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Dave Harnish
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Dave's Repair Service
1911 Heath Hill Rd
New Albany, PA 18833

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Dishwashers connected to GFI Circuits

I confess to never being a big fan of GFI receptacles. Like nearly everything else we form opinions about, it goes back to my upbringing. Please allow me a few lines to explain. 

I grew up (you'd probably argue that point if you knew me well!) spending as much time as possible in my Dad's motor repair shop, and have never been afraid of electricity (respect and fear differ, btw <grin>). 

One of my earliest memories of the shop was 'arc-drawing' pictures on Dad's big old bench vise. 

We did this by plugging a patch cord into his 'test board' and attaching one side of the 120 volts to the vise mounting bolt with one alligator clip, and drawing pictures with the other. 

It was great fun and looked pretty dramatic to a little kid, with sparks flying all over (not to mention the cool static it caused on my sister's radio <g>). I can still smell the ozone that came from this game, and there wasn't a 'bare' spot on that entire, tortured old vise!

By the way, one of those test boards is a very handy tool if you do much electrical testing on your bench. Just a board with two porcelain pull-chain sockets and a receptacle attached, hung on the wall above the bench. 

The sockets are wired in series with the 'hot' side of the receptacle, allowing different sized bulbs and higher wattage 'cone' heaters to be quickly connected in series with a load under test. I use mine all the time, and it's extremely handy. 

Anyway, getting back to GFI's, when these devices came on the scene, my whole family snickered. I mean, why would anyone need such high tech protection from just 120 volts? What wimps!

My electrician brother and I used to see what wattage bulb we could screw into that test board and still 'hang on' to (He always won - might explain that twitch...)

Throughout my career as an appliance technician, I've dealt with far too many 'nuisance trips' of GFI's. Especially memorable are those dead food freezers whose contents spoiled several days before anyone knew the blasted GFI had tripped off. Those experiences further 'soured' my opinion of this 'unnecessary complication'. 

But I say all that to say this (thank goodness - he DOES have a point!): There's a place for these devices, and it's in an application I never used to recommend: connected to an appliance with a motor. 

The 'fatal' dishwasher failure I see most often, at least on the most common vertical shaft models, is motor failure due to water leaks through the pump seal, located  just above the motor on this design.  Here's one that wasn't caught nearly early enough to save: 

  Water-damaged Whirlpool dishwasher motor

Trouble is, the leak often develops so slowly, by the time it's noticed, the motor's been damaged beyond repair. The secret to preventing this damage is discovering that slow leak as early as possible. 

I've a colleague out West who's invented a clever little tray to mount under dishwashers. It's designed to divert any water leaks out the front, where they're quickly noticed. It's a great idea, and I plan on getting some of those, and will keep you up to date on that.

But another 'ounce of prevention' is to wire the dishwasher to a GFI circuit. This is done in many newer homes, but around here, I seldom see it.

In the past 6 months, I've been able to 'save' two really nice dishwashers from the usually fatal leak, due to GFI's. In the same time period, though, I've also 'DOA'd' and scrapped  3 or 4 with water-ruined motors in machines that no one knew had been leaking. 

So I've begun recommending that dishwashers be connected to a GFI circuit whenever possible. I'm pretty sure that's already required in many parts of the US, but evidently it's not here in our area yet. 

The reason this works so well is simple. When a failed pump seal allows water to find its way into the motor windings, the resultant electrical leakage to ground trips the DW's GFI circuit breaker or GFI receptacle, the machine goes dead, and I get a call. 

After replacing the seal kit, the machine's back up and running in under an hour, and well under half the price of a new one.

So maybe I'm getting 'soft' as I age, but I guess GFI's do have their place. (How about it, brother? 100 watts, no GFI? [twitch])

Update, December 2006:
I've been finding out, the hard way, that GFI's don't usually save 'Tall Tub' model dishwashers. The reason is, unlike earlier vertical shaft wash motors we talked about above, these critters use a motor whose shaft mounts horizontally under the tank to save space.

The water from a rotary seal leak, starting small, never makes it to the motor windings in these machines, but destroys the motor bearing before anyone realizes there's a problem. The first symptom's most often a low hum as the motor tries to start, but can't because its bearing's bound.

Here's the motor out of one of several otherwise gorgeous tall tub dishwashers that I've had to scrap recently. This one was only 4 years old:

water-damaged tall tub dishwasher motor

Depressing, because these machines aren't cheap, and new motor/pump assemblies for them aren't either!


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