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I'm currently in a lease on an apartment as a tenant.

I've done quite a lot of small-time electrical work on places I've lived in the past: changing out outlets, switches, two-way switches, etc. I'm not uncomfortable at all with opening up a wall outlet and changing it out.

At my current apartment after changing some of the outlets due to old age/weak springs in the outlets, I discovered (unfortunately) that none of the 10 outlets I replaced are grounded. It's not likely that any of the outlets are grounded.

For my expensive equipment, I'll likely run a UPS with a really good surge protector in front of it to prevent it from damage in the case of a fault.

However, what are my options for fixing the problem at the source? Is it possible that the breaker box itself is grounded with the outlets and switches ungrounded? Does being ungrounded mean that the only solution is to run wires and hire an experienced electrician to install a ground rod? Would replacing all outlets with GFCI adapters help?

Update

I have just tested an outlet using a wiring tester and things look okay:

The lights indicate that the wiring is correct. This tester is a bit old and decrepit so I'm going to order another one and try it again to be sure. Would something like this be able to tell me that I am, in fact, grounded?

Update 2

Many of the outlets were wired in this way:

Both the hot and neutral wires are wired in this way on many of the outlets, which I thought was really strange.

Typically, I've seen wire endings attached to the outlets, not the middle of a wire stripped and wrapped around the screw on the side of the outlet.

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Does your landlord sanction your electrical work, or are you the tenant from <bleep> who just dives in and messes with an electrical system you do not own...? – Ecnerwal Feb 15 at 3:41
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Nope, I have permission, experience, and a really busy landlord. – Naftuli Tzvi Kay Feb 15 at 5:06
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If your tester indicates OK but there is no ground wire, it's possible that the outlet box is grounded and the outlets are "self-grounding" which means the ground is connected through the box. It is really beyond the ability of an amature to tell if it is a proper ground or a poor connection. Make sure the replacement outlets are marked "self-grounding". – DoxyLover Feb 15 at 7:09
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Also, look carefully for a jumper on the outlet between the neutral screw and the ground screw. This would check OK on a tester but is illegal and potentially deadly if the neutral wire gets disconnected. – DoxyLover Feb 15 at 7:11
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While not normally done, there really isn't anything wrong with that wiring. It's just one way to daisy-chain multiple outlets. If you want to make it more kosher, you can cut the wires and add a wirenut with another wire (a pig-tail) to the outlet. – DoxyLover Feb 15 at 8:12

This is a good question which can have a variety of answers depending on the exact case. I would open up the breaker panel and see if there is a ground running to it. It is very possible that the breaker panel is grounded and that the neutral is grounded but the outlets and lights aren't. If you don't know how to tell if the panel is grounded, you could take a picture of the panel and post it here and I'll edit my answer. Many surge protectors don't work at all if they aren't properly grounded, and those that do are much less effective. When you moved in, were the outlets two prong outlets or three prong outlets? If they were two prong outlets then you can't upgrade them to three prong without making sure the whole system is grounded properly. If they were three prong outlets when you got there then you Landlord is liable and he must get it fixed. Ungrounded three prong outlets are a real hazard.

In any case, I would try to find out what is really going on and then approach your Landlord. Since you don't own the house, it is neither your responsibility nor your right to do anything major without approval from the landlord and in this case since it could is a safety issue, and it is definitely an upgrade on his house, your landlord should pay for it... or at least pitch in.

No, a GFCI will not fix the problem. A GFCI does meet code [210-7(d)(3)] and is better than nothing but it is a last resort. It is my belief that it only satisfies the NEC because they knew that some people would not do it right and they figured that the GFCI outlet was better than nothing.

Edit after Your Uptdate

You may want to make sure that they didn't use any "bootleg grounds." Those testers are easily tricked by these false grounds but these "tricks" are not safe.

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A GFCI absolutely, unequivocally fixes the problem of protecting human beings from electrocution, and meet code for use with 3-prong receptacles if they are labeled "No Equipment Ground." – Craig Feb 15 at 5:33
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@ Craig A GFCI fixes one of the problems... for the most part. He expressly mentioned expensive equipment and surge protection. A GFCI doesn't help either of these. Also, GFCIs have an astounding fail rate depending on location. In areas such as southwest Florida, fail rate of GFCIs is over 57% and they fail "on" so no protection is offered. – Maxfield Solar Feb 15 at 5:41
    
I was going to pull "unequivocal" from my comment because of the possibility of a GFCI failing, but I didn't go back to it until my 5 minute edit window was gone. Yes, proper ground does help a surge protector work better, although a good surge protector still offers a lot of protection without the ground. – Craig Feb 15 at 5:44
    
I have tested the outlet and they may be grounded even though there is no visible ground wire in the outlet boxes. Please see my updated question. – Naftuli Tzvi Kay Feb 15 at 6:51
    
There aren't bootleg grounds on the outlets/receptacles themselves, not sure if it's possible to have a bootleg ground on the box itself. – Naftuli Tzvi Kay Feb 15 at 20:56

GFCI outlets are for protecting human life. They detect any current imbalance between the hot and grounded ("neutral") conductors, and trip very quickly when any imbalance is detected. When any load is connected to the circuit (like your running computer), the hot and "neutral" should carry precisely the same amount of current. If the current is different, that means current is flowing through some other path. If that other path is your heart, you're a goner.

So a GFCI will provide human safety on an ungrounded outlet. If you install a GFCI, one GFCI can protect all the outlets "downstream" from it, and if it is on an ungrounded circuit you're supposed to put the little "No Equipment Ground" label on it. This does allow you to safely put 3-prong receptacles on an ungrounded circuit.

A GFCI cannot provide grounding for equipment. That's a different matter. Proper grounding serves a lot of purposes. One purpose is reducing background noise or "hum" in electronics. Grounding also helps surge protectors work more effectively by giving them a path to shunt overcurrent to, although a surge protector also has one or more MOV's (Metal Oxide Varistor) which divert current. MOV's do wear out and can eventually fail if they're hit too many times with overcurrent.

Also, with your computer case, all the pipes in your house, the housings of all your other grounded appliances and so on set to the same voltage potential, there isn't a big voltage differential if you touch a faucet and your computer at the same time. If you shuffle your feet across the carpet then touch your computer, a proper ground gives that static electricity (which could be 10's of thousands of volts) a non-destructive path that shunts it away from super-sensitive CPU's and memory chips. Grounding does provide a degree of human safety, as well. If there's a short in the device which energizes the casing, and you touch the casing, the ground wire is an easier return path for the current than you are, so you don't get electrocuted, and so on.

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  1. Your surge protector will be less effective than otherwise, on an ungrounded circuit.

  2. It's possible, but unlikely, that the metal box of each outlet is grounded. Take pictures and post them here for advice.

  3. When changing the outlets, take care that old fragile wire is protected from mechanical damage (I like to slip shrink wrap over). If there are only two wires, install only two wire outlets.

  4. You can safely and legally put a three prong GFCI outlet with "no equipment ground" in your walls. But these are expensive and use electricity even when not in use. They're probably not worth it outside the bathroom.

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I have checked the wiring using a tester, it might be that the box itself is grounded or that the individual boxes are grounded. Please see my updated question. – Naftuli Tzvi Kay Feb 15 at 6:49

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