The last couple weeks we have been on a GFCI adventure. For those (like me) who aren’t super handy with electricity, GFCI stands for Ground Fault Circuit Interrupter. That’s a special outlet that turns off when it detects minute differences between the current flowing into and out of an appliance or outlet. You know, those funny outlets in the kitchen or bath that have the little buttons and maybe a little light on them.
Last week we suddenly lost power to the six or so outlets to the rear of our RV. When we tried to reset the GFCI outlet in the bathroom (the culprit in previous power losses of this sort) we had no luck. This outlet has been a real pain to deal with as it is mounted in the bottom of a cabinet above our toilet and vanity. My husband and I both have middle aged eyes and wear bifocals to see stuff closer than arms length away. The bizarre posture one must assume to actually see this outlet naturally places everything we need to see in the wrong part of the bifocals rendering it all kind of an amorphous blur. Of course everything we need to see is tiny and not visibly labeled.
After telephone consultation between my husband and his father (who is much handier than us), it was decided that replacement of the outlet was required. So the next step was to remove the outlet so we could take it with us to Home Depot (to make sure we bought the correct replacement). As things go, it was a hot day and we were already very fatigued from trips to a feed store and to (wouldn’t you know) Home Depot for gardening supplies. We had been looking forward to resting in cool air conditioned comfort, not sweating with the power off removing an idiotically placed electrical outlet. After much sweating, cursing, and frustration we got the outlet disconnected. Off we went to Home Depot (again!) to peruse the selection of outlets.
These GFCI outlets come in various types depending on whether you need them to handle 15 amps or 20 amps and whether they will be installed inside or outside. The one we got cost about $15 and came with excellent installation instructions in 3 languages. Fortunately one of these was english. The most important instruction was, “Turn the power OFF.” I like that they included that.
So, after more cursing, sweating, and struggling, we got this new outlet installed. We plugged our rig back into shore power. The cute little green light was on. Nothing worked. We tested the outlet according to the instructions and found that we must have the wires connected incorrectly. You see, this outlet is connected in series with all the other outlets in the rear part of the RV. If it’s not on, none of the other outlets get any power.
At this point we were too exhausted and frustrated to go any further. I was certain I had connected the wires the same way they were connected to the old outlet, but the instruction booklet was telling me that I must have connected the “load” wires to the “lead” connection and vice versa. Load is the set of wires coming from the power source, while lead is the set of wires which connect to the downstream outlets. I just wanted to cry. We opted to leave it alone and turn the AC back on.
So, today we finally felt sort of ready to try again. I had purchased a voltage tester so I could actually check the wires and know for sure which was the load wire. I found out when I researched and shopped for the appropriate tester that there are “contact” and “non-contact” varieties. I’m all for something that tests without actually touching the live wires so I got a non-contact tester. I found this to be a handy tool and well worth the $20 I spent on it.
So, we turned off the power and pulled the outlet out of the wall. This time we left the ground wire attached. When trying to tighten the contact screw with the ground wire wrapped around it last time around, I learned the hard way that you should wrap the wire clockwise around the screw. Wrapping it counter-clockwise only leads to much frustration as the wire scoots out from under the contact screw during tightening! So after much testing of wires and turning the electricity off and on, I thought to check the labeling on the back of the new GFCI outlet. It turns out that the old one and the new one, while appearing almost identical, had the load and lead connections on opposite ends of the outlet. I had carefully connected the load wires to the lead connections. Once I switched the wires around, everything worked perfectly. So, lesson learned: always read the labels on the contacts even if they look just like those on the old outlet.
So now the outlets all work. We are quite relieved the problem was this “easily” solved. I guess it’s all relative. I wonder what will be next? Oh yeah. The hot water heater just quit working. Argh!