LESLIE: Steve in Kansas is uncertain about electrical system. How can we help you today?
STEVE: My daughter, about two years ago, bought her dream home, so to speak. She had it for years. Anyhow, she had this house inspected by a noted, reputable house inspector. And here about two weeks ago, I was in to change out the range or cook stove in the kitchen that was on a separate island. And putting in the new stove, I had to move the outlets. So I decided, well, I’m going to shut the power off because of the – where the screws and everything were.
TOM: That was wise.
STEVE: And I, yeah, went out to the breaker box. Figured it was the 50-amp breaker. Most of the stuff was not labeled or allegedly labeled. And I shut the 50-amp breaker off and came back in the kitchen and the lights went out. And I started thinking about it. They shouldn’t be on the 50-amp breaker but maybe it’s coming from the back of the stove. There was maybe a plug-in or something that they – anyhow, further checking, I found that virtually nothing in the kitchen had any ground wires, even though they were GFIC breakers or plug-in. I call them “breakers” but they do trip if there is a current demand or a supposedly …
TOM: When you say ground wire, are you telling me it’s a two-wire system instead of a three-wire system?
STEVE: There was – I opened the plate up on the breaker and there are no ground wires at all running anywhere. And most everything in the house has got a three-prong outlet.
TOM: Because there was a time when you just had two wires; you didn’t have a third ground wire. And it was grounded through the neutral. So is that what you’re saying?
STEVE: Well, none of the outlets, with the little cheap-y tester, show that it is grounded. It could be in the GFI breakers.
TOM: That’s another – that’s a second issue, Steve, OK?
TOM: Because you can use a ground-fault circuit interrupter outlet even if you don’t have a ground wire. Because, basically, you – it’s sort of a trick of the trade. But you can – you’re essentially creating the ground protection even though it’s not actually grounded. So if there’s a diversion of current to a ground source, it turns the outlet off. So, it’s possible to use a GFCI even if you don’t have that third wire.
When was this house built?
STEVE: Roughly ‘61 or roughly around ‘60 so …
TOM: Mm-hmm. Yeah. I mean it could have a two – it might be a two-wire house. So, look, if you’re uncertain about electrical system …
STEVE: Yeah, most everything was two-wire.
TOM: Right. Well, then, it’s not that it’s not – the whole house is not grounded, it’s just it’s grounded through the neutral. And then you have a combination of three-prong outlets that don’t really have a ground wire attached to them. So, I get that. And that probably shouldn’t have been done and I’m sure there’s going to be work to be done to straighten that out.
A home inspector should have, at least, tested a representative sample of outlets to see if they were grounded or ungrounded. And that would have been a very simple thing to do. But if that didn’t happen and you’re uncertain about electrical system – and I’m sorry for that. But you may be wise to have a good electrician do an evaluation, to kind of get a good sense as to exactly where you are so that you don’t falsely rely on an outlet being grounded only to find out that it’s not. Because if it’s not grounded, guess who becomes the ground? You, right? You plug something in, you become the ground.
STEVE: That’s what I was always told but …
TOM: And that’s not good. So, the ground-fault outlets, you know, are a possible solution. But I think you need, at this point, to get a sense as to what you have and what you don’t have so you’re not uncertain about electrical system. I think you’ve identified some important issues, Steve, and I think the next step would be for you to bring in a pro. I would recommend HomeAdvisor.com as a good, independent site where you could consider a wide variety of electricians. And see if you can find one that is highly rated, that other folks have used and have been happy with. And maybe just start right there, OK?
STEVE: OK. Good.
TOM: Good luck, Steve. You’re a good dad.