Are Ungrounded Outlets Safe? (No, Here's Why)
Are ungrounded outlets safe? No, definitely not. Ungrounded outlets are NOT safe. They’re significantly more dangerous than grounded outlets, and that’s why the National Electrical Code, in 1947,* began requiring certain areas of new constructions to have three-pronged, “grounded” outlets. Ungrounded outlets don’t protect against surges and significantly increase the risk of electrical fires.
The NEC stated in 1947 that “at least one receptacle outlet shall be installed for the connection of laundry appliances. This receptacle shall be 3-pole, of a type designed for grounding.”
By 1962, it had become the new standard for all outlets in every new construction.
Why? Why were ungrounded outlets so swiftly replaced with grounded outlets?
And, if you’re an absolute DIY beginner or brand-new homeowner, you might be wondering, “What does this all mean?” Don’t worry: we’ve got you covered.
In this article, we’ll dive into the safety issues presented by ungrounded outlets, giving a brief explanation of how the three different parts of an outlet work.
Also, explaining the difference between grounded and ungrounded outlets, cataloging the various dangers associated with ungrounded outlets, telling you what you can do to replace (or ground) those outlets, and finally, listing some general tips to help you avoid electrical fires.
First, let’s dive into the basics of how electricity gets into your home.
How Exactly Do Outlets Work?
Watching TV, blow-drying your hair, charging your phone, running the microwave; it all requires energy. You plug your device into an outlet and, just like that, you’ve got power.
Sometimes, though, you’ve got a plug with three prongs and an outlet with only two prongs. What’s going on there?
In order to fully understand why ungrounded outlets are so much more dangerous than grounded outlets, you need to first understand this basic system.
Electricity doesn’t just magically show up right outside your doorstep. In most cases, unless you have solar power or a generator, a power plant generates electricity which is then distributed to all the homes in your area through power lines. After that, your circuit breaker routes that power to all the different areas in your home.
Plugging something into an outlet, then, like an iPhone charger, is really just creating one long line of power from your phone to the power plant. It can be easy to forget that we’re all plugged into one massive electrical grid, but that’s exactly what’s going on most of the time.
And, it should be noted, even if you do have a generator or solar power, the same general idea applies as before. Electricity is doled out the exact same way (or possibly more directly, if you have a portable generator).
Hot, Neutral, and Grounding: The Three Parts of an Outlet
Each outlet consists of three parts: a “hot” part, a “neutral” part, and a “grounding” part.
- The hot slot is the one that can deliver a shock. It’s located on the right and it’s connected to the wire that actually supplies the electrical current from the breaker.
- The neutral hole is on the left. It carries the current from the device or appliance back into the breaker, completing a circuit. If you look very closely at an outlet, the hot slot is a little shorter than the neutral one.
So, technically, all you need to power a device is the hot and neutral outlets. That’s why they weren’t a necessary part of the electrical code one hundred years ago.
However, there’s still another part to a modern outlet: the grounded part.
- The grounded wire exists to handle any power surges. The earth has a negative electrical charge, so electricity is naturally drawn to it. Excess electricity flows from the grounding wire into the ground, where it becomes neutralized.
The Difference Between Grounded and Ungrounded Outlets
The difference between grounded and ungrounded outlets, then, is simple.
Grounded outlets are designed to have three prongs (one of them a grounding prong) and ungrounded outlets only have two.
Grounded outlets have three openings for three prongs. The third opening is located in the center just below the two parallel ones.
This, as we just mentioned, allows any extra power from power surges to be redirected away from your devices and into the ground. This actually happens multiple times a day, not just during terrible storms. When the lights flicker because the dishwasher just started up or the air conditioner kicked on, that’s due to a power surge. Without this grounding element, those everyday surges can become fatal.
Ungrounded outlets only have openings for the two parallel prongs.
Without the third grounding prong, the extra power has nowhere to go and can transfer itself onto nearby materials or an unlucky person. When there’s a surge, there needs to be some way for the extra power to either route to a different location or for the outlet to shut off entirely.
With grounded outlets, you don’t get that option.
(Not all devices are built with the third prong since only those that need a lot of power to function would need one. Low-power devices, such as phone chargers, are usually built with only the two parallel prongs.)
Dangers Posed by Ungrounded Outlets
So, now that you have an elementary understanding of how grounding works, let’s look at the exact issues that ungrounded outlets can cause.
Most electrical fires are caused by outdated electrical outlets and malfunctioning appliances. Ungrounded outlets are associated with exactly the type of thing that starts fires.
According to the Electrical Safety Foundation International, electrical fires account for 51,000 fires every year and over $1.3 billion in property damage. Electrical distribution systems are the third leading cause of electrical fires. That’s a lot of damage.
The US Consumer Protection Agency reports that over 10% of total fires, and over 40 deaths per year, are directly related to outlet receptacles. Now, it’s unclear how much of that is directly attributable to ungrounded outlets. It’s likely that a significant amount of those fires were caused by babies sticking forks into electrical sockets, but as you’ll see below, there are ways to protect against that, as well.
Another potential issue caused by ungrounded outlets is an increased shock hazard. If you have children, you want to do everything you can to protect them, and you know how adventurous and curious they can be.
If you live in a home with ungrounded outlets, you need to be aware that even touching these outlets at the wrong time could result in serious injury.
Make sure your children and loved ones are aware of that danger and do everything you can to keep them away from those outlets.
Most deaths by electrocution occur at construction sites, but there are still over 1,000 deaths caused by electrical injuries, according to electrical accident researchers. 400 are due to the type of high-voltage surge you might experience with an ungrounded outlet and 50-300 are caused by lightning.
So, while death may seem unlikely, there are 30,000 shock incidents per year that are non-fatal. Anyone who has ever been involved in one will tell you how they feared for the worst.
Personal Property Damage
Household appliances can cost thousands, or even tens of thousands, of dollars. Most of these appliances assume you’re using some sort of grounded outlet to power them, but the risk of a surge can not only damage your home but also your appliances.
Power surges can break your dishwasher, refrigerator, television, and more. Sometimes, even having some sort of surge protector isn’t enough, since the surge protector isn’t really designed to handle the most powerful ones. At best, your devices will survive various electrical surges with a seriously shortened lifespan. At worst, you’ll be replacing them every few years.
Powering your devices with grounded outlets ensures that they’ll keep working as long as possible.
Ungrounded wiring is an indication that there might be other older electrical practices, such as a mix of grounded and ungrounded wiring, which could cause more issues.
If any of the wiring is frayed, for example, you’re at risk of arcing faults, when an electrical current jumps out of its designed path. When that happens to wiring that’s behind your drywall, the arc is likely to make contact or significantly heat up some flammable building material or insulation.
What Can You Do if Your House Has Ungrounded Outlets?
In 1962, the National Electrical Code started requiring houses to be built with grounded three-prong outlets only. This means that if your house was built after the 1960s, you most likely don’t have to worry about this issue.
If your house was built before the 1960s, it’s highly recommended to double-check what kind of outlets you have since some older homes may have been rewired already from previous owners, but there’s a high chance that the outlets may still be ungrounded.
Are Ungrounded Outlets Illegal?
So, if the National Electrical Code says that you need grounded outlets, does that mean that the two-prong, ungrounded outlets in your home are illegal?
Plenty of homes were built before the National Electrical Code mandated three-prong outlets for new constructions. This is called “grandfathering,” and the same thing applies to outdated zoning. Sometimes the city changes an area to be fully residential, but there was an ice cream shop located on the corner.
It’s pretty much the same thing: every new home in that area has to be residential, just like how every new outlet has to be grounded, but the ice cream shop can stay because it was built long before that code, just like how the ungrounded outlets can stay.
In short, ungrounded outlets are not illegal as long as the house was built before the 1960s.
Can I Install a Three-Prong Outlet in Place of a Two-Prong Outlet?
So, if a three-pronged outlet is “grounded,” and a two-pronged outlet isn’t, can’t you just purchase a three-pronged outlet from Home Depot and install it? Seems like an easy workaround for appliances that require three prongs, so will you be good to go?
Not so fast. There’s a caveat to what we said above about how all grounded outlets have three prongs: just because they have three prongs, doesn’t necessarily mean they’re grounded.
In order to be grounded, they need to have a grounding wire. That isn’t just built-in to the outlet itself. It’s a by-product of the entire electrical system in your home. You can’t just ground an ungrounded outlet without rewiring your home.
So, here’s our first option for making your electrical system safe again…
Wire and Install Three-Prong Outlets So They Are Properly Grounded
You’ll likely need a professional for this option, since you’ll be replacing all of the outlets in your home.
Electricians typically charge about $100 for a home visit and a variable rate for every hour on top of that. For every outlet in a home, then, you’re probably looking at $1,100-$3000+.
If you consider the added benefits of safety and security, it isn’t a very expensive price to pay.
However, the electrician will need to take apart some of the walls in order to access the wires, so repairing the walls will probably cost you an additional $1-3k.
Depending on your area, this might be a standard amenity. If every other house in your area has an upgraded electrical system, failing to upgrade your own could result in a lower home value. If you’re ever looking into refinancing, consider spending some of the money on a new, safer electrical system.
Install Ground-Fault Circuit Interrupters (GFCIs)
The best option, though, is to install GFCIs for every outlet in the home. As long as the outlet is labeled with the statement “No Equipment Ground,” then it’s perfectly legal to do this.
Even better, this is much more cost-effective than rewiring your entire home. You actually don’t need a GFCI on every outlet, either, but the cost will likely be anywhere from $500-$2,000.
Also, it’s important to note that you technically need GFCIs in any area of the home that has or might have water, such as:
- Unfinished basements
- Outdoor outlets
- Laundry rooms
In order to understand why this is such a good option (and why it’s the law to have this type of outlet near water), let’s look at exactly how GFCIs work.
How Does a Ground-Fault Circuit Interrupter Work?
You have GFCIs all over your home by necessity. Anywhere there’s water, there’s a GFCI. You’ve probably noticed them in bathrooms because they’re the little outlets that say “TEST” and “RESET” on them.
A GFCI works by monitoring the amount of power going through the outlet and shutting off in the event of a surge. If your hairdryer finds its way into the bathtub, then, the GFCI senses a surge and shuts off, and just might save your life. If there is any mismatch between the power flowing from hot to neutral, the GFCI will trip and shut down in as little as 1/30th of a second.
For example, let’s say that you have an electric razor plugged into the outlet in your bathroom. You didn’t notice there’s a small puddle of water on the sink and the wiring on the razor is a bit frayed. If 20 watts is flowing through the hot part of the outlet but electricity starts leaking out through the wire and into the puddle, the GFCI will trip and shut off. Then you’ll have to click “RESET” to get it working again.
Are Ungrounded GFCIs Safe?
In short: yes, installing GFCIs without a grounding is safe. However, there are some additional concerns that you should worry about if you choose to go this route:
- You only need to install a GFCI at the first outlet in a circuit, but determining which outlet this is can be very difficult. Always consult with a professional before making any determination.
- GFCIs wear out. They need to be replaced every ten years. If you’re replacing a lot of these in your home often, and you plan on living there for a lifetime, it can get kind of costly. It’s also just annoying having to replace them every so often.
- GFCIs can malfunction. Luckily, when newer GFCIs malfunction, they do it in a way that shuts down the entire GFCI. That way, you aren’t unknowingly using a GFCI that isn’t actually working properly and not giving you any protection.
- Hire a professional to actually carry out the installation. We can’t stress this enough. A simple mistake when working on something like this could result in massive property damage, injury, and even death. Electricians are trained professionals. Trust them to do the job.
4 General Safety Tips to Prevent Electrical Fires
If you have ungrounded outlets, it’s especially important to engage in regular maintenance and other safe practices. Your home will be especially susceptible to electrical accidents.
Here’s a list of things that you can do to prevent electrical fires.
Never Cut Off the Third Prong
Maybe you’re really annoyed about not being able to use your appliances and your house only has ungrounded outlets. As we mentioned above, there are solutions to this. You can either rewire your home or buy and install GFCI outlets.
However, let’s say you’re really impatient (or you really need to use the appliance or device), there are much, much better solutions than cutting off the grounding prong. You’re essentially begging for some sort of issue if you decide to go that route.
Instead, while we can’t necessarily recommend it since it doesn’t really cure the problem, buy a 3-to-2 outlet converter and simply use that as a temporary solution until you do something that’s safer for the long term.
Keep Heat-Producing Appliances Unplugged When You’re Not Using Them
Obviously, if you aren’t using a space heater, you shouldn’t keep it plugged in all day. However, the same thing applies to toasters, air fryers, kettles, irons, and, of course, curling wands.
Curling wands can reach temperatures as high as 600 degrees fahrenheit, while irons can get up to 400 degrees. That’s enough to easily set paper on fire, and if you’re in the bathroom or laundry room, you might be close to other flammable liquids like nail polish or rubbing alcohol. Make sure to always keep these appliances unplugged.
Avoid Over-Relying on Extension Cords
If the power goes out, you might need to break out a portable generator and an extension cord for a few hours. If you’re working on a DIY project, it makes sense to have your drill hooked up to an extension cord for a while.
However, since extension cords are so long (and are typically subject to heavy traffic and high volume, since they’re naturally placed over areas where a lot of people walk), they’re subject to fraying. When any part of a wire becomes exposed, electricity becomes more likely to shoot out, creating an arcing fault or simply heating up a material.
Update the Electrical System
If your outlets aren’t grounded, it’s likely an indicator of old wiring and electrical practices throughout the whole building, including: aluminum wiring, knob-and-tube wiring, and 60-amp electrical systems.
That means that if you draw more than 60 amps, the fuses will blow or the breaker will trip. Some very small houses could actually still be up to code even by today’s standards with only 60 amps, but if you’re in an older house, you’re asking for trouble.
Just like our guideline on extension cords, inspect any cords for exposed wire. Most electrical fires are caused by malfunctioning equipment, outdated systems, or old wires.
The trifecta would be a space heater with a frayed cord plugged into an ungrounded outlet by cutting off the grounding prong, but if you’ve made it this far into this article, we sincerely hope you’re not one of those people.
Put Outlet Covers Over Any Unused Outlets
If you have children, you need to protect against their innate curiosity. You might not be able to invest in a failsafe to get them to never eat your spare change, but at something like 10 cents a piece, outlet covers are a no brainer.
If your child grabs anything metallic and sticks it into an outlet, it might not matter whether the outlet is grounded or not. The surge might be quick and strong enough to cause serious injury or death. Electrical outlets, sometimes by necessity, are placed close to the ground. That’s easily within reach of your little loved one.
Furthermore, a GFCI only exists as a failsafe measure. If you have any outlets that might be exposed to water, it makes sense to keep them closed off. You could also possibly do this at the breaker box, to ensure there’s no energy flowing to those dangerous outlets except when you need them. If it’s a regular thing, though, outlet covers could come in handy.
In order to keep safe, simply purchase some plastic outlet covers and put them over any outlet that your child might be able to access.
Watch Out for Signs of Trouble
When you have so much else going on, it’s easy to ignore problems that are right in front of you. You keep telling yourself you’ll get to it tomorrow, but tomorrow comes and it completely slips your mind.
When it comes to electrical safety, watch out for some telltale warning signs that you’re possibly in danger:
- Discoloration or soot marks around a power outlet.
- Cords that physically feel too warm or like they’re overheating.
- Flickering light fixtures after replacing bulbs.
- Fuses are regularly blowing.
- Hitting “RESET” on GFCIs regularly
Hire a Professional to Do Regular Maintenance
If you have an old home, you might be tricking yourself into thinking it’s safer than it really is. Every day you live there feels like an affirmation of just how safe it is, so every day you confirm what you already believe.
However, modern buildings have some level of guarantee of functioning and up-to-date systems that benefit from new technology that lasts a much longer time. While there’s definitely some truth to the saying “they don’t build them like they used to,” the same cannot be said for electrical components inside of a building.
If you’re at all worried about the safety of your building, contact an inspector and he’ll help you find out what needs to be replaced, and he might even be able to refer you to someone who’s able to do the work at a reasonable price.
Conclusion: Are Ungrounded Outlets Safe?
Ungrounded outlets are NOT safe. If your building was constructed at any time after the 1960s, it will have grounded outlets. They’re necessary to keep power surges from affecting any of your appliances and damaging your property.
Two-pronged outlets are usually indicative of a lack of grounding while three-pronged outlets are grounded.
That doesn’t, however, mean that you can just install a three-pronged outlet and say that it’s “grounded.” You need to rewire the whole house, and to do that, you need a professional. If you install a three-pronged outlet in place of a two-pronged outlet, you need to label it as such.
All in all, though, if you practice safe electrical practices and do everything in your power to upgrade your electrical system by either rewiring the home or replacing the ungrounded outlets with GFCIs, you should be fine.
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