Ungrounded Outlets and the GFCI Solution

Date Published: February 10, 2020

Imagine this:  You move into a new home.  You’ve worked hard all weekend, lugging dressers and couches through narrow doorways and up and down flights of stairs.

Your brother-in-law has helped. But let’s face it, most of the time he’s just been sitting on the ONE couch he helped move in, drinking beer.  Making annoying comments about how much junk you have, and how “that desk is never gonna fit down those stairs.”

But finally, all the furniture has been placed, all the dishes and clothes have been put away.  You head to your living room to sit down and relax, and maybe crack a beer yourself while you watch some TV.

You reach to plug in the TV, only to realize that you have a three-pronged cord, but only a two-prong outlet available nearby.  Your brother-in-law just laughs at you.  What do you do?

Ungrounded outlet 2 prong.

Why is grounding important?

Modern three-wire circuits typically have a hot (black) and neutral (white) wire, and a third (bare copper) wire for grounding.  Many older homes (1960’s and earlier) will still have the original two wire, un-grounded circuits.  This wiring will only have a hot and neutral wire and no ground wire.

Electricity is always seeking to discharge itself, or return to “ground”.  Electricity typically travels through the circuit by entering on the hot (black) wire and exiting to “ground” on the neutral (white) wire.

But if the neutral wire has a break, becomes loose at a connection, or a rodent gnaws through it,  the electricity searches for an alternate path.  That’s where the ground wiring comes into play, providing a safe alternate path to ground.

If this “short circuit” occurs and there is no ground wire present, the current could find its way to ground through other building components in the wall, potentially causing a fire.  Or, if you were to touch the plug at an inopportune time, the current could find its way to ground through your body, causing a shock.

Poor solutions to Un-grounded Outlets:

You could head to the garage, find an extension cord, and wind it out to the living room to plug in that flat-screen.  But this is a poor solution.  Who wants to have to look at and trip over the extension cord every time they walk by?

Not to mention that extension cords are not designed for use as permanent wiring.  Overheating can occur, presenting a potential fire hazard.

Ungrounded outlet 3 prong

Example of an ungrounded three prong outlet that has overheated.

Or, you could run to the hardware store, purchase a 3 prong outlet, and swap out the outlet in the wall.  But chances are, there is no ground wiring present on the circuit, so you will end up with an ungrounded 3 prong outlet.

It will work, but these are also considered unsafe.  They give the appearance of having a grounded outlet, when in fact it’s just an ungrounded 3 prong outlet masquerading as something safer.

No way to tell if the outlet is ungrounded without a tester.

During our inspections, we test all outlets for grounding. This outlet is ungrounded! There is no way to tell if a three prong outlet is ungrounded without a tester.

You could instead get one of those 2-3 prong adapters, to make it possible to plug the 3 prong cord into the 2 prong outlet.  These are unwieldy but can be considered safe under certain conditions.

The outlet box must be metal and must be grounded itself, and the little ground connector on the adapter must be properly connected to the screw at the cover plate. But that is not often the case.

Most often, these are simply plugged in at the un-grounded outlet with no connection to the cover plate screw and metal box, and can actually create more of a shock and fire hazard.  If you do go this route, have your brother-in-law plug the TV in.

An ideal but costly solution to Un-grounded Outlets:

If you have a two-wire circuit, you could hire an electrician to replace the wiring, but that’s an expensive solution. This would involve cutting holes in or removing some of the drywall to replace the wiring.

And if you have several un-grounded outlets throughout the home, this can result in replacing a lot of wiring.  Once the electrician is done making Swiss cheese out of your walls and ceilings, you’ll need to hire a drywall contractor to patch it all.

This is not something you will want to do unless you are already planning a major remodel.

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A cost-effective solution (Using GFCI Outlets):

The easiest and most cost-effective solution available would likely be to add a GFCI protected outlet on the first outlet in this circuit.  GFCI stands for “Ground Fault Circuit Interrupter”.

You’ve no doubt seen these before at bathrooms or kitchens, and you can read more about these on a previous post here. These outlets are considered safe to install on an un-grounded circuit, and replaces those inconvenient 2 prong outlets.

GFCI outlet image that protects outlets downstream.

Also, if installed on the first outlet of the circuit, other outlets down-line on this circuit would also be protected which makes it cost-effective.

This can also be done by changing out the breaker at the electrical panel with a GFCI protected breaker.  This is also a very good option, but these breakers are typically 3-4 times more costly than a GFCI outlet.

 

GFCI Breaker at the panel. This is a 2nd option.

Breakers with GFCI protection installed at the main panel.

 

So you may be asking, how does this work? 

A GFCI outlet or breaker can detect when more current is coming in on the hot wire than is exiting on the neutral wire, and will shut off the circuit quickly before the current can stray to alternate paths.

It should be noted that the GFCI outlet or breaker does not actually create a path to ground, nor does it make this a grounded outlet. It simply makes the un-grounded outlet safer.

Prevent this Scenario!

At Scott Home Inspection, our inspectors are trained to be on the lookout for these types of issues, and many others.  If you hire us to inspect prior to purchase, we will inform you beforehand on the wiring types in the home, and whether or not the outlets are grounded.

That way, when you’re finished moving in, you can relax, and you won’t have to worry about where to plug the TV in without shocking yourself or causing a fire.

Your biggest concern will be how to get your brother-in-law to un-park himself from the couch and go home already!

 

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About the Author: Luke Griess

Luke Griess is an ASHI certified Home Inspector and Certified HERS rater, with over 20 years cumulative experience in the home inspection, residential energy services, and construction industries.

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