Due to the complex nature of the electrical systems in our homes, they often cause quite a lot of confusion. To ensure your safety, it is necessary to understand the basis of electrical wirings and outlets. It is also essential to distinguish the pros and cons of grounded and ungrounded outlets, so the question that may arise is whether ungrounded outlets are safe?
Ungrounded outlets are not safe. Ungrounded outlets can actually be extremely dangerous and are one of the leading causes of house fires. While existing ungrounded outlets are allowed under the National Electric Code, outlets with no ground are typically accompanied by other electrical defects such as old wiring, frayed wiring, and bad wire connections. Ungrounded outlets are prone to arcing and electrical shorts, which can cause nearby furniture, curtains, or walls to catch fire.
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According to Restoration Master Finder, a leader in the home restoration industry, ungrounded outlets top the list of causes of electrical house fires. Other sources and electricians, such as Inspectapedia, KolbElectric, and Parker Young Construction, to name a few, concur that ungrounded outlets are not safe and that grounded outlets are safer.
Ungrounded outlets have several hazards attached to them, but there are always ways to keep you and your family safe from experiencing dangerous situations such as fires, electric shocks, etc. Read on and know-how!
The hazards of ungrounded outlets are echoed in this article where Molly Hall, Director of Safe Electricity, discussed the dangers of ungrounded outlets and circuits. Safe Electricity is a public awareness program of the Energy Education Council. Let’s do a deeper dive into what ungrounded outlets are and why they are so dangerous.
Are 2-Prong Outlets Safe or Dangerous?
Most commonly, 2-pronged outlets are an indication that the wiring behind the walls is ungrounded. This means the wiring has a hot wire and a neutral wire only and no grounding wire. In contrast, modern residential wiring has a hot, neutral, and ground wire.
Ungrounded wiring was common in pre-1970s homes. In the event of an overload, the electrical current will travel through any conductor to ground itself to the earth. This can damage electronic devices plugged into the circuit or cause electrocution when in contact with people.
All of these might result in a fire or electrical shock hazard. Changing ungrounded outlets to grounded ones is highly recommended because they prevent electrical hazards. However, the only recognized method of grounding ungrounded outlets is rewiring the circuit. Rewiring can be very expensive.
In fact, according to HomeGuide.com, the cost to rewire a house average about $7 per linear foot of wall space plus $1200 to $2500 for the cost of a new electrical panel. See chart below:
|Small House||$1500 – $3000|
|Medium House||$3500 – $8000|
|Large House||$8000 – $20,000|
The grounding wire is essential because it provides a straightforward path for that current to travel back to the main breaker panel.
Fires are one of the major common hazards connected to ungrounded outlets. With the ground absent, any errors occurring inside the outlet will result in electrical sparks, and this sparking can eventually result in a fire in most cases.
As we have already explained how any ungrounded outlets might be a very significant fire hazard, this next point is closely associated. Electrical equipment or one of your house appliances connected to ungrounded outlets is very vulnerable to shorting out.
In most cases, your equipment or appliances will probably short out, leading to them being damaged beyond repair. The appliances or any electronics will need to be replaced, resulting in you will have to pay extra cash on repurchasing the essential appliances within your home.
Another reason why 2-prong outlets will be dangerous is the risk of a health hazard. Along with your outlets being ungrounded, if someone is working on the outlet or operating the appliances connected to the ungrounded outlet, like a refrigerator, they are at risk of receiving an electric shock.
These shocks can vary from minor to dangerous ones, and it’s commonly known that these electrical shocks can even be fatal if you’re unlucky. Hence, ungrounded outlets are thought to be a significant hazard and should be fixed to avoid damage, injury, or worse.
Are Grounded Outlets Required by Code?
This answer can be somewhat confusing for people. Let’s look at when code requires grounded outlets and when it doesn’t.
Electrical code compliance for grounded outlets is only required during a home’s construction or during home renovations when electrical work is being performed or walls are being opened. This does not mean you should overlook outlets without proper grounding.
Code compliance refers to building codes and permits. All new homes built require a building permit. Cosmetic improvements to an existing home do not require a building permit in most places.
Building permits on existing homes is required when:
- An addition is being added to an existing home. Only the addition is subject to code compliance. The existing areas do not require upgrades to meet building codes.
- Renovations to the electrical system of an existing home requires only the portion being renovated meet the code requirements. For example, an exterior service mast and meter damaged in a storm, only requires the service mast and meter meet current codes when repairs are made; not the entire house.
- Renovations that require wall coverings like plaster, paneling or drywall to be removed require electrical upgardes in the areas being worked on only while the wall is open and accessible.
When buying an older home, don’t just assume that because you see a 3-prong outlet, that the outlet is grounded. We often see homes undergo retrofitting where a 2-prong outlet is replaced with a 3-prong outlet without rewiring the circuit or providing ground fault circuit interrupter (GFCI) protection.
So, the purpose of this grounding is to protect you from any electric shocks while also protecting your appliances and electronics from voltage surges that can damage them. However, many homes built before the 1970s still consist of two-prong (ungrounded) outlets throughout.
According to the National Electric Code, you are allowed to replace your existing 2-prong outlet if:
- You replace it with another 2-prong ungrounded outlet. No wiring upgrade is required under the building code.
- You can replace a 2-prong outlet with a 3-prong GFCI outlet, provided the new 3-prong outlet is labeled “No Equipment Ground.”
- You can replace a 2-prong outlet with a standard 3-prong outlet and install a GFCI breaker inside the panel box to protect the circuit. The new 3-prong outlet still has to be labeled “No Equipment Ground.”
So, you aren’t breaking any electrical codes if you choose to keep ungrounded outlets and not replace the house wiring.
However, grounded outlets are a must for modern sensitive electronics, including appliances in your kitchen such as refrigerators, microwaves, grinders, etc., as well as appliances such as computers, vacuum cleaners, air conditioners because all of these appliances come with a three-prong outlet.
Plugging these devices into the surge protector with the help of an adapter might seem like it is the way to go, but it isn’t. Surge protectors don’t protect when no ground is present, and surge protectors themselves don’t ground ungrounded outlets.
Older 2-prong outlets (and grounded outlets) still lack surge protection, and using an adapter makes absolutely no difference. Doing so will only create an appliance and electrocution hazard. So, it is essential to plug any three-pronged appliances into three-prong outlets to remain safe and secure.
According to the electric code, GFCI outlets are a MUST in certain areas of your home, such as:
- Outlets in laundry areas
- Outlets in bathrooms
- Outlets in the kitchen
- Outlets in unfinished basements
- Outlets in outdoor areas and garages
- Outlets near any water feature, i.e., swimming pools
The reason behind this is because most of these areas have some water source present, and the presence of water makes ungrounded outlets far more dangerous than they are. Areas such as bathrooms, kitchens, laundry areas, etc., all have water within them one way or another.
Thus, if there are ungrounded outlets present, it can be quite dangerous to operate these outlets as they can easily lead to electric shocks and, in some extreme cases, fires as well.
However, GFCI protection is required in 2-prong to 3-prong outlet conversions because the GFCI sensors monitor the electrical flow across the positive and neutral prongs and can cut power to the circuit in the event of a ground fault in the circuit. This can prevent electrical fires and save lives.
How To Convert 2-Prong Outlets To 3-Prong Outlets?
As mentioned previously, 2-pronged outlets are ungrounded. While 3-pronged outlets are usually grounded outlets, this should not just be assumed. The first thing you will have to do is test whether or not your 3-prong outlets are grounded.
To do that, you can purchase an outlet tester and test every 3-prong outlet in the home. Outlet testers have lights on them that indicate how the outlet is wired. Most outlet keys will look like this:
- If the center light only lights up, the outlet has an ‘Open Ground’ meaning it has no ground wire present.
- It the center and right-side both lights up, the outlet tester is detecting a ground wire is present.
Now, most likely, this does mean the outlet is wired correctly, but these testers can be tricked by what is commonly referred to as “bootleg ground.”
A bootleg ground can occur when:
- A small wire is looped from the neutral terminal to the grounding terminal in an effort to trick outlet testers.
- Since, older outlets have metal junction boxes, a small ground wire is run from the grounding terminal to the metal box.
Neither of these methods is recognized under the National Electric Code and are considered misleading and dangerous. Many flippers use these methods to trick buyers and home inspectors.
To check for bootleg grounding requires removing the faceplate from the outlet to examine the wiring itself or examining the wiring at the electrical service panel to locate the circuit and the grounding wire.
The only recognized method by the National Electric Code is the GFCI method we outlined above. So, let’s expand on that and examine both GFCI methods.
To replace a 2-prong outlet with a GFCI outlet is relatively straight forward. It merely requires replacing the old 2-prong outlet with a GFCI outlet. This method works great if you only have a few outlets to replace.
GFCI outlets cost about $20-$60 each (depending on the type), so replacing one or two isn’t too expensive. However, replacing a house full of 2-prong outlets can be expensive using this method.
For a house full of 2-prong outlets, replace the 2-prong outlets with standard 3-prong outlets and replace the standard circuit breakers with GFCI breakers. The GFCI breakers will protect the entire circuit of outlets rather than only an individual outlet.
A GFCI breaker costs about $40-$60 each. A standard 3-prong outlet costs about $10 each. For example, replacing 30 2-prong outlets on 6 circuits will cost about $750-$1000 for material and labor costs. The cost will vary based on several factors, but this is much safer for your family and is cheaper than rewiring the entire house.
Is an Ungrounded GFCI Outlet Safe?
If the outlets within your home are ungrounded, replacing those outlets with a GFCI outlet can be a quick and easy fix for the problem. GFCI conversion is inexpensive, costing around $20-$60 each. You can easily purchase a GFCI outlet and replace your ungrounded, 2-prong outlets with it, and you will have a much safer outlet.
However, the question lies in whether or not ungrounded GFCI outlets are safe. The answer could be a little tricky to understand. Though this option can be like a simple fix for ungrounded wiring, we do not suggest installing this as a permanent fix. A GFCI’s main aim is to safeguard you from electrocution and not protect your appliances from voltage surges.
Therefore, whereas using a GFCI outlet with an ungrounded system protects you from any electrical shocks, your electrical devices can still be in danger because the GFCI outlets do not ground the system. It merely protects you from any potential electrocution hazards. So, to secure all your electronics, you may need to wire your outlets to be grounded and safer, preventing them from getting damaged.
Another reason why many of us stay skeptical regarding using GFCI outlets with an ungrounded electrical system could be a chance of the GFCI failing to work. There have been several studies over the years that were targeted at knowing the failure rate for GFCI circuit breakers and outlets, and the studies found that in case of voltages surges or short circuits, it had been possible for the GFCIs to fail and stop working.
To combat this, GFCIs should be tested monthly. To test a GFCI press the test button on the outlet or breaker. The outlet or breaker should trip and you should be able to easily reset the GFCI outlet or breaker.
Most newer GFCIs will trip when they fail and not reset. Older GFCIs, would fail but not trip to cut off the electrical current. In essence, a failed live GFCI defeated the purpose of having the GFCI in the first place, so manufacturers changed it.
In areas where there are many thunderstorms and lightning, it is additionally likely for GFCIs to fail. If a GFCI fails, there would be no protection on the outlets. The GFCI will not turn off the electrical current passing through the circuit, making the outlets extraordinarily unsafe and dangerous.
Will a GFCI Breaker Protect Ungrounded Outlets?
One of the main fixes for ungrounded outlet problems is rewiring the entire electrical system within your home. However, this can be quite costly and may take a lot of time, as it requires a professional to do the job. So, if rewiring your outlets is not a possibility or convenient for you, another simple way to fix an ungrounded circuit will be using a GFCI breaker.
A GFCI breaker is often a convenient and comparatively inexpensive method to fix an ungrounded outlet inside your home, as a GFCI breaker retails for about $40-$60. The best part regarding using this method is that using a GFCI breaker at the service panel, all the circuits, and outlets among your home will be protected and safe to use.
Make sure to alter the outlets when putting in the breaker by ensuring to substitute the 2-prong outlets with easily obtainable 3-pronged outlets and remembering to label the outlets as ‘No Equipment Ground.’
While the GFCI breaker will protect the ungrounded outlets and make them safer to use, there is still a high risk of this method. It is essential to understand that the breaker will not act in the same way as perhaps grounding works. The GFCI breaker does not exactly ‘ground’ the outlets; it merely protects you from the significant risk attached to ungrounded outlets and the risk of electrocution.
The GFCI breaker senses the changes in the incoming and outgoing current. If it senses a sudden increase, which would happen if, for example, a human gets electrocuted, the breaker shuts off the current passing through the outlets. However, the breaker will in no way protect against voltage surges, as the GFCI is not designed for that particular purpose.
So, using a GFCI breaker to fix ungrounded outlets will only protect you from electric shocks. Still, it cannot protect your appliances and electronics from the risk of getting damaged beyond repair.
Are Ungrounded Outlets Safe? Now You Know
With certainty, you can say that ungrounded outlets are indeed quite unsafe and will pose a significant threat to you, your family, and the appliances you own and use within your home. These outlets can not only harm you, but they can also damage all the electronics you use on a day-to-day basis, resulting in you needing to spend more money to replace these outlets and your electric devices.
We have mentioned all the possible hazards involved with ungrounded outlets, and now that you’re aware of the dangers that come with ungrounded outlets, you know how these outlets can turn out to be extremely dangerous, adding risk to the tasks you carry out daily.
Ungrounded outlets can cause not only damage to your appliances but also increase the risk of you or your loved ones getting electrocuted. In the worst-case scenarios, your house can catch fire too. Hence, the risks attached with ungrounded outlets are not just limited to your appliances but also your health, life, your home, and your wallet as well.
So, it is necessary to understand your home’s outlets’ complexity and make the required adjustments to ensure your safety.
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