What to do on a beutiful fall day?…Install a GFCI, of course.

The sky is so blue that the slightest wisp of a cloud presents itself as boldly as white Christmas lights draped on an unlit house. The fall air has just the right bite that makes breathing a pleasure. And my mind can think about only one thing, the ground fault circuit interrupter (GFCI) that I need to install in our bathroom.

The house was built in 1977 and I can only assume that  the GFCI was not required by the electrical code back then. Now it is and my house is up for sale. Each waking night is spent contemplating the potential failures that a home inspector will award our home of the last 33 years. GFCI, GFCI, GFCI…bathrooms, garage, outdoors. I make up my mind to end this turmoil by installing a GFCI outlet in the bathroom. How difficult could it be?

The instructions were quite clear. The hot and ground lines that come directly from the entry panel go to the “LINE” inputs on the GFCI while the downstream circuits (in my case the corridor light, the bathroom lights, and the bedroom lights) attach to the “LOAD” outputs.

I dutifully popped the circuit breaker so as to prevent frying my brain and heart with 120 volts and high amperage. The old socket was replaced with the new GFCI in 20 minutes flat (a very careful 20 minutes). Now came the Final Test. I depressed the ‘reset’ button on the GFCI and the little LED glowed to indicate that all was well. The bathroom and bedroom lights worked perfectly. When I plugged in the GFCI tester I got two glowing amber lights, the code for “all is well”. I felt so good…until later that night when I turned on the corridor light and heard a big ‘POP’ as the newly installed GFCI tripped. That was not expected or welcome!

The next day, after trying all sorts of diagnostic techniques and possible repairs, including calling over my son-in-law (he has electrical training) I had made no progress. As a matter of fact it got even worse. There was no detectable current at the outlet (even with the old non-GFCI unit reinstalled) and it appeared that the 15 amp bathroom circuit breaker in the box downstairs was shot. Time and light were both running out. I made a quick run to Home Depot and got a new circuit breaker. This was installed by flashlight. Result? The bedroom and bathroom circuits now worked but the corridor light glowed continuously….I could not even shut it off! At this point I wished I had either (a) called an electrician or (b) never begun the job in the first place. As a last resort I pulled apart one of the corridor 3-way switches and found that the hot wire was no longer making contact in its ‘push-in’ terminal. I switched to a side terminal and all was well. Now I was back exactly where I began one day earlier before attempting to install the GFCI.

What next? Install the GFCI again assuming that the bad 3-way switch and the failing circuit breaker were sending it unbalanced grounding information and causing the fault? That sounds good! Of course I’ll have to wait until my wife is out of the house…she got more exhausted than me by just watching my repeated trips up and down the stairs to turn the circuit breaker off and on (I got so confused that I was zapped with a live wire on two occasions). Or maybe I will just let the next owners of this house deal with it. Anybody in the market for a really nice home without GFCI’s ?

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