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Oh No! My GFI Outlet isn’t working! What do I do?

gfi electrical outlets not working

So, you’re right in the middle of blow-drying your hair when your dryer just dies during mid-dry. You stop, flip some switches and look around confused as to what could be the problem. Oh hey, you have a GFI Outlet so you breathe a sigh of relief and push your reset button on the outlet. But, no, this doesn’t restore your blow-drying session and you are still left with wet hair and no power! What could be the issue?

What are GFI Outlets?

GFIs, or Ground Fault Interrupters, are great electrical outlets that protects one from receiving a deadly electrical shock from faults in common electrical devices within our homes. These outlets compare the currents on both sides of the outlet and if there is a difference in current the device will shut off power to the device.

Since 1973 The National Electric Code requires these outlets to be installed in such areas as bathrooms, garages, accessory buildings, exterior receptacles, crawl spaces, kitchens, laundries, wet bars, utility rooms, boat houses and any other moisture rich environments.

gfi outlet

GFI Outlets are easily distinguishable having the normal two plug outlets along with two buttons that say “Test”(black button) and “Reset”(red button). Sometimes they will also have lights as well.

Why won’t my GFI Outlet work?

One of our experts, an electrician in Collingswood, NJSullivan Electric Company LLC says “When GFIs stop working it is often an indication that there is a discrepancy in the current somewhere down the line”. All the outlets downstream of the GFI will cease to work because the GFI Outlet will cut all power to them until the current flow is corrected.

If there is a device or outlet that is faulting to ground the GFI will not reset until the situation is fixed. This is not necessarily a bad thing, GFIs can help you locate and fix an electrical problem you might not otherwise knew you had.

How do I fix my GFI Outlet?

So, what can you do? Luckily there are steps you can take to try to diagnose the problem. It is rare that a GFI Outlet turns out to be faulty, there is most likely a direct cause for its failure. The most common cause of GFI failure is a current change downstream or a tripped circuit upstream from the unit. Tracing your stream up and down from your unit should help you solve the reason for your unit failure.

Unplug all devices from the outlets and try to reset your GFI, if this corrects the problem you have a faulty appliance wiring. Plug the units back in one at a time to figure out which device is faulty. If this doesn’t fix your problem start checking your outlet receptacles to make sure there are no grounded wires or broken or wet boxes. Repair and replace any problems you found.

Following is a troubleshooting chart (courtesy of The Circuit Detective) to help diagnose a GFI failure:

GFI Symptom
Cause: Pushing Test doesn’t pop Reset out Reset won’t stay in when pushed Reset is out but things plugged in work Reset is in but things plugged in won’t work Reset pops out when something is turned on
Ground-fault downstream Yes Yes
Line and Load reversed Since 2003 Yes Yes
Other miswiring of GFI Yes Yes
120 volts not reaching GFI Yes Since 2003 Yes
Button not pushed in well enough Yes Yes
Defective GFI Yes Rare Rare Yes

GFI Outlets can be touchy devices. GFIs manufactured from 2003 forward will not let you reset it if it’s not installed correctly. They come new in a “tripped” state and cannot be reset until they are installed correctly. For instructions on how to properly install a GFI outlet visit the DIY Network.

There are also situations when a home has been renovated or added onto, and unnecessary GFI Outlets have been added to your home. When new units are added older units can trip, disabling the newer downstream outlets, including any GFI Outlets.

I can’t find my GFI Outlet!

Sometimes it can be difficult finding the source of the tripped GFI Outlet. Since a tripped unit will cut power to all outlets downstream of it, you may have to go searching for a hidden outlet. Even though some areas are supposed to be protected the GFI Outlet protecting those areas may be put somewhere not expected, like a hallway closet or in the garage. It is a good idea to thoroughly search your home and learning where all your GFI Outlets are located.

What is “tripping”?

GFI Outlets also have what’s called a “tripping” condition. There is a difference between a unit tripping and being faulty. When a unit’s button is tripped you will hear clicking and loss of power. When you hit the Reset button will catch for a second and make a sound.

A GFI cannot tell the difference between a device, object or human body. It is super sensitive to any current changes and will trip off at the slightest change. This is generally fixed by pushing the Reset button.

What is the “Test” button for?

Another minor reason that a GFI Outlet may fail is because the Test button has been pushed. This may be by accident or by an unwitting visitor, or perhaps children playing. In any case, this can also be resolved by pushing in the Reset button. It is a good idea though to initiate a monthly test by pressing the Test button and making sure the Rest button pops out and power is cut to the unit.

GFI Outlet failure can be confusing, but there is usually an easy solution to the problem. Since unit failures are rare, a little investigative work should present a solution. Get acquainted with your home’s electrical wiring setup will save you time and money when you encounter your next outlet failure.