Modern-day buildings with wiring that are completely up to the local building code and contemporary construction standards always have grounded outlets. Chances are good that you have seen so many of them over the course of your life that you might mistakenly think that these 3-holed outlets have always been the norm.

Shockingly though, this is not the case. For the better part of nearly a century homes and even commercial buildings didn’t have grounded outlets. Especially in rural areas where the rural electrification act did its best to rapidly run power lines and electrical services into the country for farms and communities that were considered remote.

This means that there are a lot of buildings and private homes out there that still have the old-fashioned two-prong, ungrounded outlets in them. Making this worse is the fact that this style of outlet and the wiring that supports it can become an increasing fire hazard with age!

What Makes an Outlet Ungrounded?

Technically, the term “Ungrounded” refers to an electrical outlet that only has two holes in it, rather than the standard three. These two vertical, identical slits only have a hot and a neutral wire. These wires are typically made from aluminum, which can be susceptible to faults and short circuits with age.

These days you typically only find these ungrounded outlets in older homes, businesses, and commercial properties that were constructed before the middle of the 1960s. From that point on, modern standards demanded the use of properly grounded outlets. Though there were a few buildings that were still cutting corners on their construction costs into the early 1970s by installing ungrounded outlets or using them as part of a remodel.

You can always spot an ungrounded outlet by the two slits, lacking the third rounded hold of a modern-day electrical outlet.

With an ungrounded outlet, each of the two vertical slots represent a “Hot” wire and a “Neutral” wire. Then a simple ground is integrated into the neutral vertical slot.

Unfortunately, this meant that if anything went wrong with the outlet that the unwanted electricity from something like a short or a burn-out in the outlet would allow excess electrical current to travel directly back to the electrical panel. This was usually an outdated fuse box, which was ill-equipped to handle many of these freak surge incidents. Sometimes the fuse would safely burn out. Sometimes the electrical fault would have a catastrophic failure. This could damage other fuses, burn out other wires and even lead to a very serious electrical fire that started at the fuse box and spread rapidly from there.

What Makes Grounded Outlets Important?

A grounded outlet is more than just an updated version of an ungrounded outlet. With a grounded outlet the third ground has no direct relationship with the two wires running back to the electrical panel. Instead, it runs to the outside ground. Any electrical faults or short circuits then safely divert the unwanted electrical current without risk of an electrical fire.

It’s also worth bearing in mind that most grounded outlets are connected to modern-day circuit breaker panels. These have little switches that are rated for 15 or 20 Amps. Anytime an electrical fault or short circuit exceeds the rating of the breaker, a physical switch is thrown or “Tripped” which cuts off electrical current to the entire circuit, without having to “Burn” anything out like an old-fashioned fuse box was engineered to do.

This level of built-in redundancy means that a grounded outlet essentially acts like a failsafe. If anything goes wrong with your outlet, such as a short, the renegade electricity travels safely along the ground wire rather than returning it to the panel.

Once grounded outlets, grounded circuits, and circuit breaker panels became the norm and were reinforced by new construction and building codes, the number of electrical fires, electrocutions, and electrical injuries in the United States started to drop rapidly. It was also followed by a decreased need to replace household appliances and light fixtures.

Are Ungrounded Outlets Dangerous?

Ungrounded outlets pose a personal threat for personal injury and property damage. This includes things like:

An Increased Risk of Electrical Fire

Without a ground wire to divert excess current away from the hot and neutral wire, the risk of an electrical fire from even a seemingly minor problem goes way up. This can include things like an outlet arcing, sparking, and releasing an electrical charge that can rapidly cause a fire along walls or on nearby furniture and electrical fixtures. Not to mention the risk of a serious fire in the basement near the fuse box or circuit panel.

Health Hazard & Personal Injury Risk

An ungrounded outlet poses a much higher risk of shock to people operating the electronic devices and appliances that are plugged into the outlet. This can result in a very painful shock when plugging the appliance in or when it is turned on.

Property Loss & Damage To Devices

Ungrounded outlets can short out appliances, power tools, and equipment, rendering them worthless. This includes sensitive electronic devices like smartphones, tablets, desktop computers, and even some TVs. It’s also worth noting that damage caused by outdated wiring might not be covered by homeowners insurance and can void warranty coverage when you file a claim.

Can Using A Surge Protector Prevent Problems Caused By Ungrounded Outlets?

A high-end surge protector, plugged into an ungrounded outlet can help protect sensitive electronic devices and small appliances from major power surges caused by the faults between an ungrounded outlet’s neutral and hot wires. Though it has no appreciable effect on reducing the risk of damage to the outlet, the wiring itself, the fuse box, or the risk of electrical fires.

Can I Rewire My Outlets Myself?

While you might have the mechanical sympathy and skills to wire an outlet and install a ground, it might not meet the code. If an electrical fire occurs from your faulty wiring, it will likely not be covered by your homeowner’s insurance. At the same time, for a homeowner’s insurance policy to reflect the savings from wiring that has been updated to code, it must be professionally inspected and certified by a building inspector.

How Much Does It Cost To Have Grounded Outlets Professionally Installed?

Having your ungrounded outlets professionally replaced with grounded outlets and making sure everything is up to code typically costs start at around $120 per outlet. Though this is a much smaller cost than the consequences of an electrical fire, electrocution, or damage to a major appliance caused by an ungrounded outlet.