Discover Signs of Dysfunctional GFCI Outlets


Functional GFCI Outlet

Ed Lawton, the inspector at B to B Home Inspections, shall inspect the electrical components of the home. At the time of this part of the inspection, the inspector will inspect a representative number of switches, lighting fixtures and receptacles.  Ed will inspect all ground-fault circuit interrupter (GFCI) receptacles and circuit breakers observed and deemed to be GFCIs using a GFCI tester, where possible.

Often times within the report, buyers will find notations that the GFCI devices:

  • were not properly installed
  • did not operate properly
  • evidence of arcing or excessive heat,
  • the receptacle was not grounded
  • were not secured to the wall.

At this point, it is indicated that the buyer contact a qualified person for repair, specifically, a qualified electrician.

What is GFCI Exactly?

A ground fault circuit interrupter (GFCI) is a device that shuts off an electric power circuit when it detects that current is flowing along an unintended path, such as through water or a person.  These specific outlets are also referred to as GFI and the two terms are used interchangeably.

GFCI’s or GFI’s are required to be installed on outlets that are within 6 feet of water.  Consider bathrooms, kitchens and laundry areas as common locations where a GFI receptacle should be installed.

Inspecting GFI’s

During the home inspection, Ed tests each outlet with a GFCI Outlet Tester.    As indicated in the image above, the two red lights on the right indicates that this GFCI receptacle is functioning as it should.  If it was not functional, the lights would not go on or the left light would light up red.  In this picture, you will note that the plate is not adequately secured to the wall.  This would be flagged on the home inspection report.

If Ed’s notices that a standard outlet is within 6 feet of water, he will note this on the inspection report and recommend a qualified electrician replace the standard outlet with a GFI outlet.

To replace a regular outlet with a GFI outlet, you can secure a GFCI Outlet Receptacle at an average price of $10-20 in a variety of colors to match your decor.

Sometimes, the outlets that should be GFI are all on a dedicated GFI circuit in the panel box.  In one recent inspection, Ed noted 6 outlets on a dedicated circuit with a gfi breaker in the panel box.  This is acceptable.  However, every time this circuit trips, you have to reset it at the panel box as opposed to resetting it right at the outlet.

Switching Outlets

Legally, homeowners can replace their own electrical outlets.  However, Ed Lawton does advise that a qualified electrician be called in to ensure that all receptacles are installed at optimal safety.

If you are brave enough to do it yourself, below you will discover the steps to take.

You will need the following tools:

circuit tester
screwdriver set with rubber handle

You will need the following materials:

GFCI outlet
masking tape

1. Most Important Step! Turn Off the Power

Turn off the power to the circuit at the circuit breaker panel box.  To be extra safe and ensure no one resets the breaker while you are working on it, you might wish to place a strip of tape across the box with “Do not touch” written upon it.   Let family members know that you will be changing out the outlets.

2. Remove the Cover Plate

Use a circuit tester to make sure the power to the outlet is indeed turned off.

Remove the screws holding the cover plate and take the plate off.  Then test the outlet again with the circuit tester.  Be sure to to use the tester to probe all around the box to make sure there’s no “juice” at all.

3. Remove the Wires

Remove the mounting screw and take the outlet from the wall.

Remove the wires from the outlet in the following order:

Starting with the black (hot) wire, loosen the screw that holds it by turning it counterclockwise.

Then do the same to remove the white (neutral) wire and lastly, the ground wire.

4. Strip the Neutral and Ground Wires

Straighten out the neutral and ground wires and strip about 1/2″ from the end of each.

Use linesman’s pliers to strip the white and ground wires.  Watch the video demonstration below.

Leave the black hot wire as is.

5. Attach the GFCI

To attach the GFCI, start with the ground wire. Attach it to the green screw by forming a hook on the end of the wire, hooking it around the screw and tightening it, turning the screw clockwise.  Remember “Ground to Green”.

6. Attach the Neutral Wire

Note that the GFCI receptacle has two holes in the back.  This is referred to as a stab-in receptacle.

Starting with the neutral wire, push the end of it into the hole on the side with the silver screw. Tighten the screw to hold the wire.

Repeat with the black hot wire, attaching it through the hole on the side with the brass-colored screw. Tighten the screw.  To remember – “Black to Brass”.

7. Push the Wires Back Into the Box, and Replace the Cover

Gently push the wires back into the box.  Next, line up the mounting screw with the corresponding hole and tighten.
Replace the cover plate.  This is a good time to ensure that your cover plate is not loose or crooked.

To test the unit (which should be done periodically), plug in an appliance such as a hair dryer and turn it on. While it’s running, press the test button on the GFCI receptacle. The dryer should stop. Once you’ve ascertained that the GFCI is working correctly, unplug the dryer and press the reset button.

Excellent Video with Step by Step Visuals

Remember: If you have any questions or fears about working with electricity, call a licensed electrician. This type of work can be very dangerous, and there’s no use risking your life just to save a little money.