So, I live in an older house. My current computer has happily plugged into a surge protector, which in turn plugged into a 3 prong adapter into the two pronged outlet for 8+ years. The surge protector never complained, but finally died recently.

I got a new surge protector, and any time I plug it in, it screams and its LED for "wiring fault" is lit up. I assume that is because there's no ground?

Anyway, I wish to purchase a new computer soon (desktop), and it's likely it will be a very high-end machine since I'm a software engineer and computer scientist. I'd like to have some measure of protection for my computer, but also I'd like to avoid spending $8,000 - $15,000 getting my house ripped apart and new wiring everywhere.

I've heard GFCI outlets are a possible workaround? But I've also read people saying surge protectors don't like these outlets either... I feel like I'm stuck between a rock and a hard place.

I would appreciate any suggestions, constructive comments, etc. from those familiar with such situations.


3 Answers 3


You are correct about GFCIs or ground fault devices. In an ungrounded situation, GFCIs are a cure-all for life safety, but they do absolutely nothing to reduce ESD damage to equipment. For that you need proper grounds.

Normally, when a technical person says they are reluctant to mess about with mains power, I encourage them to listen to that voice. However, in 2014, they broadly legalized retrofitting grounds. And retrofitting grounds is a job that matches well with knowledge that is "technical, but not electrical", or that is "electrical, the wrong kind".

Retrofitting grounds is, in a nutshell, you run a ground-wire backbone between all your heavy appliances (A/C, range, water heater, dryer) and the braided copper grounding elecrodes leaving your panel. This is done in 10 AWG wire.

Then, off that, you branch outward to all the other outlets. Any outlet needs to either reach the backbone, or another outlet that reaches the backbone and has large enough ground wire all the way back. Best to use #12 wire for this.

If the boxes are metal it is sufficient to clip it onto the edge of the box. Otherwise adding the grounds is no more difficult than changing a receptacle or switch.

You put the ground wires wherever practical, it's not important to follow the same route as the conductors. (You won't get EMF loops and eddy current heating because grounds don't carry current except during fault conditions.

Now, lastly, the old conductors. Another device is a cure-all for ratty old conductors also: the AFCI or arc-fault breaker. It looks (literally, it listens) for loose connections, inter-wire shorts, or other arcing - it's that scratchy "hooking up speakers with the amp turned on" or "jiggle your headphones in the jack" sound. They are about $40 a pop, or you can get a combo AFCI/GFCI breaker for about $50. Unlike GFCI, AFCI needs to be at the breaker because it protects the wiring, not the outlet.

  • Should I suspect that these upgrades are considered "hokey" and notgoing to be something a certified electrician is going to want to do? whatever I do I want to try to make sure that I do it right. I'm not necessarily against paying someone to do the work if it's dangerous or overly complicated, I'm just trying to avoid having my house ripped apart or having to rewire everything.
    – Ginzorf
    Commented Apr 7, 2019 at 14:40
  • AFCIs are not hokey, they are gold standard and mandatory in new construction. Retrofit grounds are 100% legal and correct, and were made so in NEC 2014 (which not every state has adopted yet; some think the AFCI requirements are onerous). Retrofit grounds were already partially approved in earlier Codes, this just expanded it. The only thing hokey about them is if you shortcut route so much that the wires fail to meet Code standard for physical protection. Commented Apr 7, 2019 at 15:31
  • Electricians may be reluctant because they have a lot of work due to the strong economy, and can strongarm you into replacing all the cables so they make more money. Also the retrofit ground rules are new, and they may not have learned them. All advice on this forum is either Code, or clearly stated as not Code, or harshly downvoted. Commented Apr 7, 2019 at 15:33

If you have a recent breaker box, you may be able to install surge suppression there. (For mine it was easy; just snap in a dual breaker which had this feature.) Officially, those only protect the house wiring and things spliced to it (rather than plugged in); they don't have the equipment-replacement warranties that power-strip surge suppressors do. But they're doing the same job, and doing it on a whole-house basis, and at the very worst strike me as better than nothing. Not unreasonably priced, though you need someone competent to work inside the breaker box to install it. (Do you have a torque screwdriver?)

Another thought: How are these circuits currently wired? If the wire was run in metallic conduit, and that's all still properly connected, that can provide a legitimate conduction path back to the breaker box's case and thus to ground. In fact many grounded outlets have their mounting tabs connected to ground internally so they could pick up that connection automatically (though it's more reliable to have a real ground wire). So you may be able to have a properly grounded outlets even without new wiring.

  • You can use the "wire-in" types if there isn't a "snap-in" made for your breaker (or fuse) box. For my QO breaker panel the snap in is about 1/4 the rating of the biggest wire-in that Schneider advertises.
    – Ecnerwal
    Commented Apr 21, 2023 at 1:14
  • True. I wasn't convinced I wanted to go up that step until I had to...
    – keshlam
    Commented Apr 21, 2023 at 1:50

My best recommendation for installing computers in any dwelling, especially older houses without grounded circuits, is to install a UPS ahead of the equipment you wish to protect. A UPS actually recreates a circuit isolating the source power from the supply side and simulates a grounded circuit from the UPS forward. This does not change the fact that the source power does not have have ground. To do that you must ground the UPS or install a grounded circuit.

Most damages to electronic equipment are caused buy power loss or brown outs, not surges. Think about it, your in a storm and the power keeps switching on and off. Each time the electrical power is shutting down and then slamming back on and your equipment is trying to reboot and then loosing power in the middle of the routine. This will cause damage.

A UPS (uninterruptible power supply) keeps the equipment protected and in an outage allows you to take your system down softly. So size the UPS to your equipment and try to find the best unit possible.

Hope this helps and good luck.

  • I should have specified, the surge protector I was using is a UPS. If I can find another one that won't yell at me for "wiring fault" (I believe it detects that there's no ground), I may be in business.
    – Ginzorf
    Commented Apr 7, 2019 at 14:38
  • 1
    @Ginzorf That's easy, read the instructions to the device. If it says "for use on ungrounded outlets" you are all set. If it says "require grounded outlet" then don't use it. It's important to follow manufacturer instructions, they are not tested or warranted for off-label use. Commented Apr 7, 2019 at 20:11
  • Does such a thing exist? A UPS with no ground requirement?
    – Ginzorf
    Commented Apr 8, 2019 at 0:26
  • Yes, but with without (official) surge suppression.
    – keshlam
    Commented Apr 20, 2023 at 23:34

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