Is Ungrounded Wiring Dangerous: 3 Ways to Make Your House Safe

ungrounded wiring

Ungrounded wiring is common in older houses and is not always dangerous. Ungrounded wiring only becomes dangerous when the outer insulated sheathing begins to break down. Sure, some circuits need a grounded circuit, but there are workarounds to keep ungrounded wiring safe.

Homes with ungrounded wiring can be dangerous. Electrical wiring without a ground wire doesn’t meet current safety standards and can lead to a bigger electrical shock or fire risk. Ungrounded wiring is grandfathered into most local building codes; however, there are precautions you can take to protect your family and property from harm. 

There can be several other dangers of ungrounded electrical wiring. However, some solutions can help fix this issue. This article will discuss these dangers and how to improve or prevent them. 

Dangers of Ungrounded Wiring

Ungrounded wiring and outlets are commonly 2-prong outlets; however, 3-prong outlets can also be ungrounded. Ungrounded wiring has two wires, a positive and neutral wire only, and lacks a grounding wire.

In overload, the electrical current seeks the closest path to the ground, leading to a fire hazard or electrocution. Therefore, updating ungrounded outlets to grounded outlets is highly recommended due to the high risk of electrical hazards. The only safe option for installing grounded outlets is to rewire the house.

  • Electrical Fire: Fires are among the most common hazards attached to ungrounded outlets. Any faults within the outlet can lead to sparking with the ground absent, eventually leading to a fire. In most cases, it is a significant risk as the fire can damage the socket, which will have to be replaced afterward, and damage nearby objects.

For example, if the socket is near curtains or a couch, the fire can quickly get out of control and cause significant damage or even worse. 

  • Health Hazard: With your outlets being ungrounded, a person working on the outlet or operating the appliances connected to the ungrounded outlet, such as a refrigerator, will be prone to receiving an electrical shock.

These shocks can vary from minor to hazardous, and it is no doubt that these electrical shocks can also be fatal. Hence, ungrounded outlets are considered a severe health hazard and should be repaired to avoid injury.

  • Loss of Property: We already explained how ungrounded outlets could be a severe fire hazard; this point is very closely related. Any equipment or one of the appliances in your household connected to ungrounded outlets will be very prone to shorting out.

In most cases, your equipment will short out, damaging them beyond repair. Thus, the appliances or electronics will have to be replaced, and you will need to spend extra money on repurchasing essential electrical appliances.  

  • Messy Wiring: A mixture of grounded and ungrounded outlets is prevalent in older homes because of the electrical work done many times over the past years. This is a recipe for serious electrical issues; one of the most dangerous must be ungrounded outlets. Hence, it is always recommended to get your outlets grounded. 

How to Fix Ungrounded Outlets

According to NEC standards, three main ways to fix ungrounded outlets exist.

  1. Rewire the circuit
  2. Place a GFCI breaker in the electrical panel box to protect the entire circuit
  3. Replace each 2-prong outlet with a GFCI-protected outlet

If you are buying a house with ungrounded outlets, it’s important to understand your repair options. The cost to fix ungrounded outlets can range from $50 per outlet to as much as $10,000 or more if you have to rewire the entire house.

Of the three, replacing the 2-prong outlet with a GFCI-protected outlet is the cheapest, but only if you have a few outlets to replace.

For a house with numerous 2-prong outlets, adding a GFCI breaker on the entire circuit will cost less, but it will make it harder to troubleshoot if a wiring problem occurs.

Rewiring the house will provide the best protection, but this can be the most expensive way to fix ungrounded outlets.

Rewire a Home with Ungrounded Wiring?

The possible dangers of having ungrounded outlets within your home have already been discussed above, so you might wonder if you must rewire such outlets. The answer is yes. It is almost always advised and highly recommended to rewire ungrounded outlets to avoid any hazardous situations and to ensure the safety of your home and your loved ones.

The good thing about ungrounded outlets is that it is easy to recognize when the outlets are ungrounded. Mostly 2-pronged outlets sign that the wiring behind these outlets is ungrounded due to the lack of a grounding slot.

However, not all 3-pronged outlets need to be grounded. For example, a 3-pronged outlet in your home can be ungrounded in some cases because the wiring to the outlet itself may lack grounding. 

Thus, it is necessary to check all your outlets to ensure that the outlets within your home are ungrounded before you rewire them. A circuit tester can be beneficial and allow you to test your outlets quickly.

Follow the instructions on the circuit tester, and if the lights on the tester do not illuminate, it probably means your outlet is ungrounded.

After ensuring that you have ungrounded outlets within your home, your best bet is to rewire all the outlets in your home. However, this is not something you can or should be doing yourself.

The electrical systems within homes can be complicated, and there’s a high risk involved when dealing with such things. So, it is essential that you contact a local electrician and get the outlets in your house rewired, although this will not be cheap. 

Getting rewiring done within your home can be costly, and if you feel the expense is an issue, another option is getting specific outlets in your house rewired. It would be best to use grounded outlets to power electronic devices to protect you and the device’s electrical components.

Protect Ungrounding Wiring with a GFCI Breaker

If rewiring your outlets is not an option that is convenient for you, another easy way to ground an ungrounded circuit can be using a GFCI breaker. A GFCI is a convenient and relatively inexpensive way to fix an ungrounded circuit within your home, as a GFCI breaker retails for around $30.

The good thing about this method is that by using a GFCI breaker at the service panel, all the circuits and outlets within your home will be grounded and safe to use. 

Make sure to change the outlets after installing the breaker by replacing the 2-prong outlets with readily available 3-pronged outlets and remembering to label the outlets as ‘GFCI Protected, No Equipment Ground’ for convenience.

Another way to ground ungrounded circuits or outlets is by installing a GFCI at the individual outlets. A GFCI can be more accessible and inexpensive than a GFCI breaker, as the GFCI outlets retail for around $12 each.

So, if you have a very tight budget or are not confident installing a GFCI breaker, this might be a good option. 

You can purchase a GFCI outlet and replace your ungrounded, 2-pronged outlets with these, and now you have a grounded outlet. It is important to note that installing a GFCI outlet will not secure your electronic devices and appliances from power or voltage surges.

However, these outlets will work effectively to protect you from short circuits and electrocution. Although this option may seem like an easy fix for ungrounded circuits, it’s not permanent because GFCI’s main aim is to protect you from electrocution, not voltage surges.

So, to secure your electronics, you will need to rewire your outlets to be grounded and safer. 

Another reason many people remain skeptical about using GFCIs to ground an ungrounded circuit is the possibility of the GFCI outlet not working.

There have been studies around the failure rate for GFCI circuit breakers and outlets, and the studies found that in case of voltage surges or short circuits, it was highly likely for the GFCIs to fail and stop working. In areas with a lot of lightning, it is also more likely for GFCIs to fail.

If a GFCI fails, the GCFI will not switch off the current passing through the wiring, making the outlets unsafe and dangerous. However, these studies were conducted long ago, and the quality and nature of GFCIs may have improved significantly in recent years.

It is best to consult an electrician regarding the ungrounded circuits in your home to opt for the safest option. 

Replace Ungrounded Outlets with GFCI outlets? 

So, you may have found out that the circuits and outlets in your house are ungrounded, and now you want to fix that. As mentioned above, GFCIs can be inexpensive to ground an ungrounded outlet and make it safer. However, it might seem tricky and complicated. Still, it is relatively easy to follow the steps correctly and understand how to add a GFCI to an ungrounded outlet. 

The first step would be turning off the main breaker present in the service panel to add a GFCI to ungrounded outlets. After this, carefully remove the cover that is present on the panel.

Next, for safety purposes, make sure you check the circuits with a voltage tester; this is done to ensure that none of the wires are hot. Now, disconnect the wires by pulling out the old breaker. 

It is essential to verify that your circuit wiring matches the GFCI breaker. For this, use a 12-gauge wire with a 20-amp breaker and a 14-gauge wire with a 15-amp breaker. Now, to the neutral bus, attach the white wire from the breaker. You can find the neutral or ground bus on the edges of the service panel, and it usually looks like a strip that has been attached using screws. 

The next step takes us to the neutral breaker terminal; connect the white circuit wire and connect the black circuit wire to the hot breaker terminal. Ensure that only 1/4 inch of the exposed wire shows outside the breaker.

For inserting the breaker into the panel, follow the instructions provided by the breaker’s manufacturer. In most cases, the end of the breaker that includes the wiring is inserted first, and the other end is pushed down until it gets fully seated on the center tab. 

Lastly, turn the power on and press the button on the breaker that says ‘test.’ Push the switch entirely off and then rest the GFCI. 

There you have it! If you follow these steps correctly, you will quickly install a GFCI to an ungrounded outlet, making it much safer. However, if you feel unsure of the installation process at any point, it is best to contact your local electrician to prevent anything from going wrong. 

Final Thoughts

Hopefully, this article has informed you of all the dangers and problems with ungrounded circuits. This type of wiring can be dangerous and make your day-to-day tasks much more hazardous. Ungrounded cables also cause electrical shocks and short circuits that can damage you and harm your appliances.

Moreover, if these short circuits cause a fire, your house and loved ones will be at risk. So, we can conclusively say that it is essential to understand these dangers, what causes them, and how to fix these issues to prevent you and your property from being at risk.


Hubert Miles | Licensed Home Inspector, CMI, CPI

Hubert Miles is a licensed home inspector (RBI# 2556) with more than two decades of experience in inspection and construction. Since 2008, he has been serving South Carolina through his company, Patriot Home Inspections LLC. As a Certified Master Inspector, Hubert is dedicated to providing his expertise in home inspections, repairs, maintenance, and DIY projects.