFCI outlets do start wearing out with time. This is why it is always recommended to test them once every month. They do not require any special maintenance as they are just like a regular outlet; however, certain things will make them wear out faster. Bad GFCIs commonly fail home inspections but can be easily corrected.

How to Find out If the GFCI Outlet Has Gone Bad?

The best and the easiest way to check if a GFCI outlet works as it should be is by testing it. This is the reason why, on every receptacle, you will see two buttons labeled “Test” and “Reset.”

How to perform the test:

  • Press the “Test” button. This should lead to the outlet tripping and cutting out the electrical flow.
  • Plug in a table lamp to see if there is electricity. The lamp should not switch on.
  • Then unplug the lamp and press the “Reset” button. This is going to return the receptacle working back to normal.
  • If you plug in the lamp now, it should start working.

Inspectors Notes: For less than $15, you can purchase a GFCI outlet tester from a local hardware store or online at Amazon. This is a great tool to add to your toolbox. A GFCI tester will easily allow you to test outlets for GFCI protection. We use a FLIR RT50 Receptacle Tester in our inspections. It’s a professional-grade GFCI tester available at Amazon.

If the night lamp continues to work after pressing the test button, this signifies that the outlet has gone bad. This can be due to two main reasons. Either the outlet is malfunctioning, or the GFCI is not installed correctly.

If the GFCI is installed correctly and working correctly, you can expect to get about ten years out of it before it starts to wear off and fail.

A GFCI outlet can fail in several different ways:

  1. By not tripping when you press the “Test” button.
  2. By not restoring the electricity flow after pressing the “Reset” button.
  3. By not cutting off the power to the outlet despite being tripped.

Common Reasons for GFCI Failure and Tripping?

The reason behind a GFCI tripping should always be investigated and not be ignored. If your receptacle is frequently tripping, this could be a potential sign that it needs to be changed.

  1. Tripping After an Electrical Fault

While working, the GFCI will monitor the current flowing in and out of the outlet. For example, you can imagine electricity being like water in a pipe. The amount going in should be equal to the amount going out (although there are some small losses).

So what happens if the among going out is a lot less than the among going in? This means there is a leakage somewhere down the pipe, right? And when we are talking electricity, this would mean that there is a fault (usually a ground fault).

So the GFCI registers any unnatural current flow, and it shuts off the power to the outlet that is being used. A possible ground fault can be life-threatening with fatal consequences because the electricity can be using your body as a conductor – nearly electrocuting you as it passes through your body.

The GFCI will cut off the power fast. It can register minimal changes in the electrical current (as small as 4-5 milliamps), and it will cut off the power in one-thirteenth of a second. Although you might still feel a slight electrical shock, it will be nowhere near life-threatening or dangerous.

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Why Home Inspections Are Important

Older vs. Newer GFCI outlets

Another thing that might concern owners (or future owners) of older homes is that the older GFCI receptacles can fail when closed. This means that they don’t stop the electricity from flowing through the wires, so we have zero protection against electrical shocks, which can be a dangerous thing.

On the other hand, newer receptacles with GFCI have been designed to fail in the open position. This is a good thing because despite them not working anymore, they will still cut the electricity off.

  1. Improper Wiring

GFCI outlets can also be wired wrong, which will cause newer units not to work.

The older receptacles usually work when wired backward but will not offer proper protection, and the “Test” button might not cause the outlet to trip.

  1. Constant (Ghost) Tripping

GFCIs have been known to trip occasionally, even if they are not supposed to. This can also signify that a small appliance is about to fail. For instance:

  • Not all electrical appliances are suitable for GFCIs (like treadmills, motors, fluorescent lights, etc.).
  • Faulty small appliances, radios, TVs, and alarm systems.
  • If a GFCI outlet is starting to malfunction due to wearing out of the device.
  • Appliances or electronics that are drawing high amounts of current.
  • Accidental leakages and line surges.
  • Loose electrical wiring to the GFCI outlet.

What Causes GFCI Receptacles to Go Bad?

GFCIs can fail, leaving you unprotected against electrical shocks. A study by the American Society of Home Inspectors published in IAEI News in 1999 concluded that 21% of the GFCIs breakers and 19% of the GFCI receptacles did not provide adequate protection, and the electricity was not cut off.

The reason behind most of these failings was due to damage to the current transformer in the GFCI. Interestingly enough, in areas with a higher amount of storms, the failure of GFCI breakers jumped from 21% to more than 50%.

Also, excessive exposure to moisture will further reduce the life expectancy of your outlets. Moisture can rust interior parts causing them to fail without warning. It is vital that GFCI outlets located outlet also have a weatherproof cover.

The UV light and other outdoor elements can significantly wear off the receptacles, too. Usually, any receptacle that is located outdoors should be frequently tested and check as they are the most susceptible to failing, and at the same time, there is a higher chance for ground fault in these areas.

Having this in mind, it is evident that GFCIs can fail a lot more often than many of us might expect; this is why it is so important to do the testing every month.

Where Should You Have GFCI Outlets Installed?

Nowadays, the NEC requires almost every receptacle to be GFCI protected.

But that has not always been the case.

GFCI was introduced in 1971. The electrical code concerning GFCI has gone through revisions every three or so years. The requirements have been continually increasing after each revision.

If you own (or are planning to buy) an older home, you might not have GFCI receptacles installed in some rooms.

The NEC requires GFCI outlets to be installed in:

  • Bathrooms – outlets inside bathrooms require GFCI protection.
  • Whirlpool tubs – whirlpool tubs require GFCI protection. This is often done by a GFCI Dead Front or a GFCI Breaker inside the electrical panel box.
  • Kitchens – outlets located in kitchens, including outlets for refrigerators.
  • Laundry and utility rooms – outlets within six feet of a utility sink, clothes washing machine, or water heater.
  • Swimming pools – outlets within 20 feet of swimming pools.
  • Exterior outlets – outlets located outside need to be GFCI protected and have a weatherproof cover.
  • Garages and other outbuildings – outlets located in garages, sheds, docks, boathouses, or other outbuildings
  • Crawlspaces and unfinished basements – outlets located in unfinished areas to provide power sources for tools, lights, etc.
  • Hot tubs and spas – outlets within 10 feet of the edge of any spas or hot tubs.

GFCI Button Won’t Push In?

If your GFCI Test Button doesn’t trip the outlet or the GFCI Reset Button will not push in to reset, you likely have a bad GFCI outlet or no power to the GFCI outlet.

If your GFCI outlet does not reset, first, let’s check to be sure no other GFCI outlets in the home have not tripped. Often, I find multiple GFCI outlets on the same circuit. If two or more GFCIs are on the same circuit, the secondary outlets will not reset until the lead GFCI has been located and reset.

If no other GFCIs are located or tripped, the GFCI outlet may have failed and will need to be replaced. You should contact a licensed electrician for repair.

If the GFCI button resets and then immediately trips again, there is a ground fault issue somewhere in the circuit. The outlet is tripping correctly to protect you from electrical shock. In this case, you should consult a licensed electrician for repair.

See our article, Common Electrical Problems Found During Home Inspections for more.

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Hubert Miles

I've been conducting home inspections for 17 years. I'm a licensed Home Inspector, Certified Master Inspector (CMI), and FHA 203k Consultant. I started HomeInspectionInsider.com to help people better understand the home inspection process and answer questions about homeownership and home maintenance.

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