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Upgrading ungrounded outlets is important because between 1920 and 1960, tens of thousands of houses built in the United States. Almost all of them had two-prong outlets. Many of them still do. If you live in a house with two-prong outlets, you might want to consider an upgrade. You are at risk for more than inconvenience when you try and plug in your 21st century TV into one of these outlets.

Risks With Two-Prong Outlets

testing electrical outlets
electrical outlets testing

Two main risks associated with two-prong outlets: electrocution and power surges. Both of these issues have to do with the fact that the wiring in two-prong outlets isn’t grounded. In outlets built

since 1962, U.S. electrical code has required all outlets to have a ground. This ground wire protects electronics and people from electrical surges and faults by providing a pathway for extra energy to escape the house’s circuitry. When an error or surge occurs with grounding, the energy travels through the ground wire to the electrical panel. There, it will trip the circuit breaker or blow a fuse, thereby shutting down the circuit before damage (hopefully) occurs. The energy then continues through the ground wire into the earth below the structure, where it dissipates harmlessly.

Without grounding, it’s also impossible to protect your electronics and appliances with surge protectors. Surge protectors work if they connect to a ground wire. Without this, they offer no better protection for electronic devices than multi-prong outlets.

Current Building Standards

Upgrading your home’s electrical system can cost between 5 and 15 percent of your home’s value — a cost that many people cannot afford. With this in mind, regulators determined that homeowners with two-prong outlets need not upgrade them. However, that doesn’t mean they’re the safest option.

For more than 50 years, code has required all new construction have grounded, three-prong outlets. U.S. electrical code now requires outlets not only to be grounded but that outlets in areas with water present have a GFCI. A GFCI, short for ground-fault circuit interrupter, protects people from electrical shock by cutting off the circuit if a short circuit occurs. (A short circuit is when there is a low resistance connection between two conductors that are supplying electrical power to a circuit. The short-circuit would cause excessive flow of current in the power source. The electricity will flow through a ‘short’ route and cause a short circuit).  If someone is being shocked/electrocuted because of that short circuit, a GFCI can save their life.

This type of protection is not available with a two-prong outlet.

Two-Prong Outlets Suggest Other Problems

Two prong outlets raise flags about other electrical issues that may be present. Homes built before 1965 had 30- or 60-amp fuse panels. 30 and 60-amp fuse panels may be inadequate for modern household electrical needs.

Fuse boxes are problematic because they cannot handle the most current requirements of electrical systems. Newly constructed homes today have 200-amp service panels (the service panels that replaced fuse boxes).

When there is too much energy running through a wire, the wire heats up, putting the house at risk for fire. Too much energy (electricity) will also blow fuses. You will have to continually replace if your fuse box’s amperage rating doesn’t meet your needs.

Another problem to be on guard for when two-prong outlets are present is the lack of grounding in outlets that have three prongs. A house retrofitted with three-prong outlets may still have some two-prong outlets as well, and there’s a good chance they’re not grounded.  It could also mean that only part of your house’s electrical system is grounded.

Use an outlet tester to find out whether they are grounded or not.  Regulations require a label stating there is  “No Equipment Ground” if the three-prong outlets are not grounded.

Four Ways to Upgrade Ungrounded Electrical Outlets

Upgrading your ungrounded electrical outlets, you cannot merely add a three-prong outlet. While this will solve the convenience issue, it will not solve the safety issue.

If you genuinely want to address your two-prong outlets and make them safer, you have four options.

Option 1: Rewire Your Outlets

Your first and best option when looking at upgrading ungrounded outlets is to hire an electrician to rewire your house’s outlets and its electrical panel. If the expense is a concern, consider having your electrician rewire select outlets into which you plug more sensitive electronic devices, such as a computer or game console.

Note that this is not a project you can do yourself. Only a certified electrician has the expertise necessary to run a ground wire from the outlet to the service panel and then correctly ground it.

Option 2: Ground Three Prong Outlets with the Metal Housing Box

Many two-prong outlets are installed in metal boxes, metal boxes were often grounded even if the circuitry was not.   While your house has two-prong outlets with metal boxes, you can ground the outlets without overhauling the wiring.

To find out whether the metal housing is grounded, purchase a circuit tester. Insert one of the tester’s prongs into the hot slot (the shorter slot in the outlet). Put the other prong onto a screw holding the cover plate. The metal box is ungrounded if the tester lights up.

With a grounded box, you can install a three-prong outlet, and ground it by attaching it to the armored cable in the back of the box.

Option 3: Install a GFCI at the Outlet

The third option to upgrading your ungrounded outlets is to replace it with a GFCI. While a GFCI will not protect your electronics from power surges, it will protect you from electrocution and short circuits. If you replace an ungrounded, two-prong outlet with a GFCI, you must label it with “No Equipment Ground.”

Option 4: Install a GFCI at the Circuit Breaker

It’s also possible to replace your two-prong receptacles with three-prong ones and add a GFCI circuit breaker at the service panel. Doing this will likewise protect you from electrocution. If you do this, you will have to label outlets with “GFCI Protected, No Equipment Ground.”

Whatever you decide to do, we recommend having a certified electrician complete your electrical work. Safety is always a concern when working with electricity, and an expert will best take care of your home.


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