Troubleshooting A Dead Outlet

By Jim Nadeau on Electrical

Outlet Not Working? Check For A Tripped GFCI Outlet

I once had a customer who went two years without a shower light because they didn’t realize the shower light was controlled by a GFCI Outlet that was tripped.  Before the customer could finish explaining the issue I reset the tripped GFCI Outlet, and the lights were back up running, and he was in disbelief.  In this situation there was a dead front GFCI Outlet (description below) in the adjacent closet that needed to be reset.

GFCI Breaker

GFCI Breaker


Troubleshooting a dead outlet, and resetting a tripped GFCI Outlet (Ground Fault Circuit interrupter) is one of my most common service calls.  In this article I am going to give you a brief description of what a GFCI is, the different GFCI types, and how they work, to help you from having to call your local electrician.

What is a GFCI

A GFCI Outlet is designed to trip when there is a ground fault by sensing an imbalance between the hot and neutral.  If there is a difference of potential of 5 milliamps between the hot and neutral the GFCI will trip.  When an appliance is working properly it will pull power from the hot leg and goes back on the neutral staying balanced.

For example if your toaster had a power leakage instead of the toaster becoming electrified and potentially harming whoever touches the toaster, the GFCI will trip because power is not returning on the neutral. The GFCI reacts in less than one-tenth of a second to trip or shut off the circuit.

Different Types of GFCI Outlets

  • GFCI outlets:  A 3 prong outlet that has a test and reset button.  Capable of detecting ground faults on anything plugged in to it or to anything connected on the load side  of the GFCI outlet.
  • GFCI breakers:  A circuit breaker designed to detect any ground faults on anything connected to the breaker.
  • Dead Front GFCI:  Similar to a GFCI outlet only without the 3 prong outlet.  Typically used for exhaust fans, jacuzzi’s or hot tubs that need to be GFCI protected.
  • Dead Front GFCI

    Dead Front GFCI

What Locations Needs GFCI Protection

You will find GFCI’s protecting circuits in kitchens, bathrooms, shower fans, unfinished basements, garages, wet bars, crawlspaces, hot tubs, swimming pools  and outside.

Troubleshooting A Dead Outlet – Tripped GFCI’s

It’s usually not hard to figure out why your kitchen or bathroom outlet may of stopped working if it’s just a tripped GFCI.   In areas where the a tripped GFCI is next to, or right near the outlet that isn’t working; I am rarely called. It’s the situations that aren’t as obvious, that stump folks.

When troubleshooting a dead outlet, look at the indicator lights on the face of the outlet for instant feedback. Depending on the type of GFCI outlet, you may see a red or green light.  Often times the GFCI reset button sticking out, and a red light is showing.  A green light indicated normal operation.

Tripped GFCI

GFCI Outlet in the tripped position

Troubleshooting A Dead Outlet – Uncommon Situations

By connecting to the load side of a GCFI outlet other outlets, lights or even a bathroom exhaust fan can also be GFCI protected.  Here are some wiring situations that many people are not aware of:

  • A GFCI outlet on the first floor Bathroom can also control the outlet in a bathroom in another room of your house.
  • The front outside GFCI outlet can control the one in the backyard.
  • In many homes the GFCI by your electrical panel controls the exterior outlets.
  • Most Bathroom exhaust fans inside of your shower or bathtub need to be GFCI protected.  This can be done by coming off the GFCI outlet in the bathroom.  Also this can be done by using what’s called a dead front GFCI.  A dead fault GFCI for a bathroom exhaust fan can be placed out of sight, in a nearby closet, inside a cabinet or down low out of sight.
  • Quite often you may find an entire detached garage GFCI protected and when it trips power is completely out in the garage.  I typically find this is older Garages, where the GFCI was installed in the easiest location for the electrician.  Look for the where the electricity comes into the garage and follow it to the first electrical box.
  • A bathroom Jacuzzi or whirlpool tub will often be plugged into a GFCI outlet next to the motor.  By pulling off one of the panels to access the motor you can check the GFCI outlet.


More often then not the problem is the simplest one and you shouldn’t assume the worst.  Before you call a licensed electrician try a few simple steps to safe yourself from having to pay for a service call.


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About the author

Jim Nadeau

Jim Nadeau is a Master Electrician and owns and runs Nadeau Electric LLC established 2007. Nadeau Electric specializes in older homes and light commercial projects. Jim Nadeau uses his 15 years of electrical experience to review the latest electrical tools and advise on any electrical concerns that may arise for the Concord Carpenter Crew.

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