According to the National Electric Code (NEC), you must install Ground Fault Circuit Interrupter (GFCI) outlets and breakers in specific locations throughout your home. GFCI protection offers an extra layer of protection to your home’s electrical system. Still, they can be highly inconvenient if they’re constantly tripping and killing power to your outlets.
There are several different reasons why a GFCI trips. The most common reason is water or moisture that has gotten into the receptacle box or outlet. However, a tripping GFCI device could also get caused by an overloaded circuit, a malfunctioning outlet, electrical issues, or improper installation.
While tripping GFCI outlets is inconvenient, they often happen for a reason. You must get to the root of the cause behind your tripping outlet or breaker, especially if the electrical problems persist. It’s also essential to understand the purpose of GFCI devices and why electricians install them in the first place.
What is the Purpose of GFCI?
Ground fault circuit interrupters protect you from a fatal electrical shock around your home. GFCI devices can detect small electrical leaks between hot wires and neutral wires.
A ground fault occurs when the incoming electrical current flow exits on the hot side of the outlet but doesn’t return the same electric current flow to the neutral side. If the current flows aren’t the same, the device will trip and terminate electricity, similar to how a breaker does.
Electrical leakage current is when the electric current deviates from its intended path. The electric leak will attempt to take the shortest unintended path to the ground, creating an electric shock that can be fatal.
While there’s usually a good reason for a GFCI outlet to trip, it can also happen accidentally. Accidental trips are highly inconvenient and are often the result of improper wiring or installation or a faulty outlet. However, whenever you have a GFCI outlet not working, you must get to the bottom of the problem, or it will keep happening.
Troubleshooting your GFCI devices is often a process of elimination. There are five main reasons why these outlets and breakers trip, and it’s challenging to put your finger on the right one without in-depth investigation. To help you get started, let’s go over the five main reasons why GFCI outlets trip and what to do about it.
What Causes GFCI to Trip?
There is Moisture Near the Outlet
The most common reason GFCI outlets trip is because of moisture or water in the outlet or outlet box. Water is hazardous around electricity, so GFCI outlets often get installed in potentially moist areas. These include bathrooms, kitchens, laundry rooms, outdoor areas, and unfinished basements or attics.
A physical splash of water is typically the cause of moisture in an outlet box and is easily detectable. However, in humid areas, such as Florida, it’s also possible for enough humidity to accumulate inside the outlet and cause it to trip.
The best way to prevent this is to install a new GFCI outlet and box with extra protection. Modern GFCI outlet boxes are waterproof and can withstand rain, humidity, and even flooding. You should replace your old GFCI outlet with one of these to prevent further tripping.
Exterior outlets need GFCI protection and a bubble-type weatherproof cover to keep moisture at bay.
An Overloaded Circuit
Another common reason your GFCI will trip is an overloaded electrical circuit. An overloaded circuit happens when you are trying to operate too many appliances or electrical devices on the same circuit. Depending on the size of your electrical wiring, your GFCI circuit can only handle so much power.
An overloaded circuit can short circuit due to faulty or exposed electrical wiring. If two exposed wires are touching one another, it will cause the GFCI breaker or receptacle that’s powering them to trip. Unplug all the devices receiving power from the GFCI circuit breaker or outlet to determine if an overloaded circuit is a problem.
Next, plug everything back in, one device at a time, and see if the problem reoccurs. If it does, an overloaded circuit is likely the cause of your tripping GFCI.
Plugging appliances in one at a time is also an excellent way to figure out which appliance is causing the problem. It may be necessary to wire it into a separate circuit or run a new circuit entirely.
A Ground-Fault Occurrence
Ground faults are when the hot wire touches the ground wire or something grounded. Ground faults get caused by several different things, including:
- Worn out insulation
The older your electrical wiring is, the more likely it is to have worn-out wiring insulation. When the insulation wears down enough, the hot wire can contact the ground wire and cause a ground fault.
- Corroded wires
The same is true for corroded or pinched wires.
- Dust or debris
If enough conductive dust collects in the outlet box, it can become an electrical conductor and leak electricity from the hot wire to the ground.
- Loose connections
When either a hot or neutral wire connections are loose, arcing (short circuit) occurs, which will trip the GFCI. The loose wire connection can be anywhere on the branch circuit between the circuit breaker and the GFCI receptacle outlet.
If you can’t visibly see the ground wire touching the hot wire, it’s still possible that there’s enough electricity leakage to cause a tripped GFCI. You should contact a professional electrician or use an electricity leakage tester to see if this is the problem. If the insulation is worn enough, electricity can leak from the hot wire onto the ground.
- Defective appliances
A defective appliance can cause the GFCI tripping to occur. A hair dryer can be a defective appliance. Defective electric motors inside common household appliances can cause current leakage to occur, tripping a GFCI.
Nuisance Trips from a Refrigerator or Freezer
Many people like to put a refrigerator or freezer in their garage. These can often trip GFCIs that the NEC requires inside garages. If your new refrigerator keeps causing GFCI outlet trips, consider plugging it into a different outlet or installing a dedicated circuit.
Your Outlet Has Gone Bad
Like all electrical devices and components, outlets tend to go bad. On average, GFCI outlets last for 25 to 35 years, but they can last longer or shorter depending on how your licensed electrician installed them. However, a faulty GFCI outlet will trip for no reason other than the fact that it isn’t capable of handling electricity.
It’s good to test your electrical outlets out once per month by pushing the TEST button on the outlet face. If it trips, the power outlet is working as it should. Press the RESET button once you have finished your test.
Finally, it’s possible that you or an electrician didn’t install the GFCI outlet correctly. GFCI outlets have to get wired a certain way, and attaching the wrong wire to the wrong spot will cause your device to trip endlessly or not work.
How do you fix a GFCI that keeps tripping?
When a GFCI outlet keeps tripping, it’s signaling you that a problem exists and needs your attention. The only way to permanently fix a GFCI that keeps tripping is to get to the root of the problem.
Nuisance tripping occurs when a GFCI trips for no apparent reason. Getting to the source of the problem of nuisance trips is the only way to ensure that tripping doesn’t reoccur, and you should take this seriously.
Your qualified electrician will likely need to replace the GFCI outlet or breaker and ensure no loose connections exist.
Can moisture cause a GFCI to trip?
Moisture is one of the leading causes of a tripping GFCI outlet. Water can result from excess humidity, rain, or flooding.
Will a GFCI trip if it’s overloaded?
A circuit overload is when you try to power too many devices on the same circuit, and it will cause your GFCI to trip as a safety measure.
While a tripping GFCI outlet is inconvenient, it’s meant as a safety measure. In most cases, a tripping GFCI outlet is a good thing and prevents you from getting electrocuted. It’s pretty rare that these devices trip for no reason, but it can happen. Whether you perform tests yourself or hire an electrician, you must get to why your GFCI is tripping in the first place.