How to Reset a GFCI Outlet

by Michael Franco
electrical outlet on glass wall

For the most part, you don't need to worry much about water getting inside the electrical outlets in your home — unless, of course, those outlets are located in wet areas like bathrooms, kitchens or outdoor areas exposed to the elements. In such cases, building codes require that a special outlet known as a ground-fault circuit interrupter (GFCI) be installed. These outlets are designed to immediately cease the flow of electrical current in case an abnormal flow of power is detected.

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These potentially life-saving outlets can “trip” from time to time. And in that case, they need to be reset. Here’s how to reset a GFCI outlet.

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How Do GFCI Outlets Work?

GFCIs constantly monitor the amount of electricity that is flowing from the neutral prong of an appliance and the hot prong of the plug. Electric current flows in a loop between these prongs, and if the outlet senses even a minute difference in the flow, it will trip a breaker inside the outlet that stops the electrical current.

GFCI outlets can function as quickly as one-thirtieth of a second and react with a change in current as small as 4 milliamps. The speed and sensitivity of the outlets are calculated to prevent a human's grip from clamping down on a wire that is malfunctioning and also to protect against any interruption to the normal beating of our hearts.

According to the National Fire Protection Association, GFCI outlets have led to an 83% drop in electrocutions since their introduction in 1971. That number climbs to a 95% reduction in electrocutions caused by consumer products in particular. Of course, these outlets are only helpful if they are kept in good working order, which you can do with very little effort by following this guide.

What Happens When a GFCI Outlet Trips?

When the outlet senses a ground fault, which means that electrical current is traveling along a path that's not included in the loop between hot and neutral plug prongs, it will pop out a small button, and you'll hear a sharp and loud "click" sound. At that point, the outlet is effectively dead, with no power flowing through the slots to a plugged-in item.

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How Do I Reset a GFCI Outlet?

If you witness a GFCI tripping or popping, the first thing you'll want to do is unplug any appliances that might have been in the outlet. Then, look for a small rectangular button labeled "reset." Press this button until it stays in. (You'll also notice another button on the front of the outlet labeled "test,” and we'll discuss that in a moment.)

Once the "reset" button has been pushed in, you can plug your appliance back in (making sure that it is, of course, dry) and try to use it again. If conditions seem dry, but the outlet pops again, you may want to have the appliance examined by a repair professional. Or, it might indicate that there is an issue with your outlet. To test for this, try plugging another item in, like a nightlight or lamp, and see if the outlet functions normally. If it does, the fault likely lies with the other appliance. If it doesn't, then you'll want to have a licensed electrician take a look at the outlet itself.

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What About the ‘Test’ Button?

As we mentioned, GFCI outlets also have a button labeled "test." In some cases, the test button will be black, while the reset button will be red. This isn't always so, however, so be sure to simply read the writing on the button to determine which is which. When you press the “test” button, you are effectively activating the outlet, which means that the reset button will pop out, and power will stop flowing through the outlet.

It is recommended that you check GFCI outlets by pressing the test button at least once per month. These outlets don't last forever, and you'll want to make sure they're working before they need to function in an emergency situation. On average, you can expect an approximate lifespan of 10 years for each GFCI outlet.

Once the reset button pops out to indicate the outlet is working correctly, simply press it back in and use the outlet as you normally would.

What Do I Do if a GFCI Outlet Won't Stay Reset

Sometimes, after an incident or after testing, the reset button on a GFCI outlet simply won't stay pushed in. If this is the case, it might mean that there is still moisture inside the outlet. To test for this, use a hairdryer plugged into a different outlet to dry things out and try again. If this doesn't solve the problem, you should also investigate your main circuit breaker box to see if the electrical fault tripped a breaker in there.

If you've taken these steps and the outlet still doesn't allow you to reset it, it's probably best to replace it. While homeowners who are comfortable working with electricity can execute this relatively simple project, a licensed electrician can also get the job done safely and relatively inexpensively.

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