BBB Logo

Better Business Bureau ®
Start With Trust®
San Diego, Orange and Imperial Counties
Guest Blog: DIY Electrical Tips
July 18, 2014

One of the most common service calls to an electrician begins when someone plugs something in and the power goes out. Flashlight in hand, you check the breaker in the panel, but it doesn’t seem to be off, and flipping it back and forth doesn’t work. What could it be?

Very often, the problem is caused by a tripped GFCI outlet. This can be identified as the outlet on a circuit that has two small, squared buttons (labeled “test” and “reset,” colored either red and black or both white) between the two plug receptacles. They’re usually located in bathrooms and kitchens or outdoors—wherever water is present—but they can affect all of the outlets on a circuit.

“GFCI” stands for ground fault circuit interrupter, and these devices protect against electric shock. In normal operation, electricity flows out from the panel into the wiring, powers all the switches and outlets, and returns back to the panel, making a complete circuit.

However, it is the nature of electricity that it always seeks the shortest path to completing a circuit; and given the chance it will “run to ground” rather than back to the panel. That’s why it’s standard to install ground wiring. But unfortunately, since it’s mostly made of water, your body is a conductor—and a ground wire alone may not keep you safe.

A GFCI monitors the electrical flow going into and coming back out from a circuit, and measures that it is constant. If for any reason there is a change in the flow, it senses the variance and cuts the power like a mini-breaker, tripping the circuit before the breaker in the panel can engage.

So back to our beginning example, check to see if any of the following occurred when that something was plugged in, to determine if a tripped GFCI caused the outage:

  • A motorized device (such as a vacuum cleaner or hair dryer) had its power button already turned on.
  • Too many or heavy load appliances were being run at the same time (space heaters are notorious).
  • Dry weather caused a build-up and discharge of static electricity.
  • What was plugged in was wet or was plugged in using wet hands, or an outlet had moisture in it.
  • An appliance has become faulty.
  • The plug was forced in, reversing polarity.

Locate the GFCI on the circuit where the power is out, and press the reset button firmly in until you feel and/or hear it click back on. Be aware that the location of the tripped GFCI may not be obvious: for instance, outlets inside of a home without power can be caused by an outdoor GFCI on the same circuit that tripped. Then address each of these possible causes before plugging that item back in. Hopefully, this will allow you to solve this type of problem yourself without having to call for professional help.

Article courtesy of Roberts Electric Service.  More information on the company can be found here.