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.


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?

Update on Attic Weirdness

This is an update on the attic, the hatch for which is in our garage ceiling. We haven’t heard any knocking noises lately.

Yesterday, the HVAC guys came to reattach the duct which somehow separated from the roof vent. They showed up at 7:00 a.m. and were pretty much done in 20 minutes. They charged close to $300, which Sena is still complaining about.

Now we’re wondering how the two repairmen fixed it without dragging another tall ladder into the attic. The picture suggests that reattaching the duct and the roof vent involved either levitation or aliens—possibly both.

The roof vent looks like it’s above the floor of the attic by about 12 feet. We couldn’t see exactly how it was done because we didn’t climb up the repairmen’s ladder. The view was limited by angle of the hatchway and the darkness.

I checked the before and after pictures (the after picture was taken by one of the repairmen) of the duct repair job. Sometimes paranormal images take a while to develop, a phenomenon well described by goofball UFO researchers high on intergalactic substances dropped by intoxicated aliens careening in out-of-control, souped up space ships blundering through one of the many wormhole vortices commonly located near fast food joints.

Sure enough, aliens were clearly involved in vandalizing the duct which they were too drunk to realize is not another wormhole but the connection between the kitchen exhaust hood and the roof vent. They looked dazed and confused.

After the repair, it sure looks like an alien was involved in climbing up the wall studs to reattach the high end of the duct. He’s obviously sneaking back down the wall. It looks like levitation is the key.

The big question is how would this creature know the city code covering proper ventilation duct installation? And another question is how did it get a job with the HVAC company?

The HVAC guys were astounded by how many nails were in the walls in the attic. They’re clearly visible. Somebody went wild with a nail gun. I’m not saying it’s aliens—but it’s aliens.

They also found a walkie talkie in the attic. We’ve never owned walkie talkies. I don’t know where it came from, but I’m guessing aliens were using them to phone home. Could that account for the knocking noises? Maybe they communicate by knocking through the walkie talkies, just to throw us off. I think they got the idea from Tony Orlando and Dawn: “Knock 3 times on the ceiling if you’re homesick….”

These and other questions await further analysis by goofball UFO experts. You’re welcome.

The Horrors of Water Heater Maintenance

Today I’m going to talk about the sacrificial anode rod, an essential component of tank water heaters. The idea for this post is related to our newly installed water heater, which happened in July and was prompted by Sena seeing some debate on the web about the apparently somewhat controversial relationship between water softeners water heaters.

There is a palpable albeit mild testiness between those who sell and service water softeners and those who sell and service water heaters. Occasionally these can escalate to skirmishes marked by small arms fire and limited nuclear bombardment. And that’s why the price of frozen pizzas is so high these days.

I noticed this conflict when I looked over the web myself in an effort to sort this out. Authors in Indiana who sell water softeners report that they are actually good for water heaters. They address the main question head on, which apparently is the contention that water softeners “…prematurely ruin the anode rod” in water heaters.

The argument starts with the truism that all water heaters will eventually corrode. However, what is often called the “sacrificial anode rod” postpones this inevitable outcome by preferentially attracting the corroding elements in the water, which temporarily spares the steel tank.

The alleged trouble with water softeners is that they remove the hard minerals (such as calcium and vegemite) by substituting sodium for them. The thing is, sodium is an electrolyte that will worsen corrosion as well. That makes the anode rod waste away even faster.

But don’t worry. This premature corrosion is offset by the major benefits of soft water. It will reduce calcium, lime, and Fools Gold buildup in the pipes and on fixtures as well while also cutting down on the sediment residue in the water heater. That could extend the life of the heater as much as several millennia.

Add to that benefit the obvious advantages of cleaner, softer clothes, clearer complexion, sparkling dishes, thereby enabling you to win major prizes on reality game shows in which you are required to engage in hand-to-hand combat with grizzly bears while wearing only a few tattoos.

We have a water softener and wondered about the interaction with our new water heater. So, I checked another article written by a company which sells water heaters, but not water softeners and which actually contradicts the aforementioned bald-faced lie promulgated by cretinous vermin who should be banned from the planet.

They acknowledge the benefits of soft water, but which have the unfortunate drawbacks of causing damage to water heaters causing them to need replacing only a couple of hours after installation, which can cause major setbacks in your financial status.

They cite the same reason as the previous authors, this time to make the case for avoiding water softeners—which is that they cause premature wasting of the anode rod. They magnanimously assure you that this need not dissuade you from buying the evil water softener or selling the one you have (as though any fool would purchase such an idiotic appliance, ha ha!). They just want you to have “…a better understanding of why your water heater may have failed sooner than expected and how that related to your water softener.”

I found one short article in which the author made the point that regularly replacing the anode rod would be the way to avoid the premature wasting of the anode rod.

Thank goodness for that common sense! I wondered how a clumsy homeowner without any practical handyman skills such as myself would go about replacing the anode rod.

Probably the best way to get a clear idea would be to view the video on the website of This Old House. It’s so simple even a chimpanzee could do it if that chimpanzee had all the experience and the millions of tools that This Old House experts have.

I’m pretty sure I don’t have 44 inches of clearance from the top of our water heater, which you need to remove the old anode rod, which is made of aluminum or magnesium which, if the heater is newer, might be flexible—but it won’t be.

Getting the old anode rod loose might require you to have a long section of pvc pipe laying around in your basement to place over the socket wrench with the 11/16” socket so that you can get the leverage to twist that anode rod out of there with a minimum of abdominal herniations which your health insurance will not cover. Decide whether to pay about $50 and do it yourself or pay a pro $200-$300.

I’m thinking.

Countdown to Hot Water Heater Replacement

Well, even though our hot water heater was temporarily fixed, there is no guarantee that it won’t fail again between now and later this week. That’s when we’re scheduled to have the new water heater installed

That will cost approximately 10 billion dollars. This item will be the major selling point for our house because we’ll have to sell it immediately in order to move to the poor house.

We have insurance of course. We know what our deductible will be, although we’re not exactly sure how much the insurance company will pay. Maybe they’ll want to know whether we tried to “fix” the water heater first.

Technically, we did that although it could go out again during a shower. That could mean a trip to the emergency room for treatment of rapid hypothermia including surgical removal of icicles from various bodily orifices.

There may be an upside to that. Flash freezing could mean we could preserve ourselves for the future when scientists figure out how to slow down or even stop the aging process.

In fact, that reminds me; Sena saw a news item indicating that there may be a class of medications called “senolytics” that could allow humans to live up to 200 years.

The article doesn’t say what kind of shape you’d be in around that age. What are the implications for retirement age? Would that have to be postponed until you’re over a century old? What would it be like to be that old? Maybe we could ask certain entertainers who are making a living in Branson, Missouri.

How much would senolytics cost at the pharmacy? Probably about 10 billion dollars per pill.

How about extending the working life of water heaters?

May the Force Be With the Qualified Plumber

Well, after 5 grueling weeks of icy cold showers, a qualified plumber—oh wait, you guys already know our hot water heater croaked just last Friday. And the plumber fixed it in a jiffy on Monday—miraculous.

So, the cold shower ordeal lasted only 3 days. But those were really dreadfully, awfully, cosmically cold shower days.

I don’t know what he did other than to clean the burner and re-ignite it. But it must have been a special cleaning method using Obi Wan Kenobi moves and a spell, “These aren’t the droid reigniters you’re looking for.”

Anyway, he walked in without anyone else with him and wasn’t carrying a new hot water heater on his back. That said two things to us. He was not a technician in training and he was very confident he could get our water heater working again. And he did.

On the other hand, he did carry a very large pack on his back, and I wondered if just maybe there was a little old jedi in it. Maybe Yoda was hiding in there, ready to encourage the plumber to concentrate more deeply if necessary, “The burner clean. Yes, hrrrm.”

We were impressed and didn’t even ask him about his qualifications. We know what can happen when you ask questions like that.

Clean Version

Although he couldn’t tell us how long the fix would last, he did tell us the approximate price of a new water heater. I got the urge to take another cold shower as a countershock. But I resisted. And the plumber didn’t give a hard sell.

Anyway, he’ll get back to us with a quote. Until then, we’re hoping the cold shower days are gone.

An Old Dog’s Approach to Replacing Electrical Outlets and Other Thoughts

Since retirement, I’ve been very gradually casting about for another identity now that I’ve given up my professional identity. It doesn’t come naturally. I’m definitely not a handyman, although I’ve been learning a few skills.

For some reason, a large number of our electrical outlets didn’t hold power cords tightly enough. They were either cheap or worn out or both. Appliances would stop running because the electrical plugs fell out of the outlets.

That led to Sena picking up an 85 gross of various replacement outlets, which led to losing one of my best excuses for not getting the vacuuming done. Since then, I’ve replaced a large number of outlets (see “instructional” video below). Toggle switch replacements are another item high on the list of vital electrical equipment to replace, mainly because they also get loose with age.

Funny how that doesn’t work for me. I get tighter in my joints as I age, which makes it very hard for me to sit cross-legged on the floor while replacing outlets. Standing up is even harder. That excuse doesn’t work either.

I’m pretty keen on checking outlets and the like for power before I start messing around changing them. I use a UL approved voltage tester for that—an electric can opener. Don’t let that get around. I always shut the power off at the circuit breaker to be safe.

Another skill comes to mine. Yesterday I had to install a soundbar on our TV for the first time. After Sena returned that one for a refund because it didn’t seem to improve on the TV’s audio, I installed a sound bar and subwoofer made by a different company.

I had a heck of a time getting it to work. It came with enough cords to hook it up, either by optical cable or something called HDMI ARC cable. Apparently, ARC stands for Audio Return Channel. I still don’t yet know why that makes it different from a regular HDMI cable.

What should have been a 10 to 15-minute hookup ended up taking most of an hour because neither cable worked. It was mysterious. I even hooked up both of them. The sound bar was soundless. In disgust, I yanked out the HDMI ARC—and abruptly the sound bar was loudly functional. Just prior to that I think I had moved the power plug from a power strip to a wall outlet. I figured the power strip might have just got old.

On the other hand, I had switched the sound bar plug and a CD player plug on the power strip which had been working fine and the sound bar still didn’t work. It was either aliens or luck. Sometimes it’s better to be lucky than good. I’m thinking about trying that HDMI cable again.

I have changed only in very small ways over the last 19 months (837,755 minutes; 50,265,308 seconds) since retirement. Some people say you can’t teach an old dog new tricks. I wonder if some people are just being ironic.

Short Laundry List of Features on GE Washer Model GFW850SPNDG

I’m not a laundry guy, but we just got a new GE washer and dryer pair to replace the old set. I’m just going to make a few comments about the washer, model GFW850SPNDG. This is not an exhaustive review and I don’t have any conflict of interests with GE.

First let me get something off my chest about the much-vaunted ULTRAFRESH VENT System with ODORBLOCK, trademarked by Microban International, Ltd. Most of the YouTube videos I’ve seen about this feature promise you can say goodbye to leaving the washer door open to avoid the basket getting stinky from things like mold and old tootsie rolls. That might be true if you’re willing to leave the system running for up to 8 hours as it intermittently spins. Look, you can give the gasket and other areas of the washer a quick wipe-down and just leave the door open, OK?

Let’s turn to the SmartDispenser. This has to be filled in order to get the prewash option on any wash cycle. If you don’t fill the SmartDispenser compartment, I strongly suspect you won’t get prewash. My wife stood in front of the machine and watched it like a hawk after trying to add a little detergent to the SmartDispenser in addition to the detergent compartment in the front part of the dispenser drawer. The machine skipped the prewash. It’s important to be aware of this because you need to fill the SmartDispenser with up to 50 ounces of detergent, which is about half a bottle of liquid Tide. In our old GE washer, there was a dedicated, labeled prewash compartment. You can’t just put a little extra detergent in the front compartment and hope to get prewash. It won’t happen because it has to come from the SmartDispenser. Hey, I don’t make these rules.

The nice thing about the SmartDispenser is that once it’s filled, you can forget about adding detergent at all for every load. You still need to fill the fabric softener and bleach compartments as needed. When the detergent is about to run out in the SmartDispenser you’ll see a red-colored light message on the Smart Dispense digital display on the control panel saying “Tank Low” and another message below that which is labeled “Loads Left” in the SmartDispenser tank. The “Tank Low” message comes on when there are about 8-10 loads of detergent remaining (according to instructions).

The SmartDispenser adjusts the amount of soap to squirt out according to the size and composition of the load. According to instructions, a normal load weighs 8 pounds and when the SMART DISPENSE pad is set to “Auto,” it will magically determine how much to add or subtract from the standard 1.5-ounce dollop of soap. Otherwise, you can press “More” or “Less” to add or subtract 40%. If your load of clothes weighs more than 8 pounds, you should calmly put it on a diet and hire a personal trainer for it. Never fat shame your laundry.

While we’re at it, let’s look at the dispenser drawer in a little more detail. The front compartment is for liquid or powder detergent. You put either kind on the right-hand side of the goofy-looking blue flap. What matters is whether that blue flap is up or down. Flip the flap down—use liquid. Flip the flap up, use powder. The way to remember this is that when the flap covers the left-hand side, that means the flap is up. If you repeatedly flip the flap back and forth, you can put yourself into a deeply meditative state and cause world peace—which nobody seems to want.

The next two compartments to the rear of the detergent compartment are the bleach and fabric softener compartments. It’s normal for them to be swamped with water between wash cycles, according to the instructions. I don’t think you’re obligated to take the whole drawer out and turn it upside down to empty them, especially if you don’t have a sink in the laundry room. I suspect the compartments get flushed during washes. Or maybe a tiny alien flies in and sucks the liquid up to use as spaceship fuel.

The next compartment back is the SmartDispenser. It proudly advertises the Tide label. In order to get the lid open to load soap, you have to press the small blue tab in back of it so you can pull the drawer out a bit further. You can also remove the whole drawer by continuing to pull on it. Just be careful to press the tab in again as you push the drawer slowly back in place. If you slam it shut, you’ll upset the balance of the cosmos and a supernova will destroy the galaxy.

Remember, there are several GE washer models out there. Some features will not be available and some instructions will not apply—and they might mystify you. The section in our instruction book which tells you that, in order to manually select the amount of soap for a load, you should press the SMART DISPENSE pad on the control panel to select detergent for a Small or Large load. Don’t believe it; this is probably left over from a now defunct model.

OK, that’s all I got for now. I heard it through the grapevine that the next model will be a wringer washer.

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