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How to find ground fault in household electric circuit

Outlet is warm
Things to check first
1) Reset GFCI. Two GFCI on same circuit can cause trip GFCI.
2) Rain on outdoor outlet can trip GFCI. Extension cords in the wet grass can trip breaker.
3) Unplug everything on GFCI outlet and see if it resets. Bad GFCI must be replaced.
4) Reversed polarity on outlets can can cause malfunction of electronic devices. Check outlets with with analyzer.
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5) Check for Hot/ warm breakers and any hot/warm switch or outlet. These are signs of bad device, or overampped circuit.  A dimmer can be warm, but should not feel hot. Check rating plates on each device.
6) Use nose to check for smell of smoke and/or burning. Use eyes to check for signs of burned or discolored electrical switches, outlets, lights, cords etc.
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What is a ground fault
A ground fault is when electricity carried on the Hot wire reaches the ground wire or the earth, causing circuit breaker to trip.
If circuit does not have GFCI or AFCI, then the short circuit must reach the ground wire and go to earth before the breaker will trip. This emphasizes the need for proper ground wire.
Breakers trip for other reasons, such as bad breaker or undersized wire for the load, melted motor winding, bad water heater element, cut wire, failed outlet or switch.
The breaker trips when heat on the Hot wire exceeds breaker rating. What happens is the fault current pushes electrons down the ground wire out to the ground rod and into earth. The difference in electrical potential between charged electrons on the wire and electrons in the earth creates a strong attraction. Electrons pour uncontrollably down the ground wire trying to equalize the difference in charge between wire and earth. The number of electrons quickly exceeds the rating of the wire, the wire gets hot, and breaker responds to the heat by tripping.

Ground fault and GFCI and AFCI
The GFCI reacts to current difference between wires, while a circuit breaker reacts to heat build-up on the Hot wire. As a consequence, circuit breakers are slow acting, and often will not trip with a slight trickle of power to ground.
The GFCI will trip immediately in a fault condition, and doing so can react fast enough to save a person's life who is standing in water and somehow comes into contact with live power. The circuit breaker would likewise trip with the fault, but never act fast enough to save the person. Double insulated power tools add a layer of safety, but do not protect in all situations, or protect from a frayed extension cord.
This is why GFCI outlets and breakers are required for outdoor wiring, and wiring in vulnerable circuits like bathroom and kitchen where water pipes and bathtubs can conduct electricity from outlet into the soil. For example a garbage disposal, dishwasher, washing machines are electrical devices that run water.

Symptoms include tripped GFCI that will not reset.  In this case, the GFCI device might be bad. But if the GFCI is recording a fault, then troubleshooting is required to find the loose wire, bad connection, defective electrical device, melted motor winding etc.

If the circuit is protected by AFCI instead of GFCI, then the circuit has additional layer of protection. AFCI will trip if an 'arc' is detected. The arc does not have to reach ground wire, it can merely be a loose Hot or Neutral located on a switch screw, outlet, fan motor etc.
AFCI will trip if a paper clip somehow falls down behind the plug on your copier and causes a short across the two prong plug.
While the copier will probably not have AFCI or GFCI, the paper clip short can cause a spark that has potential of causing fire. The intention of AFCI is to protect against any arc on the protected circuit. Since the arc might be hard to find, careful attention should be giving to all wire connection points during troubleshoot inspection.
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120 and 240 volt circuits

-Basic household wiring supplies Hot, Neutral and Ground to 120 volt circuits that serve lights, plugs and appliances.
240 volt circuits receive 2 Hots and a ground but no Neutral is required unless specified for application such as subpanel.

-Some appliances, such as microwave and gas water heaters with flue damper or power vent, are required to have dedicated breaker where only 1 item is served by the circuit. -Microwaves are on dedicated circuit because they draw 12-15 amps.
-The purpose putting gas water heater on dedicated circuit is to prevent surges and anomalies, caused by other appliances or motors, from affecting operation of gas control valve. The purpose of putting microwave on dedicated circuit is the amount of amperage demand for appliances. Other possible dedicated circuits include 120 volt motor for outdoor spa or above ground pool, or wire going to distant building.

-All 240 volt appliances, such as water heater, subpanel, clothes dryer, oven, HVAC etc have two Hot wires and are required to have dedicated double-pole breaker.
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Understanding house wiring before tracking down fault
There are a maximum 12 boxes per circuit. This means 8 outlets, 2 ceiling box, and 2 switches, or any combination.
Usually one area of a house is served by a breaker. Such as kitchen has 1 circuit breaker, while 1 bedroom and a hallway share a different circuit breaker.
Dedicated circuits for 240 volt appliances, and 120 volt microwaves, serve one device, and have 1 box or connection point and not 12. For example 240 volt clothes dryer will have 1 breaker and serve only the dryer. This is a dedicated circuit.

How the wire is routed in the circuit. Typical house wiring consists of a sheathed cable that carries three wires: a Hot, Neutral and ground. Or in the case of 240 volt, a Hot, a Hot and a ground, but no Neutral.

Each wire leaves the breaker box and travels to the first junction box. For example a ceiling box in the nearest room is normally the first junction box. From the ceiling junction box, the cable splits off, and travels to each of the other boxes in the circuit. Any box can be a junction box where the circuit splits and carries power to another box. So a junction box can have several cables.
For example, if the first junction box is bedroom ceiling box, there will be cables that travel to other boxes, and one cable might travel to next bedroom ceiling box. And so the next bedroom also has a ceiling junction box.
A 120 volt, non-dedicated circuit can have 12 boxes, and several junction boxes, but each box in the circuit will have only 1 Hot wire that connects back to the circuit breaker. This is important, because identifying the 1 Hot wire inside the box can be key for troubleshooting.
When the cable arrives inside a duplex outlet box for example, another wire will leave the outlet box and travel to the next outlet box, and then travel to next outlet box or next switch box, until the last box is reached.
So each box will have 1 or more cables, and the last box will have just 1 cable.
However, each box has only 1 hot wire, and 1 neutral, and 1 ground that connect back to breaker box.
Finding the fault
First step is to isolate exactly what boxes are on the circuit.
Then use a circuit analyzer to check outlets.
Buy: Circuit analyzer
1) Unplug all lamps, clocks, appliances, cords, clocks etc on the affected circuit. Try to reset the breaker or GFCI.  If power is restored, then one of the plugged-in devices is suspect. Wait for a while to see if power continues uninterrupted. Reconnect each device one by one to eliminate the good ones. If a lamp is causing the problem, then plug a good lamp into same outlet and see if problem comes back. If problem resumes with good lamp is plugged in, then turn off power and inspect wiring on outlet, and or replace outlet. Quick connection points on back of outlet fail frequently with cheap electrical devices.

2) If problem does not appear to be a plugged-in device, the switches are next suspect. Turn off all ceiling fans, lights, and switches. See if GFCI or breaker resets. If power resumes, then turn each switch back on one by one.
If ceiling fan causes problem, remove, inspect, replace switch and see if problem is solved before replacing ceiling fan.

If problem is inside a box somewhere:
3) What to look for: Warm or hot electrical device. Recent lighting event. Corrosion and moisture, especially outdoor boxes. Damaged or inoperable device. Scorched, burned smell. Loose wires: wiggle switch and outlet and see if lights flicker or if you hear crackling sound or see spark. Evidence of rodents or insects.

4) A common problem is loose or burned quick-connect on back of switch or outlet.

5) Another common problem is loose Neutral wire. The Neutral wires are typically connected together, covered with wire connector and pushed to back of box. Realign wires together and install new connector.

6) Other problems can be bad switch, frayed or melted wire, such as overampped wire from not having the breaker and wire size match. Recent lightning strike can cause damaged wire or cause wires to come loose. Match wire and breaker size

7) Problems are usually located inside a box, although it is possible to have damaged wire somewhere inside wall, which can be solved by temporarily disconnecting the wire leading to that specific line.

6) To find the suspect location: Select one of the outlet boxes with more than one cable. Identify which is the incoming cable with the Hot and Neutral. Then disconnect the other cable(s) so boxes farther from breaker are disconnected from the circuit. Turn power ON, and see if fault is still present. 
If fault is still present, then choose another live box that has two or more cables that is closer to breaker box, and repeat test.
Process of elimination will narrow the search. Sometimes it is easier to catch everything up-to-date and replace all the switches, outlets and wire connectors in a room, but that is no guarantee the problem will be solved.

7) More difficult situations:
-Aluminum wire instead of copper. If aluminum wire is discovered, I recommend calling electrician. Do not assume ordinary residential wiring techniques can solve problem. Special compression connections are required along with devices that are rated AL-CU.
-Other problems can include rodent damage to wire, nail in wires, cable staple in wire, melted section of wire from lightning, or some other wire damage. Full length of wire must be replaced from box to box. To avoid rodent damage, install wire inside conduit.
-Wire connections or junction boxes concealed inside wall can be discovered using a wire-and-stud finder. The wire must run from box to box, and boxes cannot be concealed or inaccessible. As a work around, a junction box can be any switch box, octagon, or square box that is approved for electric wiring. Strategies for disguising a box located on a wall, can include adding an outlet, sconce light, or installing battery-operated smoke or carbon monoxide detector over the box.

8) DC electricity is different from AC. Household 120-240 volt wiring is AC or alternating current. DC or direct current is available from solar panels. Do not connect solar panels directly to household wiring. DC can melt switch connections in an AC circuit.
Stud-wire finder
Stick menCheck the quick connects on back of electrical device.

Unlike screws located on sides of device, the quick connects are on back of various 120 volt household switches and outlets.

Higher amp devices that are rated for motors and 240 volt application have screw terminals only. The screw terminals give a more certain connection point for wires, but can be problematic when more than one wire is attached to same terminal. Work-arounds can include using a wire connector to joint several wires and then running a short jumper wire to screw terminal.

Quick connects are easy way to wire: simply strip wire to length using the length gauge on back of devices, and push into hole that corresponds to screw color. Hot wires connect to brass or black screws, and Neutral wires connect to silver screws. Push wire fully into hole, and when done, pull stoutly on wire to ensure it is lodged permanently in place. Use small slotted screwdriver to remove wires from quick connect. Push screwdriver into hole located just above the wire. Then push screwdriver away from the wire while pulling on wire to release the quick connect. This takes some practice.

Higher amp circuits, such as microwave etc, should be connected to screw terminals. There is always a risk of failure when using quick connects, especially with the cheaper electric devices sold at local box stores. If you buy the cheap outlet and switch, use screw terminals instead of quick connects.
Burned/ melted wires
Wires can overheat for variety of reasons. Loose connection on terminal is a major cause.

Stranded wire under a screw terminal will cause fault, spark, melted parts, damaged device, fire.
Make sure each box has a cover.
More than 2 wires on a terminal, 2 different gauge wires, stranded wire .... then use wire connector and just a jumper to the terminal.
Push on wire connectors
If a wire gets overly hot, or burns, it will melt the outer insulation on wire and damage the electrical device. Replace wiring device, cut back wire, or replace wire.
Most cases a fire inside timer will require total replacement.
In the case of an outlet or switch, the device will need to be replaced. Wires carefully examined for damage outside box. If damage is confined inside the box, and wires can be cut back and spliced, then it is possible that no further repair is needed after new wire and device are installed. If damage to wire extends into the wall cavity, then likely a fire was narrowly avoided. Remove drywall and make assessment over to next box, then replace wire as needed.


How to test wires
The circuit breaker is frequently the cause of tripped circuit.
If wire on breaker is loose, the lights and the circuit will flicker, or just go out.
Reset breaker fully off and then fully back on. Jiggle breaker and listen to crackling or fizzing sound that indicates loose wire or breaker.
For qualified folks only: Remove cover off main panel and tighten screw on breaker. Be mindful that when main breaker is off, all the breakers will be off... BUT THE WIRES ON MAIN BREAKER WILL STILL BE HOT unless meter is pulled by power company.
A loose breaker on the busbar shows same symptoms as loose wire. Move breaker to another slot in the breaker box.
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