Purchasing a home with UNGROUNDED OUTLETS

By
Home Inspector with Massachusetts Home Inspections MA. License#566
https://activerain.com/droplet/yMG

There are a lot of homes on the market today that still have ungrounded outlets throughout the house. During my home inspections, I recommend that my clients upgrade some of these outlets, depending upon what they plan on utilizing these ungrounded outlets for.  Not all ungrounded outlets need to be upgraded, so let's go over (in detail) the options you have in upgrading ungrounded outlets.

Let's start off by distinguishing an ungrounded outlet from a grounded outlet.

 

The ungrounded outlets are easily distinguishable by their two slot configuration verses the newer grounded type of outlets that have the two slots with a hole (ground socket) centered under the slots. For this particular article, I will refer to these outlets as UNGROUNDED outlets and GROUNDED outlets.

Older wiring never contained a ground wire so any ungrounded outlets in your home were originally wired in this manner and are considered acceptable, but they do have their safety issues. Many ungrounded outlets have been installed in the older homes, but as the years went by the electrical standards have changed and are absolutely required in newer homes. While it is not usually required to upgrade ungrounded outlets in your home today, it is still a good idea because a properly wired home is a much safer home for you and your family.

 

THIS IS WHERE UNGROUNDED OUTLET PROBLEMS BEGIN...

The problems for owners of older homes start when two wire ungrounded outlets are removed and substituted with the grounded type outlets without the necessary rewiring that will add a ground wire to the newly installed grounded type outlet. People tend to replace 2 wire ungrounded outlets with ungrounded type outlets in order to establish a more convenient outlet for their three prong appliances. Most of today's appliance cords contain a three prong plug and it becomes a nuisance when homeowners (of ungrounded electrical systems) are attempting to locate three socket outlets for the grounded plugs. So they replace the two slotted ungrounded outlet with a grounded type outlet and it now becomes much more convenient for them to utilize these outlets in their home. But...these upgraded outlets are still not grounded without upgrading the entire branch wire that feeds the outlet.

Grounded type outlets are not suppose to be substituted for ungrounded outlets unless a new grounded wire is installed to this outlet. This will require a licensed Electrician to install the new wire from the load center to these grounded type outlets. An exception to this rule is allowed by the National Electrical Code, when the outlet is protected by a Ground Fault Circuit Interrupter (GFCI).

 

THIS BRINGS US TO... CHEAP FIXES OR UPGRADES.

There are cheap fixes available for those home owners who do not want to rewire their entire house. Perhaps one of the cheapest and simplest ways to address this issue is by utilizing a GFCI (also known as a Ground Fault Circuit interrupter). These can be installed in one of two locations. A GFCI outlet can take the place of a standard ungrounded outlet in any location and it now becomes a much safer outlet. Another option would be a GFCI breaker (at the load center) which takes the place of the regular circuit breaker. The N.E.C. (National Electrical Code) does allow GFCI's to replace two wire ungrounded outlets, but this might not be the greatest idea only because the round grounding socket on a GFCI outlet might give someone the false impression that the outlet has a grounding wire. So it's best to have these particular outlets clearly marked as "NO EQUIPMENT GROUND".

A GFCI replacement at an ungrounded outlet is a good choice for many expensive hard to re-wire cases. Instead of having an Electrician running newer wires to newer outlets, you will rely on the GFCI function to provide the personal protection at a much more convenient outlet. It is not the same as having a grounded outlet, but for most instances it is much safer. A GFCI outlet will trip (shut down) when there is a difference in the amount of current flowing through the neutral side of the electrical wiring. So, if a ground fault did occur, and some of the current starts to travel into the casing (toward you), a functional GFCI will automatically trip and stop all current flow, avoiding an electrical shock.

The one instance where a GFCI upgrade should not be used is where equipment utilizes a surge protector (like your computer's surge protector if you have one). Surge protectors use the ground wire to redirect any surge until it can trip. If a surge protector is plugged into an ungrounded outlet it will not operate as the manufacturer intended. When a large surge or spike does hit, the surge protector needs the ground wire to take the "hit" away from the protected equipment and send it safely to the ground wire which is connected to the load side. If the surge or spike is not sent to a ground wire by the surge protector it will destroy the delicate electronics that you were trying to protect. The surge protector manufacturer's do offer warranties, but...it's only valid if the surge protector is used in a properly grounded outlet.

 

HOW TO PROPERLY REPLACE AN UNGROUNDED OUTLET WITH A GFCI OUTLET

If you feel confident (in yourself) in replacing your ungrounded outlets, I will explain how you can do this project yourself. But, if electricity and it's components are one of the items that you'd rather not touch or if there are many outlets that need upgrading, I'd highly recommend you hire a licensed Electrician to perform this upgrade for you.

Before starting this project, please make sure the breaker (power) to this ungrounded outlet is shut down. Do not assume that the markings on your service panel are correct. Double-check that the power is shut down by plugging in a small appliance and turning it on. Once the power is off at this circuit, start by removing the screws from the outlet cover. Then remove the two screws at the outlet itself. Now pull the outlet out of the box and unscrew or release the two wires from the outlet. You can throw away this old outlet and the cover. The old two prong outlet cover will not adapt to the new GFCI outlet as it is shaped differently. Now take this opportunity to clean up the receptacle box with your shop vacuum before re-installing the GFCI outlet. Also, tape up any frayed or nicked wires with electrical tape (if the wires are badly deteriorated, you may have to trim them back or replace them with new wire). Now confirm that you have enough room in the box for the new GFCI by gently pushing the wires back in the box and test fitting the new GFCI. If the GFCI won't fit because there are too many wires in the box, you would have to have an Electrician install a new, larger electrical box.

Start the GFCI install by using needle nose pliers to bend the ends of the two existing wires into a u-shape, so they can fit snugly under each outlet screw. Now attach the black wire behind the head of the brass/gold screw and tighten it up, then attach the white wire behind the head of the silver screw and tighten this screw. (Remember, there is no ground wire at this location, so the green grounding screw on the GFCI outlet will be left blank). Now gently fold back the wires into the electrical box while pushing the GFCI outlet inside to sit flush against the box. You can now install the top and bottom screws to the outlet.

You should not have to force this outlet in. If you find yourself forcing the outlet to fit, then gently pull it out again and reorganize the wires and try it again. If you're still forcing wires inside the box, then you need to cut the wires shorter. Forcing an outlet may damage the wires and can pull them away from their outlet connections. Once you have the GFCI properly seated and screwed in, you can now screw the new GFCI outlet cover in place. Now the breaker to this circuit can be placed in the "On" position. You should now have a GFCI protected outlet that is SAFER but not grounded. REMEMBER: This outlet should always be labeled "NO EQUIPMENT GROUND" since the ground connection is left unconnected.

HINT: If you're goal is to protect every ungrounded outlet in the home with a GFCI outlet, it's not necessary to utilize a GFCI outlet in every single location. You can install ungrounded type outlets instead of GFCI outlets ONLY if they are wired through the LOAD side of a GFCI outlet. Still, no ground wire exists, so these outlets should be clearly labeled "GFCI PROTECTED, NO EQUIPMENT GROUND"

HINT: In many older homes the outlet mounting box was grounded from the load center but the outlet itself was not grounded. If this is the case it is possible to use a jumper between the mounting box and the grounding screw on the new grounded type outlet. But this  type of ground may not be adequate for a surge protector.

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Show All Comments
Rainer
118,799
» Bill Burress Nationwide Mortgage Originator
» Bill Burress Nationwide Mortgage Originator - Fort Myers, FL
Excellent post.  Very informative.  You may have saved lives with this post.  I gave you a 5.
Aug 25, 2007 12:58 AM #1
Rainmaker
35,334
David Valley
Massachusetts Home Inspections - Methuen, MA
Massachusetts Home Inspections
Thank you, Bill.
Aug 25, 2007 01:07 AM #2
Ambassador
1,709,615
Dale Baker
Baker Energy Audits and Commercial Properties Inspections - Claremont, NH
New Hampshire Relocation Real Estate Information

Howdy David

Heres a five for ya.

It is a very informative post you have done.

Have a good one

Aug 25, 2007 11:51 AM #3
Rainer
639,083
Carl Winters
Canyon Lake, TX

David

This is good information for all consumers. There is not a week that goes by we don't hear of a house fire caused from electrical problems.

 One thing a consumer doesn't want to fool wit  is electricity, and I encourage them to get a licensed electrician.

Aug 27, 2007 12:31 PM #4
Rainer
9,269
Kenneth Miller
Jordan Hill Home Services, LLC - Berkley, MI

Excellent post, David.  You get a five. 

Unless a consumer has a good handle on electricity, I would also recomend they seek the service of a licensed electrician. 

Aug 28, 2007 12:40 AM #5
Rainmaker
35,334
David Valley
Massachusetts Home Inspections - Methuen, MA
Massachusetts Home Inspections

Kenneth,

Thanks for the important advice. I did manage to add your advice into this article as consumers should not risk this project if they do not feel confident in doing so.

If you feel confident (in yourself) in replacing your ungrounded outlets, I will explain how you can do this project yourself. But, if electricity and it's components are one of the items that you'd rather not touch or if there are many outlets that need upgrading, I'd highly recommend you hire a licensed Electrician to perform this upgrade for you.

Aug 28, 2007 01:03 AM #6
Rainmaker
571,868
Bill Gillhespy
16 Sunview Blvd - Fort Myers Beach, FL
Fort Myers Beach Realtor, Fort Myers Beach Agent - Homes & Condos
David,  Excellent post.  Electrical re-work is a safety issue and many homeowners try to save a little by trying to do it by themselves.
Aug 28, 2007 07:08 AM #7
Anonymous
Bill Duncan

Hi David,

Once I came across a house with, I kid you not, a GFCI receptacle in every outlet!  The owner of the house had a small child and he wanted the outlets to be safe and no chance of having the child hurt by sticking a knife in an outlet.   Alot cheaper than rewiring thats for sure.

Oct 08, 2007 02:34 PM #8
Rainmaker
35,334
David Valley
Massachusetts Home Inspections - Methuen, MA
Massachusetts Home Inspections

Duncan,

That GFCI installation in every outlet may appear to be ridiculous, but nothing wrong there.

I'll bet (in the near future) we see either a GFCI or AFCI in every outlet throughout the home.

Oct 08, 2007 10:30 PM #9
Rainer
9,269
Kenneth Miller
Jordan Hill Home Services, LLC - Berkley, MI
David, considering the cost of good GFCI's and AFCI's, bite your tongue.  Let's not give the powers that be any ideas.
Oct 09, 2007 03:29 AM #10
Anonymous
Dane

I am buying a home built in 1942.  In 2003, the previous owner had the electrical system upgraded to a breaker box and new, ungrounded wiring was run throughout the house.  Can anyone tell me why they would do all the work without the ground wire?  It was approved by the city inspector and looks very professional.  I'm puzzled?  Any ideas?  Thanks. 

Oct 08, 2009 03:55 PM #12
Rainmaker
35,334
David Valley
Massachusetts Home Inspections - Methuen, MA
Massachusetts Home Inspections

Hello Dane,

 

Your situation does not sound right. Any upgrades that are made to a residential electrical system today would definitely include a grounding wire.

 

Two questions....

1) How do you know for sure that your upgraded electrical system is not grounded?

2) What type of wiring did the Electrician utilize? Romex wiring would most likely have been the choice.

Oct 08, 2009 08:33 PM #13
Anonymous
dane

I just had a inspection done and he indicated that the 3-prong outlets in the house were not grounded.  It is Romex wiring.  He recommended a licensed electrician come in and take a look.  I agreed and that will be my plan of action.  I don't understand how the city could have approved the electrical system without GFCI outlets or proper grounding, but I will leave that up to the professional.   Thanks for the great blog.  It's loaded with helpful information.

Oct 10, 2009 06:56 AM #14
Rainmaker
35,334
David Valley
Massachusetts Home Inspections - Methuen, MA
Massachusetts Home Inspections

Dane,

 

What I can't quite understand is.....Romex wiring comes equipped with a ground wire. Why would anyone (in their right state of mind) install romex wiring without attaching the ground wire?

Did your inspector pull the cover off the main electrical panel?

Oct 10, 2009 11:36 PM #15
Anonymous
Dane

It turns out that the upstairs outlets had been replaced by someone to give the appearance of grounded outlets.  However, the wiring behind the outlets was original and had simply been tied in to the newer romex wiring running through the basement.  I hired a licensed professional electrician and he has cleaned up the old wiring, installed GFCI outlets where needed throughout the house and got everything inspected and approved.  Thanks for your great blog.  I just may have learned something.

Nov 05, 2009 09:58 AM #16
Rainmaker
35,334
David Valley
Massachusetts Home Inspections - Methuen, MA
Massachusetts Home Inspections

Dane,

 

I knew that there was somethjing crazy going on there. I'm glad that your Electrician solved your issue.

Nov 05, 2009 09:50 PM #17
Anonymous
Barry

I am looking at buying a home built in 1955--the home was renovated in 2007 with an addition.  The addition is grounded but the original home has three prong outlets ungrounded(conveinence).  I am worried about plugging in my computer, plasma tv, and other electrical appliances.  will installing GFCI at each outlet solve my problem and protect my equipment or should I have the older portion of the home rewired? Any other solutions

Apr 23, 2010 12:05 PM #18
Rainmaker
35,334
David Valley
Massachusetts Home Inspections - Methuen, MA
Massachusetts Home Inspections

Barry,

 

A GFCI and a grounded outlet do two different things and protect against two different scenarios, and one of these outlets is not a replacement for the other outlet. 

If you install a GFCI outlet at any ungrounded location, you will not solve the ungrounded situation. A GFCI outlet simply protects against a short (or more commonly a current leakage) involving YOU and an electrical device plugged into the outlet. It does not give you a grounded outlet. A GFCI outlet simply utilizes the neutral wire on a circuit and has nothing to do with the ground wire.

A GFCI upgrade would be considered to be a safer outlet than an ungrounded outlet,  but it simply does not give your appliances a ground. If you want to absolutely ground your outlets in the older portion of your home, you need to rewire with a Romex type of wiring which does contain a ground wire with it.

 

 

Apr 23, 2010 09:49 PM #19
Anonymous
Ujn
Hello, I've recently moved into a house originally built in 1850. All of the outlets seem to be ungrounded according to my surge protecters, even though all of the outlets are 3-prong, though some are upside down (why would someone do that?). The home has recently had a brand new electrical panel installed and the electrician is supposed to come and install some new dedicated outlets in each room (which I assume would have to be grounded and up to code) my question is are the new outlets that are being installed the only outlets I can safely use? I figure I can only use lamps and things in the old ungrounded outlets. Thanks.
May 05, 2011 02:46 AM #20
Rainmaker
35,334
David Valley
Massachusetts Home Inspections - Methuen, MA
Massachusetts Home Inspections

Ujn,

 

Any outlets that an Electrician installs today, must be grounded to comply with todays Electrical code. This will require a new wire to be run to those locations if your existing wire is not a grounded wire.

 

You can absolutely utilize the older ungrounded outlets, but I suggest you use them for the less expensive items such as lighting, alarm clocks, and any other small appliance. I do highly recommend that you use properly grounded outlets for your more expensive items such as computers, televisions, vcr's, entertainmenmt systems, etc. You want these items protected with a ground wire to prevent ground faults that can ruin your items that are not properly protected.

May 05, 2011 03:17 AM #21
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