Tuesday, 5 February 2013

You're Grounded

Dear Joe,

I have an old home that I believe was built in the 30s or 40s.  I have several outlets throughout the house that are the old 2 slot kind.  This is quite inconvenient as most new appliances have either three prong plugs or those ones where one prong is bigger than the other.  Neither will fit into these old plug ins so I have to admit that I have jury rigged an extension cord to serve as an adapter if I need to use one of the problem plugs.  I have also removed the ground prong off of a lot of my electric things too.
  I know it’s not the right way to solve the problem but its quicker and cheaper than having an electrician come in and rewire my house cause I know that’s what would happen if they came in and had a look, and I can’t afford that.  Is there a safer, cheaper solution to my problem because I don’t feel right leaving it the way it is with grandkids crawling about these days.

Thanks for your advice. Love your column,




Thank you so much for your question and thanks for doing the right thing by taking care of this problem, better late than never.  It’s the kids’ safety that’s at risk with a problem like this.

Yes, there is a cheaper safer way to remedy your problem without rewiring your whole house.  But let me clarify that what I am about to outline is in no way a substitute for hiring the services of a qualified electrician to bring your home up to current electrical code.  What it is though is something you can do to protect your family and home until such time as you have the money or the occasion to repair the deficiency correctly.  Better to do something than do nothing because you can’t do everything.

In a circumstance like yours, and trust me you are not alone, you have what is called an ungrounded or unbonded circuit.  At least 75% and probably more like 90% of homes built prior to 1950 contain at least some ungrounded circuitry.  Any home that hasn’t undergone significant renovation or been the beneficiary of homeowners capable of shelling out the $10-15000 required to completely rewire an average sized house, will have at least a portion of their concealed wiring remaining and thus connected to receptacles and switches throughout the upper floors of the home.  By their nature these ungrounded circuits are not unsafe if kept in serviceable condition, and in fact are perfectly legal, but do pose serious difficulties when used in conjunction with modern electrical devices.  It is however illegal to replace a two wire receptacle with a three wire receptacle if there is in fact no ground wire present, modify any electrical device not intended to operate on a nonpolarized circuit, or remove the bonding prong from an appliance cord.

So what a home owner can do to provide a measure of protection for their family and property is protect the offending circuit.  This can be done by installing a GFCI (Ground Fault Circuit Interrupter) device on the circuit.  These are the plugs that you typically see in bathrooms and kitchens that have the test buttons on them with the little LED indicator light.  This can be done one of three ways.  Starting at the panel, you can replace the 15A circuit breaker with a 15A GFCI circuit breaker.  This will effectively protect all devices on that circuit from ground faults.  If you have a fuse panel instead of a breaker panel, you can install a blank face GFCI in a separate device box immediately beside the panel in line with the circuit you need to protect.  This can be done on a breaker panel too in lieu of a GFCI breaker; both devices will achieve the same result.  Lastly you can replace a specific receptacle with a GFCI outlet.  You will then have the convenience of plugging in your grounded three prong devices into this outlet.   Preferably, if you can, install your GFCI outlet at the first in a series of outlets. This will protect all the outlets on that circuit.  Once you have protected the circuit you can then upgrade your outlets to three prong outlets.  This will allow you to use any three pronged or polarized plug on that circuit.  One important thing to remember is that the polarity of a GFI is imperative.  If the wires are hooked up incorrectly the GFCI will offer no protection.  If you’re not sure have an electrician do it or at very least guide you through it.

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