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First let me start by saying I know this question has been answered with various nuances, but when it comes to safety I want to make sure I have the most appropriate information for my situation.

We're in the process of moving into an old house (renting, currently on a 6 month lease). When I did the walkthrough I didn't notice that every outlet was a 2-prong; it just wasn't something I'd even considered. I have a number of 3 prong devices and I want to make sure I'm using them safely (both for me and the device).

The only place that there is a 3 prong is in the bathroom. It is not a GFCI (none in the whole house). However I tested it and with the neutral and hot connections I get 120Vrms. With the hot and ground I get ~10-12Vrms and with neutral and ground I get ~1Vrms. I take it to mean that it is not actually grounded and a previous tenant replaced it so they could plug in a 3-prong device...

Also very concerning is the the fridge is plugged into one of those crappy 2->3 adapters and I think the ground pin is just floating and not actually connected to anything... this seems wrong at best and dangerous at worst.

I looked into adapters but the screws at least on the outlets' faceplates are not grounded. The house was built in 1921 and I have no idea how much wiring has been done since but I think it's safe to assume there probably isn't any grounding wiring. I am, however, able to get a clean 120Vrms signal from some of the pipes and various metal around the house, FWIW.

We've asked the landlord and they want nothing to do with replacing any of it and suggested we "buy some cheater plugs". Which, yes, will technically work but it doesn't feel like a good solution. If I were an owner I'd probably just pay to have it all redone. I'm in Seattle, if that affects any of the answers.

  1. What should be done about the fridge? I was thinking a minimum of adding a GFCI for safety. I do worry that the fridge will trip it, which I've heard of happening.

  2. What can be done for the other outlets to make them safer for me and my devices?

  3. How much of a problem is this, really? Is it something that we should be concerned about to the point of moving in August? We were hoping to live here for a few years at least, but it isn't likely to be properly rewired any time soon.

  • You know the rule: good, fast, cheap - pick any two. Since it's not yr house, you should reject "good." If there's forced hot-water or steam heat, I'd run wires from receptacle boxes to the plumbing (or if the drain system is cast-iron, use that). That's a very good ground even tho' it's not generally allowed by code. – Carl Witthoft Feb 3 '17 at 15:23
  • Since it's a rental, don't you have recourse to suggest/implore/force the landlord to ensure everything is up to code (at least in the bathrooms). Do you place to replace outlets yourself otherwise? – BrownRedHawk Feb 3 '17 at 20:29
  • You may want to find out your rights as a tennant, and find out if there's any way to compell your landlord to fix things, tenantsunion.org/en/programs/tenants-rights-hotline – Sean Feb 3 '17 at 21:16
  • Someone might want to answer this question. – Harper - Reinstate Monica Feb 7 '17 at 1:22
  • corollary question, can we use a GFCI outlet adapter along with a cheater plug in this situation? You could install a GFCI outlet with no ground, wouldn't an adapter be the same? – agentp Jan 10 '18 at 1:20
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According to the article at this link, replacing an ungrounded receptacle with an ungrounded GFCI receptacle will offer more safety than an ungrounded receptacle (with presumably a 2-3 prong adapter). A fault in the plugged-in appliance will still trip the GFCI even though there is no path to ground. This seems highly superior to using a 2-3 prong converter with a do-it-yourself ground path, as that would just allow any stray current to follow the ground path versus tripping a GFCI.

http://communities.leviton.com/thread/1080

I don't know why a fridge would trip a GFCI.

Assessing your risk is a bit tougher. In my simple mind, user-triggered electrical faults come in two basic varieties - overloading the circuit or providing an alternate current path to ground. Do you plan to run extension cords under carpets? Are your electrical items in good condition - e.g. relatively new, no frayed cords, etc? Do you plan to use any appliances in wet conditions? GFCIs protect against these types of faults. If you are careful in these areas, there is less risk. Most home receptacles don't have GFCIs unless they are in damp locations (e.g. bathrooms, kitchen, outside). So I would focus on these areas first.

Here is a great article on why some appliances have 2- versus 3- prong plugs. Maybe it will help you assess your individual appliances and usage for risk.

https://www.quora.com/Does-the-third-ground-prong-on-electrical-plugs-improve-safety

GFCIs do not protect against circuit overloads. (Overloads may happen either from plugging too many things into the same circuit or from a short circuit.) That is what fuses and circuit breakers are for. They work regardless of the presence of a ground wire. As an owner of a couple of rental homes, I am as concerned about overloading the circuits through normal use (resulting in wires overheating in the walls) as I am about electrical faults (which may do the same thing, but it requires a failure versus a situation that may occur during normal day-to-day activities). If you have a lot of equipment that draws power (kitchen appliances, space heaters, amplifiers, etc.) you may want to figure out which receptacles are on separate circuits so you can spread out the electrical load. The fuses/breakers should protect you against overload, assuming the system was built/updated to code. But if you don't want to assume, you might want to think about how best to plug in all the stuff you have to distribute the load as evenly as possible.

  • GFCIs can only detect a fault current if it actually exists. A GFCI can reduce the duration of a shock from an ungrounded appliance, but it can't prevent the shock from happing in the first place. – Peter Green Jan 8 at 13:31
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All I know is that I've never lived in a house with 3-prong outlets, have used 2-3 adaptors where needed, and never had a problem yet. My father would just tear the 3rd prong off of whatever equipment he wanted to run. Lots of people do this and don't get killed.

  • Removing the ground prong is dangerous if the unit builds up static electricity and has nowhere else to go. Lots of modern equipment is double insulated to prevent that, but some is not. – Machavity Jan 10 '18 at 2:05

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