If you don’t have grounded wires in your home, you should. They are as the title suggests worth the effort. Safety standards have adapted as rapidly as our hunger for more technology and essentially, electricity. How you decide on what, when and why to ground your home will most likely depend on your understanding of the situation at hand. So let’s start with the basics.
Understanding Your Wiring System
Yep, I said it. Wiring as in rewiring and grounding are in fact the same. It works like this:
The Utility Company provides polarized power to your home through its vast network of high-tension surface wires, transformers and substations entering your home in 2 forms:
A ‘Hot’ or ‘Live’ wire leading to your receptacles (plugs), and returning (looping) on a ‘Neutral’ wire back to your electrical panel.
The hot and neutral wires run in a loop so as to discharge the negative energy and return to equilibrium. Most people understand that electricity will travel the path of least resistance to find ‘ground’. These wires run side by side through every circuit in your home this way as a means to conduct the electricity safely.
- A dedicated circuit will run power to a high amperage appliance and straight back to the panel.
- Each general purpose circuit can house up to 10 receptacles, though more than 5 is not commonly recommended. In this case it will ‘daisy chain’ and run from each receptacle to the next in its given area before returning safely on its neutral wire to your main panel.
However, should some breakdown of this looped path occur on a circuit the live current will travel as mentioned through the path of least resistance flowing through:
- Metal conduit
- Metal Pipes
- or, Still Water
creating a ? Short circuit ? Risking fire or shock when it strays outside its wires to take the shortest path to ground.
Safety concerns started sparking enforced regulations around the 1980’s when the pit-falls of the aforementioned 2-wire system were no longer acceptable. It started looking like this:
Hot wires looping back to Neutral wires and Grounding wires to bring your home up to code.
This effectively adds an alternate path for the electricity to run, the grounding wire provides another source for grounding stray current if your neutral wire has been compromised. In other words it creates a catch for it (should you have any breakdown channeling electricity back to the ground) before it becomes a fire or shock hazard.
Without this – If the hot lead isn’t tight or is losing power it will shut off the appliance if power is running to that receptacle. However, if the loose connection happens on the neutral side it will burn the motherboard or damage the appliance as the electricity will be traveling unchannelled and create the risk factor.
The grounding pathway usually consists of bare copper wires connecting to every device and electrical box in the home ending at a grounding bar in your main panel. This grounding bar is in turn driven 8’ft+ in to the earth to give the next best ‘path of least resistance’ for additional safety should the electricity need another route in case the 2 wire system fails you.
For this reason, everything conducting electricity in your homes wiring needs to be grounded. Usually grounding is pretty easy to spot. There will be a third (usually round) opening added below the traditional two openings of your outlets or ‘receptacles’. The third prong on grounded appliances is called the grounding prong and when plugged in is connected directly to the copper wires grounding your home.
Side note: You may want to confirm that your metal plumbing pipes or ‘cold water pipes’ have the grounding wire clamped on them as well. This will offer yet another safeguard against any stray electricity, giving it another path to follow to ground. It is worth noting that this is common practice, and may be a requirement to pass a city inspection.
If you have an older home
While copper wiring is the standard it is not all you will see. Two things to be mindful of when you own an older home are:
Before 1988 metal conduit or cable was commonly used. This is no longer the status quo do to safety concerns.
Homes built before 1940 may have no grounding at all, commonly referred to as knob-and-tube wiring.
The safety concerns come into play when dealing with the metal conduit due to the fact that if a neutral wire is compromised in the junction box and barely touching metal or the contact is not direct (strong) enough, the breaker won’t detect enough current to trigger a short!!! Meaning the metal becomes conductive.
To recap: you will want to see that your outlets have 3-slots and while most older homes have already been updated, grounding was not an enforced requirement until we got into the 80’s. It’s worth a look. If all else fails and you’re still unsure about your home’s electric shock security system, you should call have an assessment done by a local licenced electrician.
One of the safeguards in place you may want to be aware of, as mentioned above, are your circuit breakers with two main purposes.
- Protection against overheating due to overloading of current traveling through them;
- Detecting short circuits, stopping the flow of current instantaneously blowing or tripping.
Short circuiting or what’s called a ground fault situation can be traced back to a sudden decrease in resistance in turn creating a surplus of uncontrollable current. This triggers the built in safety and trips the breaker to shut it off (as long as it is able to detect it).
Next up you could try plug adapters. Though these are widely used, they have shortcomings you shouldn’t overlook. Many don’t know there are three vital necessities needed to consider this a bandaid for grounding.
- The metal loop on the adapter has to be correctly attached to the mounting screw on the cover plate.
- That cover plate screw is connected to a metal box.
- That metal box had better be grounded.
I wouldn’t call it a stretch to say that this is not a reliable or recommendable route. You could try installing basic GFCI switches (Ground Fault Circuit Interrupter). Though most electricians don’t recommend this, some more reputable individuals won’t even do this without laying proper wiring due to the fact that while they make an under grounded outlet a little safer, it won’t actually create a grounding pathway, still leaving room for concern on work they could be liable for.
Lastly, you should keep in mind that while not all appliances have a three prong plug for grounding, the ones that don’t usually have double insulation built in to minimize the risk of short circuit. The appliances that do have the grounding prong need to be plugged into grounded outlets to be considered safe.
If you already have a grounded home but are experiencing shocks when touching electrically charged objects containing metal in your home, your wiring is faulty. It is usually not a life threatening situation however if:
- The line is a 220 volt
- You are standing on a wet surface
- Or are between two metal structures
It could easily become one. In these cases burns or heart attack become far more likely, notably if you have a pre-existing heart condition. As sighted in The National Center for Biotechnology Information Epidemiology section “there are approximately 1000 deaths per year, as a result of electrical injuries” and “400 are due to high-voltage electrical”. As such, it is a time sensitive issue and locating the source of the faulty ground can be very dangerous. It should only be attempted by a trained professional.
Understanding the physics of electrical flow isn’t necessary to know the importance of a safe home wiring system. That’s why we pay trained, licensed and educated electricians when in doubt. Penna Electric has over 20+ years experience in the field and offers free estimates built around your schedule. (310) 800-2401
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