Thread Number: 79650  /  Tag: Other Home Products or Autos
Thank you Harry B / GFCI outlets
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Post# 1035464   6/16/2019 at 11:30 by Paulg (My sweet home... Chicago)        

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For starters let me thank Harry B (Kimball 455) for a super-nice time at the last Maryland wash-in. We travelled the town and really enjoyed each other’s company. Today we were discussing snail pans. I think of Harry a lot especially since his terrible loss due to a house fire.
I’d like to start by stating that I am an electronic engineer and CFEI (Certified fire and explosion investigator) who spent his career in the TV and appliance industry. I was the person who examined burnt TV and appliances and stopped such issues from recurring. For this reason I took much interest in Harry’s fire incident in his house - in a different way.
I am relaying my experience as an anecdote of GFCI (Ground Fault Circuit Interrupter) issues in my house.
I am aware of AC receptacle fires and after Harry’s experience I decided to just start a program of “renewal” of my GFCI receptacles. Our house is 15 years old and we have about 20 of these GFCI receptacles around. All seemed to work well through the years.
Although my receptacles worked well I thought it may be good to update my receptacles to new ones. Through the years I’ve replaced a few light switches and a few outlets but nothing chronic. I am critical. I like switches with a solid feel and outlets must always have a very strong grip.
Anyway, I start with the garage and replaced the GFCI outlets. I move on to the powder room, the laundry room and gradually update the outlets to new ones. I get about halfway through the house when life gets away from me and I stop. So far so OK. The original outlets are all clean, no discoloration but no branding. I suspect these are “builder’s grade” but I am not put-off by this as they have worked well for 15 years.
Some months later, the one outlet in the master bath is inoperative. It is rarely used but it has tripped. Nothing was plugged into that receptacle. I remember hearing a “snap” in the middle of the night but didn’t think much of it. I reset the outlet and all is well. I do a cursory mechanical and electrical check. Nothing seems amiss.
Several weeks later, the guest room GFCI has tripped. That outlet is never used. Check it again (again I am trained to detect receptacle failure modes) but see nothing wrong. I reset it and all is ok again.
Over the next upcoming weeks this occurs with different outlets and very randomly. This phenomenon is very new and quite odd. I am very aware of just about every aspect of the electrical system of this house and cannot immediately put my finger as to cause.
However, outside I see not one but two power-company trucks working on this block. Maybe there is a defect in the lines? Don’t know. I DID have a problem with the line transformer (line voltage fluctuations) a few years back and I did have a certified electrician do a thorough check of the circuit-breaker panel at about the same time. The breaker-box was “like new” per the electrician and the power company tighten the transformer connections. I didn’t think this was an issue but wasn’t sure.
And so I figured. I could go up to the power-company and advise them that I thought that the lines were tripping my GFCIs. However with no concrete proof as to cause they would likely accuse me of having old GFCI outlets.
I then finally noticed something.
ONLY the OLD GFCI outlets were tripping in what appears to be an erroneous manner. None of the new outlets is tripping unexpectedly.
Here I will now digress a bit. Bear with me.
I had to take my own advice. What do I mean by this?
Years ago I worked for a large TV manufacturer. We made one model of TV for hotels. It was a 19” color with AM/FM radio. Premium brand. Good unit and very reliable.
Anyway, hotel owner brought in a TV with a 2” high picture. (Vertical output failure). TV was about 7 years old. We replaced one capacitor and returned it.
Two weeks later he brings in three TVs. All have a 2” high picture. We replace the same capacitor in all three sets. He picks them up and goes home.
About a month later he brings in about five or six TVs. All have a small picture. He is totally fuming mad and yelling about our TV quality and that we have a big problem.
I explained to him my theory as to why they are all failing in the same way:
The same product
From the same manufacturer
Of the same age
In the same environment
Used in the same way
Using the same components
With the same expected lifespan
Used in the same temperature
With the same line voltage
DO NOT expect the product to fail in a RANDOM fashion!
You will generally find the products to fail in the same way, at the same time.
He understood.
But to stop his fuming we offered a cheap flat-rate to fix the rest of the TVs. But that is beside the point.
And so my little speech came back to me. I had to take my advice. Are ALL my GFCIs failed at the same time for the reasons I speak of above?
To find out I replaced every remaining GFCI in the house over three days.
And every problem with the GFCIs evaporated immediately. I have never had a tripped GFCI since.
I suspect all of my GFCIs reached the same failure point at the same time.
I am thankful that Harry’s experience got me going on a GFCI replacement program. Had half of my GFCIs not been replaced I would have been perplexed. However with the important clue of half my GFCIs being new and not problematic, I was able to quickly remedy my situation.
WHEW! My fingers are tired of typing. All comments welcome.

This post was last edited 06/16/2019 at 13:08

Post# 1035478 , Reply# 1   6/16/2019 at 14:40 by SudsMaster (East of SF, West of Eden, California)        

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Sounds like the builder cut corners and used substandard/defective GFCI's. Good idea to replace all of them.

This 1941 home is about 1/3 old knob and tube, 2/3 modern three wire, either Romex or metal conduit. The main power was upgraded to rigid conduit and circuit beakers, probably in the 60's.

Some of the original two-prong outlets in the knob and tube areas were weak and wouldn't hold plugs properly. I couldn't find any replacement w prong outlets, so I replaced them with three prong outlets. In areas that mattered (like original bath), I used three prong GFCI, grounded to cold water piping. It's not ideal and probably not code, but since I know the limitations no biggie. Never had a problem, and by shorting hot to ground (carefully) I confirmed the GFCI's are working properly. Eventually the two-wire knob and tube will have to be upgraded to grounded Romex or better, probably if and when the place is sold.

Post# 1035506 , Reply# 2   6/16/2019 at 22:01 by RP2813 (Sannazay)        

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Interesting story, Paul.  Your theory made perfect sense.


I had a weird GFI event about a year ago.  I was changing a burnt out halogen bulb in our OTR GE microwave and apparently the new bulb was cheaply made.  One of its two small prongs/pins snapped off while trying to insert it and caused a short.  I'm sure I heard a snap, but since I've not had GFI receptacles until this house, I  didn't know what it was.  The microwave panel went blank and the whole thing was dead.  I tried unplugging/replugging and there was no change.  The oven is plugged into a standard outlet in the back wall of an upper cabinet.


I called a repair guy and he told me to check GFI outlets in the kitchen, even though the oven wasn't plugged into one of them.  Sure enough, the GFI outlet next to the stove had tripped.  I never would have thought to check it.  Problem solved.


My current annoyance (no pun intended) is an outdoor GFI outlet that the tankless water heater plugs into along with the irrigation system timer.  I unplugged the timer during the wet season so I could use its receptacle for extension cords when using power tools, etc.  All was fine until last week when I tried to plug something in and it was as if the receptacle was child-proofed from the inside.  Upon close inspection, it looks like there are opaque plastic inserts that block the prongs from being plugged in.  A plumber had the same trouble with this outlet about a year ago, but I was able to plug the irrigation timer back in by using an extreme angle to get it started, which apparently forced the plastic blockers out of the way.  This time around, even that isn't working.  I've never experienced anything like this and it makes absolutely no sense to me.  I'm wondering if I need to replace this outlet with one that's willing to cooperate.  Any enlightenment would be appreciated.

Post# 1035508 , Reply# 3   6/16/2019 at 22:20 by fan-of-fans (Florida)        

Sounds like you have a newer place with the 'shuttered' style outlets. They can wear out and some I heard complaints about being difficult to use from the beginning. Probably replace the non-cooperative ones with new.

Also on the original post, brought to mind some builders using cheap off-brand GFCI outlets during the mid-late 2000s era to save money.

15 years old is not really that old as far as houses and wiring go. I know of plenty of houses from the 90s if not 80s that still have their original GFCI outlets working properly. Not to say they shouldn't be replaced, however. Plus I believe after 2006 or so there were some changes to GFCIs that required them to be self testing and many have the tripped indicator lights these days.

Post# 1035516 , Reply# 4   6/17/2019 at 03:14 by MattL (Flushing, MI)        

I took preventative a bit further.  A couple of years ago I replaced EVERY outlet in the house, not a small undertaking. I was surprised at what I found, many loose wires, some charred and these were in the push in type outlets. Also checked all the wire nutted connections and found some weak ones there too.


I also went through and tightened all the screws in my breaker boxes, again I was amazed at how loose some of them were.  At some point in the near future I will replace both panels with one larger one and clean up the installation.  The original panel is more than 50 years old now, it was only a 60 amp panel, now I have a 200 amp service, and about 35 circuits, need to go to 40+.  Over the years I've split many circuits into two or more as they were absurdly large.  At one point my Dining room chandelier and my foyer chandelier each pulled about  a Kilowatt EACH and were on the same circuit as well as many other things, was not unusual to have dinner guests suddenly eating in the dark! Now the are all LED and pull 75 watts each total.


As a safety issue I would recommend anyone with an older home either hire someone or if you are comfortable do a inspection yourself and replace every outlet and switch in your home every few decades.

Post# 1035525 , Reply# 5   6/17/2019 at 10:19 by SudsMaster (East of SF, West of Eden, California)        

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Brings to mind a passage I read a while ago, maybe in the helpful tome "The Well-built House"...

It said that while older knob and tube systems have inherent limitations, such as usually not grounded, and sometimes dodgy tar-based insulation, usually the workmanship was excellent. If not modified improperly by later homeowners, knob and tube can be safe and effective.

Just saying.

PS-I don't care much for push-in connections. Whenever given the choice, I'll use the connections secured by a flat screw.

Post# 1035532 , Reply# 6   6/17/2019 at 11:21 by Tomturbomatic (Beltsville, MD)        

I am going to replace some breakers with Arc-fault circuit interrupters. It seems that there are both breakers and AFCI receptacles.  Dunno which to use, but Jeff will know.

Post# 1035541 , Reply# 7   6/17/2019 at 12:06 by kimball455 (Cape May, NJ)        

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The new electrical system will have arc fault breakers. As the house was gutted I took pictures of the original 1865 knob and tube electrical system. I will post them later.

If all goes according to what I know now I should be back in my house by late August to early September. It was one delay after another. The insurance company was a real pain to deal with but as a result of their being slow I got everything that was asked for. IF you ever find your self in a situation like this I suggest that you get a private adjuster. The adjuster does charge a percentage of the amount the insurance pays but you will not hae to try to deal with the insurance company. The list of personal property for my loss was 85 pages, right down to the number of cat litter boxes and the plastic tub of items that were going to the thrift shop as a donation.

I could buy a new house for the amount that the insurance company ended up paying out for the claim.

Other than the outside walls and the basic structure of the house, everything else will be new. Part of this is the fun of selecting new appliances. The range, microwave/vent hood, dishwasher, and disposal are covered by the rebuild money. The washer, dryer, and refrigerator are considered personal property and are pad out of that account. I have been doing a lot of shopping and have just about everything that I need.

Got some great thrift store items including a VitaMix blender for $8.00. Yes, EIGHT DOLLARS. Got a CUSINART Soup Maker/Blender for 10. Both are great appliances. As the project moves along I will post pictures.


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