Ungrounded Outlets – The “SHOCKING” Truth
I know the title sounds alarming but there’s a reason for it. We want to catch your attention about an important topic! With that said, inspectors at Heartland aren’t known for being alarmists, we inspect homes because we enjoy informing and educating our customers. Many of the Minneapolis St Paul area homes we inspect are older ranging from the late 1800s to early 1900s. Ungrounded or improperly grounded outlets is a common issue. Understanding the history and how to alleviate the problem can make buying an older home more enjoyable.
Electrical outlets are used to plug in our everyday light fixtures, appliances and a variety of modern electronic equipment. Outlets are usually located in walls, but can also be found in ceilings, floors and wood base trim. Home inspectors aren’t code enforcers. Our focus is on safety and function. The reality is that electrical rules and codes change regularly. And most existing houses don’t comply with current codes. But that doesn’t meant the home isn’t necessarily safe with some minor corrections.
Most of us don’t really pay attention to an outlet’s surface. We plug things in and if there’s power than everything must be okay. Right? This isn’t always the case since most issues with outlets are related to wiring that’s not visible.
Until 1960 most receptacles were ungrounded. Homes prior to 1960 were often grounded by a wire from the outside of the electrical outlet box to the nearest water pipe, usually on the cold side. The conductors were often small and the connection to the pipe might have been a strap or clamp that would not meet today’s standards. Usually the only outlet boxes grounded this way were ones in proximity to water or the potential for water. The outlets themselves only had 2 slots in them, one connected to a black wire and one connected to a white wire.
Outlets typically have 2 slots in different sizes (polarized receptacles) so that the polarized appliance could only be installed in the proper orientation. The smaller slot is designed for the black wire (hot or live wire) and the larger slot is connected to the white wire (neutral wire). A lamp would be a good example of an appliance that has a polarized plug for safety reasons. It’s important to know that it’s not a hazard when 2 prong appliances are used and plugged into a 2 slot outlet.
We’ve all seen or used adapters to connect a 3 prong plug into a non-grounded type receptacle. Inspectors often see inventive ways homeowners use to get power to all of their gadgets. This photo from the classic movie A Christmas Story screams fire hazard and is definitely not a recommended solution! The problem with using any adapter is that it removes one of the safety systems that is intended to protect the user and the equipment. Adapters should never be a permanent part of any wiring system or appliance connection.
So, you’ve purchase a home full of 2 slot outlets, most that are likely ungrounded. The inspection report is full of recommended upgrades. What do you do now?
Don’t run away and don’t be discouraged. There are solutions ranging from very reasonable to more expensive. First, we always recommend you consult with a licensed professional for advice and to perform the recommended work. The other thing to consider is where you actually need grounded outlets. Office space for computer equipment and tvs in media areas are popular locations.
Replacing the outlet with a ground fault circuit interrupter (GFCI) is a cost-effective option. This will provide you with improved safety and it’s an accepted practice. A more expensive modification, and rarely done, is to add a special ground wire to every outlet. The grounding wire protects your appliances from surges or over-voltage problems. It also stabilizes voltage and protects people, property and equipment from electrical shock.
Purchasing an older home or any home can be a stressful experience. Take it one project at a time and stay calm. We’ve touched a very small part of a home’s electrical system in this post and there will be more to come. Information like this certainly doesn’t read like a great mystery novel but what can I say, we’re inspectors that are always looking to solve a mystery!