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Since 1962, ungrounded outlets, which are outlets without an attached grounding wire, have been prohibited in new construction by the National Electric Code to minimize the risk of electric shock and to prevent damage to electrical equipment. Because of this, ungrounded two-prong outlets are typically only found in older homes.
Buying a house with ungrounded outlets doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s against code, but there are certain guidelines that address the replacement of these outlets in homes. Here’s what you can expect when you’re buying a house with ungrounded outlets.
Here’s a simple explanation of how they work: The purpose of a grounded outlet is to prevent electric shock. If the electricity leaves the outlet, it goes into the ground, instead of into you! Think of it like this: Electricity is like water, and the ground is like a sink. If there is no ground, the water (electricity) will go all over the place. But if there is a sink (ground), the water (electricity) will go right where it’s supposed to go. Grounded outlets are also important because they help protect your electronics from power surges. Power surges can damage your electronics and shorten their life span. Fun Fact: Grounded outlets have been required in all new home construction since the 1960s!
Ungrounded outlets only have connections for a hot and neutral wire. Three-prong outlets provide a connection to a grounding wire. The grounding wire isn’t necessary for the operation of the outlet, but it’s still an important safety feature.
Without a grounding wire, electricity doesn’t have a safe path to travel in the case of an unstable current. This means that ungrounded outlets can increase the risk of:
Electrical shock: The absence of the third grounding wire means that the outlet and the path to the breaker box remain charged, making electrocution more likely to occur.
Fire: Without a ground, any issues with the outlet can produce sparks or arcing that can cause walls or nearby furniture to catch on fire.
Damage to personal property: Ungrounded outlets can damage appliances or other electrical equipment by causing them to short out.
Besides having ungrounded outlets, it’s not uncommon to find electrical problems in older homes. This is why it’s recommended to have a licensed electrician do a proper assessment of your wiring and circuits and make necessary repairs and replacements.
Rewiring a house can be expensive and time-consuming. There are ungrounded three-prong outlets, which means a three-prong outlet is installed with only two wires and no grounding path, but there are risks, it won’t give you the safety grounding provides, and it may not pass inspection if you choose to sell.
Ungrounded outlets can also be accompanied by electrical defects — like frayed wiring or bad connections — which can increase the risk of electrical shock or fire. Although it’s not required by law, it’s still highly advised to rewire ungrounded outlets to ensure the safety of the home and anyone on the property.
If you have ungrounded outlets in your home, your safest option would be to rewire all of these outlets. Before rewiring, make sure to check every outlet to see if they’re ungrounded. You can use a circuit tester to check each outlet to make sure they’re wired correctly and if they’re grounded.
A cost-effective option if you’re buying a home with ungrounded outlets is to use a GFCI breaker or install GFCI at the individual outlets. GFCI breakers protect the entire circuit while GFCI receptacles only offer protection to a single outlet.
GFCI, which stands for Ground Fault Circuit Interrupter, can help reduce the risk of electrocution and electrical fire by cutting power when the outlets detect an imbalance or excess electrical flow. GFCI outlets work without grounding but aren’t considered as safe as grounded outlets.
Here’s how to install a GFCI without a ground:
If the outlet has four wires, identifying the hot wire can be more of a challenge. After taking off the outlet and separating the wires, you’ll need to turn the power back and use a multimeter to identify the hot wires. Once you find the wires, turn the power off and mark the wires with tape. The additional two wires will need to be connected to the load terminal.
While this doesn’t mean your outlets are grounded, GFCI outlets offer more protection than ungrounded outlets.
If you aren’t comfortable completing this job on your own, hiring a licensed electrician may be the best solution.
According to the National Electric Code, you can sell a house with existing two-prong outlets as long as they’re working correctly. Even if you choose to replace two-prong outlets, they do not have to be rewired and upgraded. Only new construction is required to have grounded outlets.
However, having two-prong outlets could still affect the sale of the home. It could be a problem for potential buyers and some may request electrical upgrades before moving forward with the transaction.
Ungrounded two-prong outlets can be left as-is and typically pass home inspections. However, a three-prong outlet will require a ground wire. This is a common reason why some homes don’t pass inspection.
Ungrounded GFCI outlets will also pass inspection, but the outlet will need a sticker that reads “no equipment ground.” GFCI outlets usually come with these stickers.
If you’re buying a house with ungrounded outlets but plan to remodel or add a new room, the addition and areas with substantial renovations may be subject to code compliance. According to the International Code Council, the code enforcement process is usually initiated when an application for a building permit is filed.
Construction plans must be reviewed and approved and a code inspector will make inspections as necessary to determine compliance. If something doesn’t comply with the code, the code official will issue orders to correct the problem.
Consult your local code enforcement agency for ground and circuit requirements as they may differ from one area to another.
If you’re buying a house with ungrounded outlets, having them professionally grounded can get expensive. In this situation, an electrician will have to add a ground wire to every outlet in the house.
To ground all the outlets in your house in 2023, it could cost between $9,750 and $12,750. Wiring costs $6 to $8 per foot and it could cost between $130 to $170 per outlet. The price can go up with larger homes or down with small homes. In the average U.S. home, there are roughly 75 electrical outlets.
Ungrounded three-prong outlets have the same dangers as any type of ungrounded outlet. They can increase the chance of electrical shock, fire, and property damage.
Section 406.4(D)(1) of the National Electric Code also says that if there’s a grounding path, then it must be grounded. This means that if you plan to sell your home, then you have three options:
If the home is grounded, then you can replace your two-prong outlets with three-prong outlets. With the help of an electrician, changing to three-prong outlets can cost between $135 and $300 but can cost as little as $75 or up to $485.
Without an electrician, three-prong outlets typically cost between $5 and $15 for each outlet, and GFCI outlets cost $7 to $25.
Any outlet can be dangerous if used incorrectly or not wired properly. However, grounded outlets offer more protection than ungrounded outlets.
To give electricity a safe path to travel, grounding wires are installed that run parallel to the hot and neutral wires in outlets to the electrical panel. If there’s a short circuit or a fault, then the grounding wire will act as an emergency path to carry electrical current away from the outlet.
Grounded outlets are an additional safety measure for you, your property, and your personal belongings.
When buying a home, ungrounded outlets aren’t necessarily a deal-breaker, but they can be a potential safety hazard. Plus, if you plan to sell the house down the road, some ungrounded outlets could become a problem during the home inspection.
Grounding the entire house can also be costly, but the National Electric Code provides guidelines and alternative options for the replacement of ungrounded outlets.
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