How to Install a GFCI or AFCI/GFCI Circuit Breaker


Installing a GFCI (ground fault circuit interrupter) or AFCI/GFCI (arc fault circuit interrupter/ground fault circuit interrupter) circuit breaker is an important safety upgrade for any home. These devices shut off power when they detect dangerous conditions – GFCIs detect ground faults, while AFCIs detect arc faults. Installing them properly ensures they work when needed. This guide will cover everything you need to know, from circuit breaker basics to step-by-step installation instructions. We’ll also provide tips on troubleshooting any issues. With a little time and the right tools, you can install a GFCI or AFCI/GFCI circuit breaker and take charge of your home’s electrical safety.

Overview of Circuit Breakers

Before jumping into GFCI and AFCI installation, let’s do a quick overview of what circuit breakers are and how they work.

  • What is a circuit breaker? A circuit breaker is an automatic switch that shuts off power to a circuit when it detects issues like short circuits or overloads. It serves as a safety mechanism for your home’s electrical system.
  • Main service panel: The main service panel, or breaker box, is where all the circuit breakers are located. It’s normally outside near the electric meter.
  • Amp rating: Every circuit breaker is designed to handle a certain amperage load. Standard sizes are 15 amps, 20 amps, 30 amps, etc. This matches the amp rating of the wiring, outlets, and appliances linked to that circuit.
  • Single pole vs double pole: Single pole breakers control 120 volt circuits with a hot wire and neutral. Double pole breakers control 240 volt circuits like for large appliances. They have two hot wires.
  • How they trip: When a circuit breaker detects too much current flow, it will trip and switch to the “off” position. This shuts down the problematic circuit.
  • Resetting tripped breakers: To reset a tripped breaker, switch it completely to the “off” position, then back to the “on” position. Test devices on the circuit to see if the issue is resolved.

Now that we’ve covered the basics, let’s look specifically at GFCIs and AFCIs.

About GFCI Circuit Breakers

GFCIs (ground fault circuit interrupters) are a critical safety device – here is an overview:

  • Purpose: Detect dangerous ground faults and shut off power to prevent electrocution.
  • What’s a ground fault? When current leaks from a hot wire to the ground rather than along a complete circuit. This can electrocute someone who becomes the path to ground.
  • Detects small leaks: GFCIs can detect leaks as small as 5 milliamps and trip in a fraction of a second. Enough to prevent fatal electrocution.
  • Requirements: GFCI protection is required by code in bathrooms, kitchens, laundry rooms, and other areas with water sources.
  • Can be circuit breakers: GFCI protection can be provided via outlet or circuit breaker. Circuit breaker option protects the whole circuit.

GFCI circuit breakers provide convenient whole-home protection. Let’s look at how to install them.

AFCI/GFCI Circuit Breakers

AFCI/GFCI breakers combine both AFCI (arc-fault) and GFCI (ground-fault) protection:

  • What’s an arc fault? Dangerous electrical discharge when live wires touch or get too close. Causes overheating that can ignite fires.
  • AFCI vs GFCI Protection: AFCIs prevent electrical fires, GFCIs prevent shock/electrocution. Combined device adds both protections.
  • Required by code: New NEC code requires AFCI protection for all branch circuits supplying outlets in dwelling units.
  • Simple upgrade: Easy to install combined AFCI/GFCI breaker to update older circuits to meet new safety standards.

Now let’s go over the steps for proper installation.

Pre-Installation Steps

Before swapping any breakers, take time to prepare with these steps:

  • Check your main service panel: Ensure there is room for the new GFCI or AFCI/GFCI breaker. Make space by rearranging existing breakers if needed.
  • Consult your circuit map: Identify exactly which circuit the new breaker will control. Mark it clearly on your map.
  • Purchase the right breaker: Match the amp rating and number of poles to the existing breaker you’re replacing.
  • Shut off the main breaker: Turning off the main breaker de-energizes the entire service panel for safety.
  • Test for power: Double check power is off with a non-contact voltage tester. Test wires in the service panel before doing any work.

Advance preparation helps ensure proper installation and operation down the road.

How to Install a GFCI or AFCI/GFCI Circuit Breaker

Once you’ve completed the preparatory steps, you’re ready to install the new GFCI or AFCI/GFCI circuit breaker. Follow these safe installation steps:

Step 1: Turn Off the Main Circuit Breaker

  • Shut off the main breaker in your electrical service panel. This disconnects power from the panel.
  • Test wires with a non-contact voltage tester to confirm power is off. Make sure to test wires inside the panel before touching anything.
  • Failure to shut off the main breaker could result in severe electric shock. So always turn it off and double check that power is off.

Step 2: Remove the Old Breaker

  • Locate the circuit breaker you are replacing in the panel.
  • Unscrew and remove the wire terminal screws on the breaker.
  • Carefully pull the wires off the breaker terminals. Make sure to grasp the insulation, not the wire strands.
  • Unclip the old breaker from the panel housing and remove it.

Step 3: Install the New GFCI/AFCI Breaker

  • Clip in the new GFCI or AFCI/GFCI breaker. Make sure it clicks securely into place.
  • Attach the circuit wires to the correct breaker terminals, matching hot and neutral wires. Secure the terminal screws tightly.
  • For double pole breakers, connect both hot wires. Neutral wire to center terminal.
  • Ensure the wires are firmly fixed in place with no loose connections.

Step 4: Label and Map the New Breaker

  • Mark the new breaker according to the circuit it controls using the panel’s labeling system.
  • Update your circuit map noting that the circuit now has GFCI or AFCI/GFCI protection.
  • Clear labeling prevents confusion and helps with future electrical work.

Step 5: Carefully Restore Power

  • With all wires securely connected, carefully switch the main breaker back on to restore power.
  • At the GFCI/AFCI breaker, switch from “off” to “on”.
  • Listen for the click of the breaker resetting. Check for power and test circuit operation.

With power restored, your new protective breaker is ready to help safeguard your home’s electrical system.

Testing a GFCI or AFCI/GFCI Breaker

Once installed, a GFCI or AFCI/GFCI breaker should be tested regularly to verify proper operation. Here’s how:

  • Start by pressing the “Test” button on the breaker. This should trip it and shut off power.
  • If it doesn’t trip, the breaker may be defective and require replacement.
  • To restore power after a successful test, flip the breaker to the full “off” and then “on” positions.
  • Also test by pressing the test buttons at any GFCI outlets powered by the breaker. Tripping an outlet should also trip the breaker.
  • Test once a month. More often if installed in a damp or wet location.
  • If the breaker ever fails to trip during testing, discontinue circuit use until the issue can be corrected by a qualified electrician.

Routine testing verifies your GFCI or AFCI/GFCI breaker provides reliable protection from electrical shocks and fire hazards.

Troubleshooting Installation Issues

While problems are rare with proper installation, here are tips for troubleshooting any GFCI or AFCI/GFCI breaker issues:

Breaker repeatedly trips:

  • Check for any damaged wiring or a ground fault downstream. May require an electrician.
  • Verify the breaker amp rating matches circuit wires. Overloads can trip GFCIs.
  • Bad breaker or defective GFCI module. Replace if suspected.

Breaker won’t reset:

  • Check for any tripped GFCIs on the circuit. Reset all outlets first.
  • Ensure the breaker is flipped fully to “off” then back to “on” position.
  • May indicate internal breaker fault. Replace if resetting doesn’t work.

No power downstream:

  • Check all wiring connections are tight and attached to the proper terminals.
  • Verify the main breaker is on and supplying power to the panel.
  • Test the breaker with a multimeter to check for voltage. Replace if faulty.

Lights dimming or flickering:

  • Usually indicates a loose wire connection. Tighten all wires securely.
  • Possible overloading tripping breaker intermittently. Check loads on circuit.

With a methodical approach, most issues can be isolated and corrected. Call an electrician for any complex problems.


Below are answers to some frequently asked questions about installing GFCI and AFCI/GFCI circuit breakers:

Do I need a neutral wire for GFCI/AFCI breakers?

Yes, these breakers require a neutral wire to work properly. If you only have hot wires in your box, a GFCI receptacle may be a better option.

Can I install them myself?

If you’re comfortable working inside your home’s breaker panel, you can self-install. Shutting off power and proper wiring are essential. If not, hire an electrician.

How do I identify the right breaker to replace?

Check your circuit map for the specific circuit and match the existing breaker’s amp/pole rating and size. Labeling helps.

Why choose circuit breaker over receptacle?

Breakers protect the entire circuit. Outlets only protect downstream. Breakers are also centrally located for easier testing.

How often should I test?

Test at least monthly by pressing the “Test” button or tripping outlet GFCI buttons on the circuit. More often for damp areas.

Can I use GFCI and AFCI breakers on 240V circuits?

Yes, double pole AFCI/GFCI breakers are available for 240V circuits like ranges, dryers, etc. Follow 240V wiring methods.

Why does my AFCI breaker trip with some appliances?

Motors or variable speed devices can generate normal arcs that trip AFCIs. May need to move to a non-AFCI circuit.

Final Thoughts

Installing GFCI and AFCI/GFCI circuit breakers enhances safety by shutting off power during dangerous electrical faults. Follow proper precautions – turn off power, double check connections, and annually test. While hiring an electrician is an option, you can complete a safe, reliable DIY installation by carefully following the steps here. Empower yourself to take charge of your home’s electrical protection. Stay safe and limit risks with these essential safety devices.

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