Ground fault circuit interrupter (GFCI) outlets are power outlets with a circuit breaker built directly into them. GFCI outlets are useful in rooms with water sources (like bathrooms and kitchens) where the chance of accidentally electrocuting yourself is a bit higher. You’ll know your outlet is GFCI-equipped if it has built-in reset and test buttons.
If your GFCI outlet has suddenly stopped working, there could be a few reasons as to why. It’s possible that the outlet itself has broken, but it’s more likely that something has tripped the outlet. There could also be a loose connection somewhere, or there may be some kind of larger power issue that is affecting your home.
In this article, we’ll show you how to troubleshoot a malfunctioning GFCI outlet, and we’ll go over other things you may want to know about GFCI outlets in the FAQ section.
How Do GFCI Outlets Work?
GFCI outlets are specifically designed to protect people from getting electrocuted. This is in contrast with fuses and circuit breakers, which are intended to prevent electrical fire damage within your home but don’t provide the same kind of personal safety protection that GFCI outlets do.
When you plug a device into a GFCI outlet, the outlet monitors how much power is being sent to this device. If something interrupts the current and the outlet detects that power is being diverted elsewhere, it almost immediately cuts power to itself.
The speed at which they operate is the main thing that differentiates a GFCI outlet from a fuse. If a GFCI outlet detects a discrepancy in the current, it can shut itself off in about 1/30 of a second.
When a person is exposed to about 10 milliamps of current, their muscles tense up uncontrollably. This means that if they’re holding the thing that is giving them a shock, they will be physically incapable of letting go of it. Being exposed to a 10 milliamp current for longer than just two seconds can be fatal.
Fortunately, GFCI outlets can detect differences in current that are as small as 4 or 5 milliamps, and shut themselves off before any physical harm is done. Compare that to fuses which take a few seconds to burn out and it’s obvious that GFCI outlets are far superior in terms of protecting you from electrocution.
What Makes a GFCI Outlet Trip?
We know that GFCI outlets shut themselves off when they detect that the current flowing through them has been interrupted, but what can cause this to happen? There are a few situations that can lead to this.
As their name suggests, GFCI outlets can be tripped by a ground fault. Put simply, a ground fault occurs when a live wire in an appliance comes into contact with another part of the appliance that is grounded. When this happens, the entire appliance becomes an electrical hazard. Worn-out insulation on the live wire is usually the cause of this.
The outlet may also trip if moisture makes its way into the outlet box. This is more likely to happen if your outlet is located outside, but it can also happen to an indoor outlet if you live in an area with a humid climate.
The outlet can trip if the circuit becomes overloaded, which can happen if you connect a broken appliance to the outlet. If the current flowing through the circuit is more than what the circuit can handle, the outlet will shut itself off.
It’s also possible that there’s an electrical fault within your home, which can happen if the wiring wasn’t done correctly. If your GFCI outlet keeps repeatedly tripping, it could be a sign of an electrical fault.
Lastly, it’s also possible that the outlet itself has gone bad. GFCI outlets generally last for about 5-10 years, after which the circuitry inside starts to wear out. When this happens, the outlet will likely have to be replaced.
How to Troubleshoot a GFCI Outlet
If your GFCI outlet suddenly stops working, you may not have any idea as to what the cause of this problem might be. Fortunately, troubleshooting a GFCI outlet is usually pretty easy and doesn’t usually require any kind of electrical knowledge or specialized tools.
Here’s what you should do if you’re trying to determine whether your GFCI outlet is malfunctioning, and if so, what the cause of the problem is:
1. Inspect Your Circuit Breakers/Fuses
Odds are your home has circuit breakers to protect its wiring, but if it’s an older home then it may have fuses instead. We’ll go over how to check both circuit breakers and fuses in this section.
To check your circuit breakers, find the circuit breaker box in your home and check it out to see if any of the breakers have been tripped. Note the positions of the breaker switches, and look for any that aren’t lined up with the others; if you see this, it means the breaker for that switch has been tripped.
To reset a tripped breaker, flip the breaker switch to its “off” position and then back again to its “on” position. If the switch immediately flips back to its tripped position, however, it means that there’s a problem with something connected to that circuit or the wiring within that circuit.
Fuses, on the other hand, can’t be reset and need to be replaced if they burn out. You can spot a dead fuse by looking through the glass cover at the filament inside; if the filament is broken or the glass looks charred, you’ve found your burnt-out fuse.
2. Check Your GFCI Outlets and Other Connected Outlets
If you’ve determined that a tripped breaker or a blown fuse isn’t the problem, you should check your outlets themselves to see if they are what’s causing the issue. Since the outlets in your home should be wired in parallel, a tripped outlet can easily cause multiple connected outlets to stop working as well.
To test your other outlets, you can use a voltage tester, or just plug an appliance like a lamp into the outlet and see if it works. If you discover any dead outlets, make sure to unplug any appliances from them.
Image source: The Spruce
You should be able to tell if other outlets are connected to a GFCI outlet thanks to the label. If an outlet is indeed receiving GFCI protection, there should be a label on the outlet stating this.
Once you’ve located the GFCI outlets in your home, individually test and reset them and see if that solves your problem. If this fails to reset the GFCI, the outlet itself could be bad, or you may have a loose electrical connection somewhere.
3. Check Your Electrical Connections
If nothing else works, you might want to try seeing if there’s a loose connection leading to the GFCI outlet. Luckily, this is pretty easy in most cases.
Start by turning off the main breaker for the house, and then unscrew the outlet you want to look at from the wall. There may be a loose terminal screw, a loose stab-in connection, or a wire connector with one or more loose wires.
If you do discover a loose connection, you should probably have the outlet replaced. Loose connections create a lot of heat, which can end up damaging the outlet. If you want to avoid the possibility of future problems from the outlet, replacing it is your best bet.
Now, let’s quickly go over a few of the common questions that people tend to have about GFCI outlets that can’t be reset.
Why won’t my GFCI outlet reset?
If your GFCI outlet won’t reset, it’s likely that there is a ground fault somewhere along the circuit that the outlet is connected to. It’s also possible that the outlet itself isn’t receiving power. In some instances, the GFCI itself can break, but this is pretty rare and is usually the result of another issue anyways.
Why won’t my GFCI outlet reset after it rains?
If your GFCI outlet gets tripped during or after a rainstorm and can’t be reset afterwards, it’s likely that moisture has gotten inside the outlet. This is obviously far more likely to happen with a GFCI outlet that is outside.
The outlet should dry out on its own given enough time, but if you want to speed up the process you can disconnect the outlet from its power supply, open the outlet up, and use a hairdryer to get rid of any water inside. You may also want to seal the outer edges of the outlet with silicone to prevent water from getting inside in the future.
My GFCI outlet won’t reset and the red light is on, what is the problem?
Some GFCI outlets come with status indicator lights to let you know if there’s a problem. A green light means everything is fine, a blank light means the outlet has been tripped and needs to be reset, and a red light means that something serious is up that requires your attention.
If your GFCI outlet can’t be reset and you see either a solid or a blinking red light, it means there’s a most likely unfixable problem with the outlet. A red light generally means that the outlet will have to be replaced.
Why won’t the GFCI outlet on my generator reset?
If the GFCI outlet on your generator won’t reset, it means that there’s probably a ground fault within the generator that will need to be fixed first.