Should I GFI my clothes washer ?

daft_punkJune 15, 2008

Lately my 120-Volt Kenmore clothes washer has been intermittently tripping the 20-Amp GFI breaker. I've read in this forum that these breakers may fail this way with age. This one is 25 years old. So I figured replacing the original would be a quick and relatively inexpensive way to go.

Even if the original was OK, I think buying another one would still be a good idea. You see...the well pump is fed by the same breaker as the clothes washer. I'm pretty sure this is not to code. It was wired this way since before we bought the house. I want to add another breaker and wiring so the well pump and washer are on different circuits.

So my wife and I went to the local Orange Box and found the breaker. Unfortunately the Square-D that fits the panel cost 60 bucks. I asked my wife, Why does this cost so much more than the other brands?" A nearby shopper did not recognize my musing as a rhetorical question, so he answered, "Because Square-D is the Cadillac of circuit breakers". This guy was picking out a bunch of parts, himself, and spoke with the authority of an electrician.

The stranger went on to ask why I was buying a breaker in the first place. After I told him, he informed me that using a GFI with a washing machine is not a good idea. He said that the breaker would trip from time to time just like the old one. When I told him that the clothes-washer had run this way for four years, he said that this is not unusual. He went on to say that the Neutral and Ground lines are bonded within the washer, so he was surprised that

the breaker started tripping sooner.

So I asked him what would happen if the soapy water got past insulation on the Hot line and energized a part of the washer I was likely to touch. Not a dead short to Ground that would trip a standard breaker, but enough leakage to get you in bare feet when you touched it. He said that the copper pipes in the house would carry the voltage to earth ground.

So I told him the flexible inlet and drain pipes from the washer are rubber and plastic. That would break the circuit. He said that was no problem because the water in those pipes would complete the circuit, instead.

We left the store with more questions than answers. So here are the questions...

- Should a GFI be used for a clothes-washer. This sounds like the safest route to me.

- Are Ground and Neutral connected together within my clothes-washer, or is this seriously outdated (or just plain wrong) information? If they are bonded, the GFI would have tripped immediately on day one, right?

- Could the "electrician" have been thinking about a 220-Volt clothes-washer instead? My 220V dryer has a common Neutral/Ground. It and the electric stove are both three-wire 220V grandfathered from when the house was built.

- Do clothes-washers rely on copper pipes - or water-filled plastic ones - to bleed leakage current to the ground rod? This sounds so wrong. What if the failure occurs when it's neither filling nor draining?

I'm hoping that insulation within the washer itself is not starting to fail. That could be more trouble to fix than an over-sensitive GFI breaker.

Thanks!

Marco

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spencer_electrician

Hah, what a moron. Electricity using water as a reliable path to ground. Grounding and Neutral bonded in the washer, yeah right. Bet he does some interesting work on his jobs :) A washing machine has the frame bonded to the grounding wire of the cord only. By having the frame bonded to ground, it will have the same potential as everything around and would not be able to have a hazardous voltage present. The machine does not need to be on a gfci. Some say if it is within six inches of a sink, it needs to be on a gfci. But common practice is the outlet directly behind it not being gfci. The code currently allows equipment in place to not be on a gfci but believe it is changing some with 2008 code. If there were a ground fault in the washer, it would follow the ground wire back and trip the breaker. The only time a gfci would add safety to the machine is if the grounding came loose and a fault results in an energized frame. The motor will very likely trip the gfci from time to time.

Sounds like a plan, run a new dedicated to the washer and leave the well pump on the gfci.

    Bookmark   June 15, 2008 at 4:09PM
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daft_punk

Thanks for that, Spencer-E. My BS detector was telling me that this guy was blowing smoke - probably from one of his jobs.

My only question is why the GFI is tripping now. It's been OK for four years. Before last week, the only time it tripped was during a wicked thunderstorm two years ago. I was kneeling on top of the clothes-washer trying to unplug it when lightning hit the well-head. That was a painful way to find out the circuits were shared.

Something has changed here. If the clothes-washer is developing a ground-fault, a hard short may not be far behind. Something like that could kill some expensive electronics within the washer.
Hopefully, the GFI detection in the breaker has merely gotten slightly "unbalanced" with age.

Before continuing the game plan, I should first understand what has changed. I'd hate to move my washer away from the GFI only to have it fail permanently somewhere down the road.

Peace.

Marco

    Bookmark   June 15, 2008 at 4:49PM
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pjb999

It's funny how people assume the gfi breaker is faulty when it's probably doing its job. That being said, breakers do wear out, and replacing them now and then is probably a good idea. I would say there's a fault in the washer to boot, and you should probably look into it.

As for the 'expert' in the box store, not so much. Ground and neutral are only bonded at the panel. If they were bonded at the washer, I'm not sure it would trip the breaker as it's looking for active to ground imbalance.

Of course, you can't bond 240 because there is no neutral, it's two taps off the transformer.

I am all in favour of gfi on everything. In Australia (240 is the norm) all new or substantially modded wiring must include a whole house (or I suppose a series of) gfis, the lighting is generally not protected (which I would prefer to) but all outlets are, by code.

Your fridge might trip and I've heard some talk about circuits which exclude fridge/freezer from gfi ostensibly on the grounds of the moisture present and false tripping, but I believe the argument is more, "what if you go away and something trips, your fridge goes off and all the food goes bad" welll I'd rather any faulty circuits get turned off, than worry about spoiled food.

Stick with gfi, replace if if you want, but don't rule out a genuine fault.

    Bookmark   June 17, 2008 at 2:15AM
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texasredhead

Following this logic, I guess all receptacles in the house need to be GFCIs.

    Bookmark   June 18, 2008 at 4:07PM
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pjb999

Well, what would the harm in that be? No-one is going to die from HAVING a gfci, but it's possible to die from NOT having one.

If putting the breakers in a panel is not an option, a gfci receptacle is capable of protecting all the other receptacles downstream from it.

Like I said, it's law in other parts of the world, the voltage may be higher, but that might be offset by the higher proportion of older wiring and scarier practices/fittings/devices in North America.

As for houses with kids, you can't really put a price on their safety, can you?

    Bookmark   June 18, 2008 at 4:37PM
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brickeyee

"As for houses with kids, you can't really put a price on their safety, can you?"

So sending $1,000,000 per house to save one child is OK?

This type of argument is very poor.

Money spent on one thing is NOT available for another, none of us have an infinite supply.

So little Johnny does not get electrocuted, he dies from lack of medical care that his parents cannot afford.

There IS a value that can be assigned to requiring everyone to take an action that will result in some savings of life.

This cost must be weighed against other things that are will NOT occur since the money has already been spent.

Using #12 wire on 15 amp circuits could prevent some fraction of problems.
Is it the payback worth the cost?

    Bookmark   June 18, 2008 at 6:06PM
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pjb999

Say what???? $1,000,000 per house????? I do not know where you are coming from with that.

Even pricing gfci breakers or outlets as they appear available in North America would not add up to that much. As I have mentioned, however, in Australia, NZ and no doubt parts of Europe there are "whole house" GFCIs that cost well under $200 and I think I paid less than $300 for a retrofit one in my old house. Not a huge outlay when you consider the lifesaving potential. If it became a legislated requirement it would become cheap and easy to do, as volume sales took off. The price of the units went down in Australia when it was legislated (new homes or those with substantial new electrical work)

Arguing the money 'saved' from not protecting all outlets would be better spent on health insurance (or whatever) leaves me somewhat gobsmacked.

Why not make pool fences optional, and divert the money 'saved' to funds for defib machines, to revive those kids drowned in the fence-less pools? Sounds like similar logic to me.

As GFCIs are sold and supplied in North America, their use is a disincentive, as it were because it means doing them one breaker at a time, or one outlet per circuit (this is the best way in so far as other circuits remain on, although if one trips in your house, you'll want to know about it)

Whole house RCDS/GFCIs are really quite cheap. Even if you used individual GFCI breakers, I can't imagine them adding up to that much. Arc fault breakers look a lot more expensive, are you against those too? What about smoke detectors? I don't consider any of those things 'excessive' I think any preventable death is a tragedy.

    Bookmark   June 18, 2008 at 9:32PM
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texasredhead

Following your reasoning pjb999, it would be best not to have any electricity in the home. You just never know when some one will stick a screwdriver in a receptacle.

    Bookmark   June 20, 2008 at 9:50PM
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pharkus

I like that... "The Cadillac of circuit breakers". :P I tend to concur, as I use Square-D breakers in absolutely everything they'll fit in.

That said... Your washing machine does not need to be on a gfci, so you just saved yourself $54 on a circuit breaker (QO120 and HOM120 are both, iirc, right around $6, but it's been about four years since I've bought one so who knows...)

Your well pump... Well I'm gonna say I haven't yet seen one on a GFCI... Then again I'm in a town where many people have wires that "leak"...

    Bookmark   June 21, 2008 at 1:58PM
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pjb999

Texasredhead, what's your problem? Following your logic, cars ought not to have brakes and wires may as well be uninsulated?

Do you desire a return to the 'bad old days?'

I say, RCDs/GFCIs are a good idea, in my opinion, and I'd like to see their use more widespread. They save lives but have no negative effect on our electricity use...they are, for want of a better word, transparent, ie there is really no downside. I further observe that in some countries, their installation on all outlets is mandatory, and I explain how it's done in a cheaper fashion (whole-house models)

Somehow this offends you? Does this somehow infringe on your right to electrocute yourself?

I'm certainly no luddite, I think electricity is one of the most wonderful things we have. I have a healthy respect for it, and believe that if we have a way to make it safer, it's a good idea to do so....just as I would say the same about airbags and seat belts in cars, etc. Following YOUR logic, you wouldn't enforce any safety laws at all? Sheesh.

    Bookmark   June 22, 2008 at 2:35AM
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daft_punk

I FOUND IT !

My original post stated that the washer and well pump were on the same circuit. What I left out was the washer outlet line was connected to the pump line outside of the panel. In fact, the splice was not covered by either a J-box or outlet box.

I'd known about this "flying splice" since the lightning strike zapped me two years ago. It was going to get fixed "someday" - when I got around to running a separate line to the washer. It had been that way since long before we bought the house, so there was no hurry.

This evening I remembered that little boo-boo and decided to have another look at the splice. Whaddaya' know...the wire nut on the Neutral connection had fallen off. The bare wire tip was just barely touching the black-metal oil tank vent pipe.

A second neutral path had been created through the pipe, oil tank, fuel line, and furnace. This resulted in a current imbalance between Hot and Neutral. The GFI breaker was merely doing its job.

I installed a new forced-air oil heat system over a year ago. It was soup to nuts - furnace, ducts, oil tank, and piping. My guess is that I knocked off - or at least loosened - that wire nut when I pushed the black pipe through.

Now that I think about it, the nuisance tripping started soon after I put in the casement air conditioner in the living room for the summer. The window is located directly above the oil tank and the offending Neutral wire. Methinks the vibration from the aircon was the final straw. That allowed contact to be made between wire and pipe. They don't call 'em "window shakers" for nothing.

I found the missing wire nut resting on the sill joist - just below the flying splice. After moving the bare wire away from the pipe and screwing it back on, the clothes-washer has yet to trip.

Funny how the well pump didn't opened the breaker. My guess is that its neutral path has a little lower resistance that the clothes-washer's. So there was not enough current through the fault path to cause a trip.

I've learned plenty from this experience. I plan to use this knowledge like so...

- I will FINALLY box the neglected flying splice and separate the clothes-washer line from it.

- A new clothes-washer line will be run on a GFI breaker. It may not be "necessary". However, it's insurance against the unknown - or someone else's mistakes.

- I will weigh carefully a stranger's advice against common sense - even if the stranger has the confidence of a pro. Free advice is worth just that.

- I will have more faith in a safety device's intended purpose.

Thank you pjb999 and spencer_electrician for you advice and patience.

Peace.

Marco

    Bookmark   June 22, 2008 at 10:33PM
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pjb999

Glad you found it, and a lesson for all of us when we put those things off, been there, done that.

I too am puzzled how the neutral touching ground would do that, since neutral and ground are bound at the panel..maybe someone who understands better can clue us in, I'm rather curious, but if the thing's running properly now, there's the proof I guess.

Whilst I find other people's mistakes or poor workmanship frustrating, I also find it satisfying fixing them, and leaving them in a better state than I found them.

    Bookmark   June 22, 2008 at 11:47PM
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normel

If the neutral and ground are touching on the load side of a GFCI, then the GFCI will trip... it is reading an imbalance between the current "out" and the current "back" because part of that return current is now on the grounding wire.

    Bookmark   June 23, 2008 at 9:40AM
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daft_punk

I'm not puzzled as to why the clothes-washer tripped the GFI. What gets me is why the well-pump didn't trip it.

A GFI trips when it detects stray current. It does this by comparing the current in both the Hot and Neutral lines. The current through these should be exactly the same. As long as Hot and Neutral currents remain balanced, the breaker will function all the way to its rated limit.

Imagine a fault condition where the frame becomes energized. A person touching it would likely introduce a new fault path from Hot to ground. Now the current flowing through the Hot side of the GFI would equal the device current PLUS the fault current.

However, the neutral current through the GFI would consist ONLY of the device current. That's because the fault current has already taken a path to ground through the unlucky person above.

As a result, the GFI "sees" more current through the Hot side than the Neutral. A circuit within detects this imbalance and trips the breaker. Mr. conductor isn't so unlucky after all. He'll get a fleeting jolt, and nothing more.

The human body is a poor conductor of electricity. So the fault current will be quite small - perhaps a few milliamps. However, that's all it takes to knock you on your can. If that current finds a path through the heart, it'll be lights out for good. That's why a standard breaker does nothing to protect people from this kind of fault. The tiny amount of current needed to kill a person would be nowhere near its overload rating.

In my case, it wasn't a second current path through the Hot line that caused me grief. Instead, the second path was through the Neutral of my oil furnace. When my clothes-washer ran, the GFI saw less Neutral current than Hot. This imbalance tripped the breaker.

I don't know why the well pump didn't also trip the breaker. Perhaps the circuit paths were just different enough to mitigate the current imbalance.

I'm sure the electricians here know what a GFI does. The above explanation is for the benefit of DIY'ers like myself.

Peace.

Marco

    Bookmark   June 23, 2008 at 11:34AM
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daft_punk

I like your explanation better, normel.

    Bookmark   June 23, 2008 at 11:38AM
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pjb999

Thanks for the info, I understand it better :) There's so much focus on the active, I didn't consider the neutral side of it...

    Bookmark   June 23, 2008 at 7:52PM
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pudge565

Why are you putting your washer on a gfci you will get nuciane trips from the motor. It is not required to be a GFCI unless there is a utility sink within 6 Feet of the washer.

    Bookmark   June 25, 2008 at 11:42PM
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daft_punk

Hey pudge...

My washing maching ran just fine for four years on a GFI. It only started tripping last week when the Neutral line came in contact with my oil furnace piping. The GFI hasn't tripped since I removed the fault a few days ago.

I nearly dismissed the problem on a faulty or mis-applied GFI when it was merely doing its job. However, common sense won out and told me that something must have changed. Because of the "nuisance" tripping, I found that something.

I may someday put a sink in there, thereby requiring a GFI. Even if I don't, the GFI will stay.

My washer has proven already that it's "tight" enough to run on one without tripping. If electrical leakage does develop and trip the breaker, I'll know it's not normal. There's a lot of sensitive electronics in there. Somthing like a chafed wiring harness within the machine may trip a GFI before something expensive gets toasted.

Peace.

Marco

    Bookmark   June 26, 2008 at 8:45AM
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texasredhead

I've decided not to second guess why folks use GFCIs. As electricians working in Dallas, when we are working on new construction or remodles, we do not install GFCIs for washing machines, refrigerators and freezers unless the customer or the GC specifies. Code does require them in kitchen and bath areas that are subject to moisture. Some laundries have wash tubs which changes the GFCI equasion.

Personally, I am more conserned about arc faults than I am about ground faults. Code requires arc fault breakers in bedrooms not GFCIs.

    Bookmark   June 26, 2008 at 9:24AM
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lonesparky95

I'm with you, red.

    Bookmark   June 28, 2008 at 12:27AM
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perel

Actually, we are moving towards GFI protection for most/all circuits in the US with the move to requiring arc-fault breakers in more and more locations. The "whole house" GFIs have higher trip current, similar to the GFI portion of an AFCI breaker which trips at 30ma ground fault current.

    Bookmark   July 7, 2008 at 5:09PM
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pudge565

i don't think that afcis have gfci protection i may be wrong but i've never heard of this.

    Bookmark   July 8, 2008 at 1:49AM
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texasredhead

AFCI breakers and GFCIs perform entirly different functions. The GFCI prevents you from becomming part of the circuit and being shocked by a malunctioning small appliance whereas an AFCI shuts down from a hot wire short that could cause a fire. Most of the time a regular breaker will only trip from an overload.

GFCIs are required in possible damp locations such as kitchens, bathrooms, etc. AFCIs are required in bedrooms as are smoke alarms to protect sleeping people.

    Bookmark   July 8, 2008 at 2:26PM
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