Ungrounded Electrical Receptacles
by Nick Gromicko
Grounding of electrical receptacles (which some laypeople refer to as outlets) is an important safety feature that has been required in new construction since 1962, as it minimizes the risk of electric shock and protects electrical equipment from damage. Modern, grounded 120-volt receptacles in the United States have a small, round ground slot centered below two vertical hot and neutral slots, and it provides an alternate path for electricity that may stray from an appliance. Older homes often have ungrounded, two-slot receptacles that are outdated and potentially dangerous. Homeowners sometimes attempt to perform the following dangerous modifications to ungrounded receptacles:
- the use of an adapter, also known as a "cheater plug." Adapters permit the ungrounded operation of appliances that are designed for grounded operation. These are a cheaper alternative to replacing ungrounded receptacles, but are less safe than properly grounding the connected appliance;
- replacing a two-slot receptacle with a three-slot receptacle without re-wiring the electrical system so that a path to ground is provided to the receptacle. While this measure may serve as a seemingly proper receptacle for three-pronged appliances, this “upgrade” is potentially more dangerous than the use of an adapter because the receptacle will appear to be grounded and future owners might never be aware that their system is not grounded. If a building still uses knob-and-tube wiring, it is likely than any three-slot receptacles are ungrounded. To be sure, InterNACHI inspectors may test suspicious receptacles for grounding; and
- removal of the ground pin from an appliance. This common procedure not only prevents grounding but also bypasses the appliance’s polarizing feature, since a de-pinned plug can be inserted into the receptacle upside-down.
While homeowners may be made aware of the limitations of ungrounded electrical receptacles, upgrades are not necessarily required. Many small electrical appliances, such as alarm clocks and coffee makers, are two-pronged and are thus unaffected by a lack of grounding in the building’s electrical system.
Upgrading the system will bring it closer to modern safety standards, however, and this may be accomplished in the following ways:
- Install three-slot receptacles and wire them so that they’re correctly grounded.
- Install ground-fault circuit interrupters (GFCIs). These can be installed upstream or at the receptacle itself. GFCIs are an accepted replacement because they will protect against electric shocks even in the absence of grounding, but they may not protect the powered appliance. Also, GFCI-protected ungrounded receptacles may not work effectively with surge protectors. Ungrounded GFCI-protected receptacles should be identified with labels that come with the new receptacles that state: “No Equipment Ground.”
- Replace three-slot receptacles with two-slot receptacles. Two-slot receptacles correctly represent that the system is ungrounded, lessening the chance that they will be used improperly.
Homeowners and non-qualified professionals should never attempt to modify a building’s electrical components. Misguided attempts to ground receptacles to a metallic water line or ground rod may be dangerous. InterNACHI inspectors may recommend that a qualified electrician evaluate electrical receptacles and wiring.
In summary, adjustments should be made by qualified electricians -- not homeowners -- to an electrical system to upgrade ungrounded receptacles to meet modern safety standards and the requirements of today's typical household appliances.
NOTES FROM ANDY JORDAN - OWNER/PRINCIPAL OF THE AUSTIN HOME INSPECTOR AND TAHI SERVICES:
To the best of this inspector's knowledge, there is currently no mandate to update or improve ungrounded circuits unless the structure has or will undergo a significant remodel/update. Even in cases such as this, the mandate to update/ground dated systems will vary greatly depending on the location of the property and jurisdiction with authority. Often, grounding updates are performed at higher risk areas (receptacles near water sources such as kitchens, bathrooms, and outdoor areas) while common receptacles remain ungrounded. Additional protection of expensive electronics (such as the use of a power strip with internal surge prevention devices) may reduce the likelihood of damage in the event of a power issue. If grounding concerns are present, please contact your electrical professional to further assess and determine what updates are available and warranted.
QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS FROM A PRO
My house was built in about 1946. The electrical service was upgraded to 200 amps, but many of the outlets are still the two-pin style. The wiring appears to be an older cloth-wrapped cable. I’m worried about the grounding of this wiring. Short of replacing all the wire, is there another way to upgrade this system so that I can be sure it is grounded safely? A few ground wires are connected to the cold-water supply, but I believe that they are for a 240v electrical-baseboard heater system.
Steve Shroder, via e-mail, None
Clifford A. Popejoy, a licensed electrical contractor in Sacramento, California, replies:
Modern circuits are grounded for safety, so your concern is well-founded. The “ground wire,” more correctly called the equipment ground, is there so that if any metal part of an appliance, tool, lamp, or the like becomes energized, the circuit breaker will trip and keep you from being electrocuted or shocked should you touch the metal part. How might the metal case of a drill become energized? The insulation on a wire inside the drill could become damaged. If that live wire touched the metal case, the tool could be energized to 120v, and that’s not good. If this happens with a grounded tool, a short circuit is created, and the breaker trips.
These days, not many tools, lamps, or appliances have three-pin plugs. That’s because tools and appliances are made with virtually no chance of an exposed metal part becoming energized. They are called “double-insulated.” There’s another insulating barrier between any wire inside the tool and the metal case or other exposed metal part.
How do you get a grounding receptacle outlet in an old system? The code allows a grounding conductor to be run along the existing wiring to the grounding bar on the panel where the circuit originates. Years ago, you could grab a ground from any metal water pipe, but when PVC pipe became common, that option disappeared because there was a real chance that the metal water pipe could be repaired with PVC, interrupting the grounding path.
There’s another approach to dealing with electricity being where it shouldn’t be, like on the metal base of a lamp. Rather than running a separate grounding conductor all the way back to the panel, you could use a ground-fault circuit interrupter, or GFCI (also referred to as a GFI). These safety devices work by detecting any imbalance in electricity flowing out via the hot wire and back via the neutral. If there’s more than a minuscule discrepancy, the GFI cuts power to the receptacle or the circuit. The idea is that if there’s a difference between what’s going out and what’s coming back in, that difference in current might just be leaking out through a person. The trigger level for a GFI is 6 milliamps for 40 milliseconds. Most people wouldn’t experience shock or electrocution if the current flowing through them is less than 6 milliamps for that short a time.
If you replace a standard circuit breaker with a combination circuit breaker/GFI, you will gain shock protection for every outlet or device on the circuit. A 15-amp circuit breaker/GFI costs around $30. The downside to GFI breakers is that they trip often, so you spend a lot of time going to the basement to reset the breaker. I prefer to replace an ungrounded receptacle with a GFI receptacle to get shock protection at that receptacle and at all the other receptacles that are downstream, or farther away from the service panel. The downside is that it’s hard to tell exactly what downstream is in a 60-year-old house. A 15-amp GFI duplex receptacle costs around $15.
I wouldn’t worry about grounding the branch circuit for grounding’s sake. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t ground every outlet, just that the cost is high and the benefit low. Some electrical appliances (such as a surge protector for a computer) should be on a circuit with an equipment ground, but most appliances are double insulated. A lot of safety already is built in.
Rewiring is the best approach, but it is much more expensive than the options I outlined above and is not essential to achieve a good degree of safety.
NOTE: Article originally published at http://www.finehomebuilding.com