You are my electrician. Will I ever blow dry my hair again?
May 10, 2012 9:19 PM   Subscribe

Home electrical mystery: Why did tripping a circuit cause all of the GCFI outlets within the circuit to fail (ie none of them can be reset now)? How can I fix this?

Was running a hair dryer and a space heater (inadvertantly) at the same time. I've done this maybe 4-5 times in the past and haven't had this problem before. I went to the basement and flicked the circuit breaker and all the lights and outlets on the circuit now work fine, *except* the three GCFI outlets within the circuit and one normal outlet which (I think) is somehow directly wired to a GCFI (this outlet was added later by an electrician during a remodel project and I vaguely recall him saying something about this).

At the time, the hair dryer was plugged into a GCFI outlet and the space heater was plugged into a non-GCFI outlet.

I am a reasonably handy person and have replaced switches in the past. I do not however understand even a little how electricity works; those that harness its power are practitioners of black magic and are probably witches. I do know that two heat producing devices running at the same time tempted the dark forces and I have sacrificed several small animals to atone for my mistake, but so far they are unappeased.

You are not my electrician and you are not responsible for my house burning down. Speak freely. Can I fix this on my own?
posted by Slarty Bartfast to Home & Garden (15 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Have you pressed the reset button on your GFCI outlets?
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 9:22 PM on May 10, 2012

Response by poster: Yes, that's the problem, the button goes in but doesn't stay in. Same problem on all three outlets, the other two were not in use when the circuit blew.
posted by Slarty Bartfast at 9:30 PM on May 10, 2012

GFCI outlets have a lifespan. At least I have replaced a few after they stopped resetting and then the new worked just fine. After a while they won't reset. Probably something to do with the springs? anyway I would just replace them since you said you can do it. Just be very careful and only have one apart at a time so that you can go back and check the others if you get confused.
posted by bartonlong at 9:43 PM on May 10, 2012

The button doesn't go in because the ground fault still exists. The odds of three different reset buttons failing simultaneously are tiny.
posted by dg at 10:00 PM on May 10, 2012 [4 favorites]

I agree with dg. This page has a nice chart of possibilities.
posted by lee at 10:03 PM on May 10, 2012

Response by poster: What means "ground fault"?
posted by Slarty Bartfast at 10:08 PM on May 10, 2012

GFCI works by comparing the current running though the hot side of a circuit and the neutral side. If they're not the same then there is current going somewhere else and that somewhere else might be you and that's bad so CLICK lights off.

It sounds like there is an issue somewhere. It might not be a big issue - a tiny imbalance will set them off - but it's enough that they see it and don't like it.

I'd start by unplugging EVERYTHING on the circuit and see if you can reset them. Then start plugging things back in one at a time and see what happens then.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 10:23 PM on May 10, 2012

Whatever caused it to trip in the first place.
posted by dg at 10:24 PM on May 10, 2012

Newer GCFIs will not allow the reset button to be reset if the device is not receiving power. This means that you must reset the farthest upstream device first or none of the downstream devices will reset. Have you tried resetting the farthest upstream device first? You may have to determine this by trial and error. You may have to look in another room for a hidden GCFI to find the one farthest upstream.
posted by JackFlash at 11:00 PM on May 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

...and of course you must unplug all the device that could have caused the initial trip before trying to work out which is upstream from what.

Running the hair dryer and the space heater together, in and of itself, might not have been what actually tripped the GFCI. Yes that's a lot of load to put on one circuit, but even a grossly overloaded circuit won't trip a GFCI as long as the gross overload on the hot wire is exactly balanced by the gross overload on the neutral (return) wire. Gross overloads are dealt with by your normal circuit breakers, not your GFCI safety switches, which exist to deal with small current leakages to earth.

So, combine Kid Charlemagne's advice with JackFlash's: unplug everything that could conceivably be on the same circuit as the GFCIs you can't currently reset, then try resetting them one at a time until you find one that does reset; that will be the furthest-upstream one. Then try resetting the others, one at a time, until you find the next-furthest-upstream one, and so on until you've got them all reset.

Then plug in and exercise your appliances, one at a time, until you find the one that trips the GFCIs again. It's more likely for this to be a three-pin (earthed) appliance like a space heater than a two-pin one like a typical double-insulated hair dryer, because the only way a two-pin appliance can trip a GFCI is if there really is leakage to earth via the user, and you would have felt that.

If it turns out that the problem was gross circuit overload due to too many heating appliances on the one circuit, then what will have happened is that the main breaker on that circuit will have tripped, disconnecting everything downstream of itself including all the GFCIs.

If you do indeed have the kind of GFCI that needs its reset button pressed after power is restored to it, and you have these wired in a chain (as I understand is common practice in the US) then you will need to reset them all in the correct sequence, since pressing Reset on an unpowered GFCI will do exactly nothing.
posted by flabdablet at 11:38 PM on May 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

The ground fault may well be in your wiring in which case you will need to have an electrician look at this. First though I would unplug as much as you can from the circuit, reset the circuit breaker forcefully and check the GCFIs. Perhaps the circuit breaker did not make a good connection, that is why you want to reset it (turn off, turn on). That would be simple. Less likely would be an appliance issue but you might as well disconnect everything to limit the possible causes of trouble while doing your checking.
posted by caddis at 6:21 AM on May 11, 2012

I don't have an ugli book in front of me, but I'm fairly certain in most municipalities you can slave 3 plugs downstream of 1 gfci. When we purchased our home, the sellers misinterpreted the inspectors words and replaced all 8 plugs in our kitchen with GFI's as well as replacing the breaker with a gfci-breaker. So on the rare occasion when something trips (my water kettle doesn't have an "off", it must be unplugged), it will make one of them flip (sometimes killing multiple plugs) and I have to go check each one until I find it. That reminds me, I need to get on top of replacing some of those outlets.

TL;DR, you may not need that many GFCI's.
posted by TomMelee at 8:03 AM on May 11, 2012

Response by poster: Tried everything suggested here. Nothing worked although I learned a small amount of physics, thanks everyone. In the end I called an electrician buddy of mine who determined that a wire leading out of one of the GFCIs had broken which I guess is something that happens over time with too many faults. Had to replace the outlets and all is well now.

In the meantime, I cut my hair really short because hair dryers are kind of a stupid waste of electricity and the 60s are over, hippie.
posted by Slarty Bartfast at 7:03 PM on May 20, 2012 [1 favorite]

a wire leading out of one of the GFCIs had broken which I guess is something that happens over time with too many faults

Spontaneous wire breakage is usually down to careless wire stripping and/or insecure or overtightened screw terminals, causing a narrow spot in the wire right where it enters the connector that can overheat under high load. It effectively forms an informal fuse, with a lower current required to blow it than the rating of the breaker that feeds it. This is not a good thing to have in your walls - proper fuses are fireproof, but PVC-insulated wire into the back of a wall socket is absolutely not.

If I were you, I'd pay your electrician buddy to check out the rest of your wiring in case the same person who created that potential house fire has left behind any more.
posted by flabdablet at 11:59 PM on May 20, 2012

To be clear, that spontaneous wire breakage is likely to be spontaneous wire meltage and would probably have caused some spitting and sparking as it happened.
posted by flabdablet at 12:01 AM on May 21, 2012

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