GFCI Outlet Torture

There’s this exercise machine commercial which has actors ask “Do you want some more?” This is the usual exhortation letting you know more pain and torture is needed if you really want to get in shape.

Well, replacing Ground Fault Circuit Interrupter (GFCI) outlets is one way you can get more torture—but only if you really want it.

I’ve replaced GFCI outlets before in our house, but yesterday I had to replace a few more. I got charley horses in places I didn’t know I had. It also took a lot more time. It took me several hours to replace just 3 of them.

You have to know something—I’m not a natural handyman. I’m also not really a trainable handyman. I’m terminally resistant to handyman stuff of any kind.

I didn’t find out the next fact I’m going to mention until after I installed the GFCIs, but since 2015, so-called Self-Test GFCIs are available—which is what Sena bought but didn’t know it. They automatically monitor the GFCI periodically. Ours self-test every 3 seconds, which sounds impressive, until you hear the rest of the story.

I found the International Association of Electrical Inspectors (IAEI) blog post which has an interesting post about Self-Test GFCIs. First, they describe why the Self-Test GFCI was made, which is that consumers rarely, if ever, tested them once a month as recommended to ensure they work.

New requirements now ensure that power denial to the GFCI and any downstream connected devices (which is what the term LOAD refers to on the GFCI outlet) when the GFCI wears out. But there’s a special exception for the self-test:

The general requirement in the event of a test failure during the auto monitoring also requires “power denial”. However, there is a special exception for two specific failure modes that allows an audible or visual indication as an alternative. These failure modes open the trip solenoid and open the solenoid driver component and make it impossible for the device to trip with these components open. The improved functionality of the GFCI resulting from the auto monitoring will provide enhanced protection for the consumer against electrical shock hazards.

The auto monitoring or self-test feature periodically tests the electronics from the sensing toroid to the trip solenoid driver and will pick up a failure of the majority of components in the GFCI.  It cannot, however, test the trip solenoid driver, the trip solenoid itself or the contacts to see if they are welded. Testing those components can only be done by actually making the GFCI trip. It is not practical to have GFCIs randomly tripping off during self-test cycles. So, the manual test button is still provided and it should still be used periodically as recommended. The presence of the self-test function is not allowed to affect the tripping of the device within the specified trip time requirements if an actual ground fault occurs.

OK, two things to notice here. One is that if you have the self-test model which has a visual indicator (the red test light). Our GFCI indicator light would flash for this. That means you can’t plug a big night light in it, which would block your view of the test light.

The other thing to note is that you still have to periodically manually check it—even if it automatically self-tests every 3 seconds. That’s because if the GFCI actually did self-test the real-life relevant components, your hair dryer, radio, lava light or whatever would stop working at awkward moments.

Anyway, I had a heck of a time getting the GFCI wires out from under the terminals. The procedure is not markedly different from changing an ordinary electrical outlet. You just have to make sure you get the right wires to the right terminals for LINE (in from the circuit breaker) and LOAD (out to the lava light). Changes in the design and explicit instructions are included with the product.

The hot wires are usually black (which go to the brass terminals), the white wires are usually white (which go to the silver terminals), and the ground wire is usually an orange unjacketed cooper wire. There can be as many as 4-6 wires.

Should an ordinary homeowner or an electrician replace a GFCI outlet? In fact, the included instruction sheet starts off with just this question, “Should you install it?” And yes, the word “you” is underlined. You only see it after you bought the product in the hardware store and open the package.

This does not bolster my confidence, which is already low to nonexistent.

The instructions say that you should make sure that you:

  • Understand basic wiring principles and techniques.
  • Can interpret wiring diagrams.
  • Have circuit wiring experience.
  • Are prepared to take a few minutes to test your work, making sure that you have wired the GFCI receptacle correctly.
  • Have updated your life insurance policy and your last will and testament (just kidding).

I’m not going to mention that the first 4 bullet points don’t count for ordinary consumers who are trying to save the cost of hiring an electrician to do the job for you. According to the Costimates website, this can range from $140-$310. The cost of an intensive care unit admission, funeral, etc., don’t appear anywhere on this site.

But the cost of a GFCI unit is about $20. Any questions?

I kept the instructions on the counter. I made sure I had enough lighting. We have under cabinet lighting on a separate circuit from the outlets. I shut off the relevant circuit breakers.

THESE ARE NOT INSTRUCTIONS. THIS ENTIRE POST IS AN ANECDOTE. YOU SHOULD FOLLOW THE INSTRUCTIONS INCLUDED IN THE PACKAGE OR HAVE A CUP OF COFFEE WHILE WATCHING THE ELECTRICIAN DO THE WORK (HAVE YOUR CHECKBOOK OR CREDIT CARD HANDY).

When I took the face plate off and pulled out the receptacle, I notice that most of the wires had a white coating, which a lot of wires seem to have. It’s uneven and it might be drywall spray? I can always tell which wires are white, black and ground. The ground wire is on the bottom of the receptacle, secured with a green terminal.

The hardest part was freeing the old copper posts from under the terminals and getting the news ones on. I twisted myself into a pretzel as I wrestled with the job. I was right next to the toggle switch for the overhead light and jumped every time I accidentally switched it off—which was several times.  I could have done without intermittent sudden flashes.

I followed the instructions closely, especially for testing my work. They worked. I started the job of replacing just 3 receptables about mid-morning. I finished at 2:00 PM. The average estimated time for this chore is about 15 minutes per GFCI outlet. I was sore in places I didn’t know I had.

But I saved hundreds of dollars doing it myself. Would I do it again?

Give me a little time to think it over. And remind me; how often should I manually test these things which automatically test themselves every 3 seconds?

Author: James Amos

I'm a retired consult-liaison psychiatrist. I navigated the path in a phased retirement program through the hospital where I was employed. I was fully retired as of June 30, 2020. This blog chronicles my journey.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: