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I recently moved into an older home (built in 1968) and have been replacing some of the older light fixtures. We pulled down one of the lights and found that there is a ground running into the box but the light fixture itself doesn't have a ground to hook up to it.

My wife is considering refurbishing the look of the light instead of replacing it... is it okay to use the light even though it's not grounded?

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If it's a metal box, and a metal light fixture, and the box is grounded. The fixture itself may indeed be grounded via contact with the fixture box, and/or through the screws holding the fixture to the box. This is by no means an acceptable alternative to an actual properly designed grounding system in the fixture, but it may be enough if it's needed. –  Tester101 Jul 10 '13 at 12:01

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up vote 2 down vote accepted

We live with legacy ungrounded fixtures all the time, usually without incident. As I understand it, grounding is a backup system to give the high potential an easy path to ground (that is, a better path than YOU) if there is a short in the fixture.

Basically, grounding is a connection between the metal body of a fixture to a continuous ground (wire or metal shielding) that returns to the service panel and an earth ground. You could create a ground on a fixture by installing a screw in the metal body of the unit that could then take the ground wire. However, there could be more than one metal component in the fixture needing a ground, so it is by no means a sure fix.

The main issue is the likelihood of a user touching something metal on the fixture that could be accidentally live. If the fixture is out of reach, the lack of a ground is probably a low risk. If it is a pull chain light, use of a string pull rather than metal is a good idea.

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A good safety check for an older fixture is that the center conductor of the socket is connected to the hot (ungrounded) conductor. –  HerrBag Jul 10 '13 at 2:30
    
@HerrBag isn't that something that can (and should) be done when reinstalling, regardless of how it was originally wired? –  bib Jul 10 '13 at 3:01
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Yes, I just wanted to pair the comment with your answer. –  HerrBag Jul 10 '13 at 3:07

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