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 day.

They have saved many lives and homes, which is why the National Electrical Code (NEC) has expanded the requirements to nearly every room.

AFCI and GFCI protection are critical safety items that home inspectors will examine. I have always striven to have my clients well-informed about what they can expect and need to know regarding every aspect of their new home.

You can test AFCI and GFCI circuits using the “TEST” button on the outlet or breaker. A properly functioning “TEST” will trip and cut power to the circuit. The GFCI “RESET” button restores power to the outlet. ON GFCI or AFCI breakers, slide the breaker lever to the “OFF” position and then to the “ON” position. You can also test the circuits using AFCI and GFCI testers – devices designed to simulate conditions to cause the circuit to trip.

They need to be regularly inspected and tested to ensure they are working as intended. A simple thing like this will ensure that GFCI/AFCI circuits continue to work as intended and provide you with much-needed safety.

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How Does the GFCI Test Button Works?

How Do GFCIs Work?

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

GFCI outlets have a sensor that monitors the electrical current flowing between the electrical equipment and the outlet.

Then the GFCI looks 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 may indicate a possible ground fault.

An electrical imbalance of 0.004 to 0.005 amp can cause the GFCI to trip, cutting power to that receptacle in as little as 1/13 of a second.

These numbers may seem tiny, but electrical current can be hazardous.

Just as a comparison – an electrical current of 0.1 to 0.2 amps can kill in as little as 2 seconds.

How Do the GFCI Buttons Work?

One of the easiest ways to recognize an outlet with a GFCI protection is the two buttons between the two plugs in the middle of the receptacle.

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 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 GFCI protection in wet areas of the house. A malfunctioning or bad GFCI is hazardous and needs replacement.

Hence why every GFCI receptacle needs testing 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 straightforward steps that do not require equipment.

  • First, start by unplugging any electrical devices 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 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

Another way is to test and determine if a GFCI outlet is working correctly.

A GFCI tester is a handy tool for anyone who wants to check electrical outlets.

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 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 know if everything with the wiring is okay by simply pressing the buttons on the GFCI outlet. And a GFCI tester can help you quickly discover these somewhat hidden problems.

You will also find on the GFCI tester a button that 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, it will immediately trip the outlet.

All you need to do 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 the outlet does not trip after pressing the “TEST” button?

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, the GFCI is bad and needs replacing. GFCI outlets can last 15 to 20 years, but they may fail sooner than expected depending on the environment and the natural wear and tear.

GFCI Will Not Trip with Tester

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

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, meaning that the ground is either not connected or there is no ground. 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 have gone bad, which needs to be replaced as soon as possible to prevent any potential hazards.

How does the AFCI Test Button Work?

AFCI is a protection device that monitors electrical arcs. Its primary purpose is to protect against electrical fires.

AFCI and a GFCI offer different kinds of protection. There are also different requirements for both according to NEC guidelines. In some instances, both AFCI and GFCI are a requirement.

How Does an AFCI Work?

Arc fault circuit interrupter (AFCI) continually monitors the electrical circuit for any signs of an electrical arc.

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

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

How AFCI Buttons Work

AFCI outlets look very similar to how GFCI outlets look. They, too, have “TEST” and a “RESET” buttons on them.

  • 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, manufacturers recommend testing each month to ensure the circuits are working and providing the necessary safety.

How to Test an AFCI?

You need to take a few steps to test and check if the AFCI outlet works as intended.

  • First, start by unplugging any electrical gadgets and appliances 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 “TEST” button on the AFCI outlet works 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 to switch the outlet back on.
  • Plug in the lamp again, and it should light up.

I use the Klein Tools AFCI/GFCI tester daily in my inspection business. It’s available at Amazon. You can see a picture of it in use below. I like it because it tests both AFCI and GFCI using just one tester instead of several.

klein afci tester 2

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 convenient device. It also provides a lot of feedback on the condition of the wiring. 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. AFCI testers are bulkier in size and more expensive.

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

The easiest way to test an AFCI circuit is to trip the AFCI breaker and use a small outlet tester to check each outlet in the room to confirm the power is off. Then turn the AFCI breaker back on and retest the outlets to confirm power. Then move on to the next room.

What Happens If the Tester Does Not Trip the Outlet?

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 be unable 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, replace the outlet with a new working outlet as soon as possible.

GFCI and AFCI breakers

GFCI and AFCI outlets and breakers are available. CAFCI breakers protect from “all faults” and meet the requirements where both AFCI and GFCI are needed.

These kinds of breakers are helpful when you need to provide both types of protection to specific electrical circuits in the different areas of the house.

How to Reset a GFCI Breaker?

We recommend testing your GFCI breakers periodically every month the same way you also need to check your GFCI outlets.

A GFCI breaker is similar to the GFCI outlets in its work. The breaker, too, has a “TEST” button on it used to trip it manually.

If you want to test the electrical breaker, follow the same recommended steps 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 tripping it?

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

How to Reset an AFCI Breaker?

Like the GFCI breakers, an AFCI breaker will also have a “TEST” button, which needs periodic testing.

The same rule also applies here – the AFCI breaker needs testing every month. All you have to do is follow the same steps to test 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 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.

Did you know GFCI can also be used to protect ungrounded outlets in a house? If you’re considering installing AFCI or GFCI breakers inside an older box, you may need an electrical panel replacement first.

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Get FREE estimates from licensed electricians in your area today. Whether you need to replace an outlet, hang a ceiling fan, a new electrical panel, or repair wiring, We Can Help!

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Hubert Miles | Licensed Home Inspector, CMI, CPI

Hubert Miles is a licensed home inspector (RBI# 2556) with more than two decades of experience in inspection and construction. Since 2008, he has been serving South Carolina through his company, Patriot Home Inspections LLC. As a Certified Master Inspector, Hubert is dedicated to providing his expertise in home inspections, repairs, maintenance, and DIY projects.