Bad GFCI outlets are a type of electrical outlet that can be dangerous if not properly installed or maintained. They protect against electric shock and other hazardous conditions, but when they malfunction, they can be a major source of injury. It is important to be aware of the risks associated with bad GFCI outlets and how to identify them and take steps to repair or replace them.
Ground Fault Circuit Interrupter (GFCI) outlets and breakers can fail. GFCI devices will last about 10 to 15 years before starting to go bad or fail. GFCI outlets can go bad in as little as five years.
I consider the GFCI outlets a life-saving necessity. They protect you from electrical shock from ground faults, provided they work 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 can protect appliances from damage caused by electrical faults (like short circuits or ground faults).
A GFCI outlet has an in-built mechanism that monitors the current going in through the hot wire and out through the neutral wire. If and when it detects an imbalance, it will automatically trip and stop any electricity in the outlet and any downstream outlets, thus preventing any hazards.
GFCI outlets start wearing out with time, so we recommend you test them once every month. They do not require special maintenance as they are just like a regular outlet; however, certain things will make them wear out faster. A bad GFCI outlet can commonly fail home inspections but can be easily corrected.
How to Identify a Bad GFCI Outlet
Testing it is the best and easiest way to check for a bad GFCI outlet works. You will see two buttons labeled “Test” and “Reset.”
How to Test a GFCI Outlet:
- 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 to work 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 GFI 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 GFCI is bad. There are two primary reasons for this:
- Either the outlet is malfunctioning
- the GFCI is not installed correctly
If the GFCI is installed correctly and working correctly, you can expect it to last about ten years before it starts to wear out or fail.
A bad GFCI outlet can fail in several different ways:
- By not tripping when you press the “Test” button.
- By not restoring the electricity flow after pressing the “Reset” button.
- By not cutting off the power to the outlet despite being tripped.
Common Bad GFCI Outlet Failure and Tripping?
It would be best if you investigated the reason behind a GFCI tripping. Bad gfci symptoms often include your receptacle frequently tripping. This could be a potential sign that it needs to be changed.
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 equal the amount going out (although there are some small losses).
If the GFCI registers any unnatural current flow, it shuts off the power to the outlet used. A possible ground fault can be life-threatening with fatal consequences because the electricity can use 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.
Older vs. Newer GFCI outlets
Another thing that might concern homeowners is that the older GFCI receptacles can fail when closed, which doesn’t stop the electricity from flowing through the wires, providing no protection against electrical shocks.
On the other hand, newer receptacles with GFCI fail in the open position, thus cutting the electricity off, and won’t reset.
- Improper Electrical Wiring
GFCI outlets can also be wired wrong, which will cause newer units not to work.
The older receptacles usually work when wired backward. Still, they will not offer proper protection, and the “Test” button might not cause the outlet or breaker to trip, cutting power to standard outlets.
- Constant (Ghost) Tripping
GFCIs can trip, even if they are not supposed to, which can 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 starts 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 connections in 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 GFCI 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 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 moisture exposure will further reduce your outlets’ life expectancy. 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 also significantly wear off the receptacles. You should test all exterior GFCI outlets frequently as they are the most susceptible to failing, and at the same time, there is a higher chance of a ground fault in these areas.
With 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 monthly testing.
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 years. The requirements have been continually increasing after each revision.
If you own (or are planning to buy) an older home, some rooms might not have GFCI receptacles installed.
The NEC requires GFCI outlets in the following areas:
- Bathrooms – outlets inside bathrooms require GFCI protection.
- Whirlpool tubs – whirlpool tubs require GFCI protection. A GFCI Dead Front or a GFCI Breaker inside the electrical panel box often does this.
- 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 – outside outlets 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 blinks and 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 not working 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 need replacement. You should contact a professional electrician for repair.
If the GFCI reset button engages and 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.
Bad GFCI Outlet FAQs
You may have more questions about bad GFCI outlets. Here are a few of our most frequently asked questions about bad GFCI outlets, breakers, and branch circuits.
What happens when a GFCI outlet goes bad?
When a GFCI outlet goes bad, it may not trip when a dangerous current is detected. Older-style GFCIs will fail and not trip as intended. New Self-testing GFCI outlets will trip when bad and now reset. However, troubleshooting should be done by a licensed electrician as a tripped GFCI could be unrelated to being a bad GFCI outlet.
What happens when a GFCI won’t reset?
When a GFCI outlet doesn’t reset, it could indicate a problem with the outlet, a faulty wiring connection, or an internal malfunction. Troubleshooting by a qualified electrician is recommended to diagnose electrical issues properly. Often if a GFCI trips, it’s a signal that there’s a problem with the circuit and to call an electrician.
Do GFCI outlets go bad?
GFCI outlets can wear out over time due to normal use and exposure to the elements. As such, they should be tested regularly and replaced when necessary. Depending on the environment, a GFCI outlet can last 10 to 20 years.
What to do if your GFCI won’t reset after rain?
If the GFCI outlet or circuit breaker won’t reset after rain, the first thing to check is if the circuit breaker is still tripped. GFCIs will trip when exposed to moisture. The circuit is likely getting wet and won’t reset until dry. You should call an electrician to inspect and repair the circuit.