How to Test AFCI/GFCI Circuits


breaker test

AFCI and GFCI protection devices were first introduced a few decades ago. And ever since then they have been preventing countless electrical hazards, injuries, and shocks every single day.

They have saved many lives and homes. This is why they are required by the National Electrical Code (NEC) in almost every single place in our homes.

And this is what is making them one of the most important things that every home inspector will check. I have always striven to have my clients well-informed about what they can expect and need to know when it comes to every aspect of their new home.

This holds true when it comes down to the AFCI and GFCI protection.

One of the most important things is to know how to test the AFCI and GFCI circuits. AFCI and GFCI circuits can be tested by using the “TEST” and “RESET” buttons located on them. Also, you can test the circuits by using AFCI and GFCI testers – devices that are designed to test and assess the condition of the wiring and the condition of the outlets.

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To make sure they are working as intended, they need to be regularly inspected and tested. A simple thing like this will ensure that they continue to work as intended and provide you with much-needed safety.

How Does the GFCI Test Button Works?

How Do GFCIs Work?

Ground fault circuit interrupters (GFCI) are devices that protect against electrical shocks.

GFCI outlets are equipped with a very sensitive device that monitors the electrical current that flows to and fro the electrical equipment that has been plugged into the outlet.

Then the GFCI is looking for any signs of a ground fault occurring. An imbalance or a mismatch of the electrical current going to the electrical device with the current returning back may indicate that there is a possible ground fault.

If there is as small as a 0.004 to 0.005 amp of electrical mismatch the GFCI will cut out the power to that receptacle in as little time as 1/13 of a second.

These numbers may seem like they are really small, but electrical current can be extremely dangerous.

Just as a comparison – an electrical current of 0.1 to 0.2 amps can kill in as little as 2 seconds. This is one of these cases where literally every second counts.

How Do the GFCI Buttons Work?

One of the easiest ways to recognize an outlet that has a GFCI protection is by the two buttons that are found in the middle of the receptacle between the two plugs.

There will be one “TEST” button and one “RESET” button.

These buttons have a specific purpose. They are used to reset a tripped outlet or test if the outlet actually works as intended.

  • The “RESET” button works by tripping the outlet. The reason behind this is to check if the outlet will work in the presence of a ground fault.
  • The “TEST” button works by resetting the outlet, thus making it work again after being once reset or tripped.

The electrical Code requires a properly installed and functioning GFCI protection in almost all areas of the house. A malfunctioning or an outlet that has gone bad is a latent health hazard and fire risk and should be replaced immediately.

Hence why every GFCI receptacle needs to be tested at least once every month. By examining the outlets periodically, you will be able to find out if there is a problem with your outlet, and you will be able to take appropriate measures if needed.

How Does the Testing of a GFCI Work?

You can test your GFCI outlets in a few very easy and simple steps that do not require any equipment.

  • First, start by unplugging any electrical devices that are plugged in the receptacle. This is especially important if you have a computer or a laptop. Unplugging all devices will guarantee that they do not get damaged during the testing.
  • Press the “TEST” button. What the “TEST” button does is it simulates a ground fault. Don’t worry as this is entirely safe. This means that when you press the “TEST” button, the outlet will trip and you should be able to hear a clicking sound signifying that the outlet has tripped.
  • To test that receptacle plug in a nightstand lamp – it should not turn on and after that unplug it.
  • Then press the “RESET” button. This will reset the outlet, and it should be working now. Do a quick test with the lamp again. It should turn on.

How GFCI Tester Works?

outlet tester

There is also another way to test and find out if a GFCI outlet is working correctly.

This is by using a GFCI tester, which is an incredibly useful tool for anyone that wants to do a quick check-up which will take literally a few seconds.

In addition, the tester will also provide you with valuable information about the condition of your wiring, potentially discovering any bad wiring.

So how does a GFCI tester work?

Take the GFCI tester and plug it into the socket.

After that, you will notice that some of the lights located on the GFCI tester will light up.

Different combinations of the lights will light up depending on the condition of your GFCI and its wiring.

There usually are several different things a GFCI tester can show you:

  • If the wiring is correct and the GFCI works as intended.
  • It will show if the hot and neutral are reversed.
  • It will show if the hot and ground are reversed.
  • If the hot wire is not connected correctly.
  • If the neutral is not connected correctly.
  • If the ground is not connected properly.

These are all different conditions and problems that can lead to potential electrical and fire hazards.

You will not be able to know if everything with the wiring is okay by simply pressing the buttons on the GFCI outlet. And a GFCI tester can help you in discovering these somewhat hidden problems with ease.

You will also find on the GFCI tester a button which you can use to test the outlet. It functions the same way the “TEST” button on the receptacle itself works. By pressing the button on the tester, this will immediately trip the outlet.

All you need to do now to make the outlet work again is press the “RESET” button.

GFCI Test Button Will Not Trip

So far, we have gone through what should typically happen when you press the “TEST” button.

However, what does it mean if after pressing the “TEST” button the outlet does not trip?

Okay, let’s take a step back and see what happens here.

  • First, what we now know is that the “TEST” button doesn’t trip the outlet.
  • Second, there is probably still electricity flowing in the outlet.
  • And third, this means that the outlet will not stop the electricity in the case of an actual ground fault occurring. So the outlet is not offering any safety.

If the “TEST” button doesn’t trip, this means that the GFCI may have gone bad and needs to be inspected as soon as possible. GFCI outlets can last a really long time, but depending on the environment and the natural wear and tear, they may fail sooner than expected.

GFCI Will Not Trip with Tester

Just like we have found out earlier, there are some cases where the GFCI outlet may not trip when the “TEST” button is pressed.

In fact, the same thing can happen while using a GFCI tester. There are a few things that may cause this.

  • First, this can happen when a GFCI has been wired backwards. In which case you can check if the lights on the GFCI tester are confirming that.
  • Secondly, the GFCI outlet may have an open ground, which means that the ground is either not connected or there is no ground at all. In this case, the “TEST” button on the outlet will cause the outlet to trip, but the “TEST” button on the tester will not. Ungrounded outlets are required by Code to be always labeled as such.
  • And last but not least, the GFCI outlet may simply have gone bad, in which case it needs to be replaced as soon as possible to prevent any potential hazards.

How the AFCI Test Button Works?

AFCI is a protection device that can be found installed in some outlets. Its primary purpose is to protect against electrical fires.

AFCI and a GFCI are offering different kinds of protection. There are also different requirements where both of these need to be installed according to the Code. In some instances, both of them may be required.

How Does an AFCI Work?

Arc fault circuit interrupter (AFCI) works by continually monitoring the electrical circuit. The AFCI is looking for any signs of an electrical arc.

Electrical arcs are extremely dangerous as they can start an electrical fire that can cause high amounts of property damage and can be lethal.

An arc fault happens when the electrical current passes between two metal conductors. (For example, between two different wires that have had their insulation compromised.) This jump or arc releases high amounts of heat that can burn and melt anything in close proximity, thus causing an electrical fire to start.

How AFCI Buttons Work

AFCI outlets look very similar to how GFCI outlets look. They too have a “TEST” and a “RESET” buttons on them. However, they should be labeled as an AFCI outlet.

  • The “TEST” button works by manually creating an arc fault that should cause the outlet to trip. That way, you will know that the outlet will work as intended.
  • The “RESET” button works by resetting the outlet back, after being tripped.

Again similarly to the GFCI outlets, the Code requires that they are tested each month. This is an essential part of making sure the outlets are working and providing the necessary safety.

How to Test an AFCI?

There are a few steps that you need to take to test and check if the AFCI outlet works as intended.

  • First, start by unplugging any electrical gadgets and appliances that are plugged in the outlet as the testing may potentially damage more sensitive equipment like the hard-disk of a personal computer.
  • Press the “TEST” button. The way the “TEST” button on the AFCI outlet works is by creating an arc fault that will cause the outlet to trip immediately. By pressing the button, you will force the outlet to trip, and you will be able to hear the clicking sound. When that happens, the outlet should be tripped and without any power.
  • Use a desk lamp to test if there is any power in the outlet. The lamp should not turn on after that, unplug the lamp.
  • Now press the “RESET” button in order to switch the outlet back on.
  • Plug in the lamp again, and it should light up.

AFCI Will Not Trip with Tester

Another way to test your AFCI outlets is by using an AFCI tester.

As we have seen a GFCI tester is a really convenient device. It also provides a lot of feedback on the condition of the wiring as well. The device is also relatively cheap and quick and easy to use. All these features are making it widely used.

How Does an AFCI Tester Work?

AFCI testers, on the other hand, are not as popular.

To simulate an arc fault, it needs to recreate the distinct waveform of an arc fault. This is making the tester a lot bulkier in size. On top of that, it is more expensive and not just that, but its effectiveness is questionable, too.

On the other hand, an AFCI tester can be used to test individual outlets down the circuit quickly. It can also check for nuisance tripping and even incorporate the features of the GFCI tester.

What Happens If the Tester Does Not Trip the Outlet?

In order to better understand the difference, we need to make a specific distinction:

  • When you press the “TEST” button on the outlet, this will create a small arc, which means that this is the most reliable way to test the outlet.
  • In comparison, an AFCI tester simulates the wavelengths of an arc. This means it doesn’t create an actual arc. And this is the main reason why these testers are not entirely reliable.

If the tester doesn’t trip the outlet, there could be a few reasons for that:

  • An AFCI tester may just not be able to trip a fully functioning AFCI outlet. In this case, the button on the outlet needs to be used to confirm whether or not the outlet works.
  • The AFCI outlet may have gone bad. In this case, make sure to replace the outlet with a new working unit as soon as possible.

GFCI and AFCI breakers

Both GFCI and AFCI protection can be provided not just by outlets but by using an electrical breaker that has a GFCI or AFCI devices installed on it.

This kind of breakers are useful when you need to provide both types of protection to certain electrical circuits in the different areas of the house.

How to Reset a GFCI Breaker?

It is recommended to test your GFCI breakers periodically every month the same way you also need to check your GFCI outlets.

A GFCI breaker is a lot similar to the GFCI outlets in terms of how it works. The breaker too has a “TEST” button on it that is used to trip it manually.

If you want to test the electrical breaker, follow the same steps that are recommended when testing the GFCI outlets.

There will be one difference, though. There will be no “RESET” button on the breaker.

So how do you reset the GFCI breaker after it has been once tripped?

It is very easy. The way you reset a GFCI breaker is by turning back on the switch that you will find on the breaker, just like you would switch back on a regular electrical breaker.

How to Reset an AFCI Breaker?

Similarly to the GFCI breakers, an AFCI breaker will too have a “TEST” button on it which can be used for the periodic testing of the breaker.

The same rule applies here as well – the AFCI breaker needs to be tested at least once every month. All you have to do is follow the same steps that apply to the testing of an AFCI outlet.

When you push the “TEST” button, the breaker will trip, and you should hear a clicking sound. After which, there should be no power to the electrical circuit that is associated with that particular breaker.

To reset an AFCI breaker, all you need to do is turn the switch located on the breaker back to the ON position the same way you would do with a typical electrical breaker.

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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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