There are many reasons a refrigerator or freezer might be tripping the GFCI in the garage. The most common one is the appliance is older and may have damage. Another issue may be an overloaded circuit.
A spare fridge or freezer is handy for additional meat storage or a kegerator, and the garage seems like the ideal place to locate these large appliances, especially since they are likely older models with less visual appeal than the one in the kitchen. You know, the beer fridge doesn’t have to look good, it just needs to keep the drinks cold. But when the GFCI trips, the appliance shuts down, potentially wasting a freezer full of food and risking a warm beer.
Step 1 - Check the Breakers
Older homes often weren’t set up to handle today’s electrical demands. Your breaker box may need to be replaced, or certain breakers may need upgraded.
Step 2 - Identify the Circuit
Knowing what else is running on the circuit is crucial to understanding the problem. In simple terms, each light or outlet draws energy. If the circuit draws too much energy, an alarm bell in the form of a ground fault circuit interrupter (GFCI) comes to the rescue, automatically turning off the power to the entire circuit.
If you look at an outlet and see a red test button, the outlet is equipped with a GFCI. To secure the heavy draw of a refrigerator, it should not share a circuit with anything else. Now this can be tricky if nothing else is on and then running the pressure washer plugged into an outlet on the back porch trips the GFCI, which may not seem related to the circuit. So it’s important to map out your circuits in order to know exactly what else could cause an overload.
Step 3 - Test Other Electrical Items
If the refrigerator causes the GFCI to trip immediately when plugged in, it’s likely that the problem is with the ground fault in the fridge. This means bad wiring or other issues are causing electricity to take an unplanned path to ground. In essence, this is an overload message from the appliance to the GFCI. To verify the fridge is the problem, try running another appliance to the outlet. If everything is fine on the circuit with other tools and appliances, the problem is with the fridge.
1. There are four ways to address this issue. Start by running a heavy-duty extension cord (for test purposes only!) to a known non-GFCI receptacle. If the fridge works, it has an internal ground fault and should not be used until it is properly repaired. So, the first option is to not use the appliance.
2. The second option is to plug it into a non-GFCI outlet. Obviously this makes it impossible to trip the GFCI. However, remember the GFCI is a safety feature so choosing to plug the fridge elsewhere could result in major wiring issues or fire if the circuit becomes overloaded from the draw of too many devices or if there is a serious safety issue with the appliance itself.
3. The third and most recommended option is to run a designated circuit for the fridge. Your garage may not offer a non-GFCI option. If this is the case, you can tap off the line side of the GFCI and install a new simplex receptacle next to the freezer. You also may be able to just replace one outlet with a non-gfci outlet and move the GFCI outlet, depending on how the circuit is laid out. Alternately, you can run a designated circuit from the panel to a specific outlet, specifically for the fridge.
4. The fourth option is to install an inexpensive GFCI alarm. Typically less than $100, advanced models work as smart devices, notifying you on your phone if the circuit trips and your appliance is turned off. While an investment of $15 to $100 may seem questionable, it’s definitely less expensive than losing a freezer full of food. This solution won’t keep the circuit from tripping, but will at least alert you to the problem.
Note that when it comes to powering appliances, there is no meaningful difference between a 15-amp GFCI and a 20-amp GFCI, so a simple breaker upgrade probably won’t make a difference.
Also note, a ground fault in the appliance can be a serious safety issue. Call in a professional or test the system to identify the problem. To test for this properly, use a 'megger' which is a high voltage ohm meter. Alternatively, you might be able to get some useful information with a normal multimeter. One contributor in our forum suggested this process, “With the fridge unplugged, test the resistance between all of the pins on the plug. There are three pins, and thus three possible resistance measurements that you can make.
One of these measurements (between the two flat blades) should be low, and should change based upon switch settings (eg thermostat on or off, door open or closed, etc) The other two measurements (flat blade to round ground pin) should be extremely high or open circuit.” The resulting values will help you establish if there is an issue and where that problem may lie if you decide to dive into refrigerator repair.