I live in a residential unit in Oakland, CA and I am curious what the rules are about grounded outlets.

  1. Is grounded power required?
  2. My outlets are 3-prong and an outlet tester reads that there is an open ground. This must be a violation of code (and dangerous), but my question would be whether the required solution is for the landlord to simply put 2-prong fittings on the outlets? If so this would not allow for me to have grounded power, right?

Meet grandfathering: the idea that if it was legal at the time it was built or renovated, it's still legal. However, fitting ungrounded 3-prong outlets were not legal in 1965. What else could it be?

It is legal to fit a GFCI (Europe: RCD) device. Circuits are typically wired in strings, and a GFCI device can provide GFCI protection to downline points of use. This means those are GFCI protected also. However, those points of use which are receptacles should have a "GFCI Protected" label.

If an ungrounded outlet has GFCI protection, it is legal to put a grounded receptacle there. However, the receptacle must have the "GFCI Protected" label, and it must also have a "No Equipment Ground" label.

So that settles it. It's legal if those labels (and GFCI protection) are present.

"But on this ungrounded outlet, I pushed 'GFCI test' on the outlet tester, and it didn't trip."

That is correct. If the outlet has no ground, the GFCI test should not trip. The tester can't create a ground fault if it doesn't have any access to a ground, which is kinda obvious if you think about it that way.

There are a couple ways to test for GFCI protection.

Trip GFCIs and see if you lose power here

Push "Test" on one GFCI device in the house. If this outlet loses power, then presumably it is in the protected zone of that GFCI. Repeat for each GFCI device.

Hack the tester to use an external ground

  • Get one of those 3-prong cheaters (the ones you would use if they were 2-prong plugs) that have 2 prongs sticking out and a tab or greeen pigtail for ground. The green pigtail ones are preferable; unfortunately they've been outlawed.
  • use any wire to extend that tab or pigtail across the house to the location of a reliable ground. To attach to an outlet or service panel, attach to a cover screw. Any wire will do; I've been known to use fishing tape.

Tester into cheater; cheater into wall. At this point the tester should indicate "grounded" and the GFCI test should work.

If this fails, either the ground you are connecting to isn't a ground, or there is no GFCI protection here. Or your test rig is broken.

If it tests out OK, then contact the landlord and demand they come out and fit the mandatory labels. Then, next week, tear them off because they're ugly.

No grounds and no GFCI

This is a can of worms. The nightmare scenario is -- nah, Oakland is a rent-control city, they would never condemn the occupancy because that would make it an easy way for the landlord to evict protected tenants.

So the landlord has several options.

  • Roll it back to the previous condition that is grandfathered, by changing the 3-prongs (likely put there illegally by past tenants) to 2-prong outlets.
  • Fit GFCI devices at appropriate locations, such that the 3-prong circuits are protected, then sticker them.
  • Retrofit "just a ground wire" to each of the outlet locations. Thisis the ideal option. 2014 NEC made this a legal option. This would most likely require an electrician.
  • Rewire the circuits in question with all new cables. The 2014 retrofit-ground rules make this unnecessary, yay!

Many jurisdictions allow landlords to do trivial repairs, such as exchanging an outlet, switch or light fixture. All other repairs on rental properties must be done by a licensed electrician. Oakland's permit office would know whether a particular activity a) needs an electrician and b) needs a permit pulled.

  • regarding the 3rd option; would you say that this is particularly expensive?
    – jml
    Sep 25 '19 at 1:56
  • 1
    @jml it depends on how easy it is to fish the new ground wire to the required locations. Some are going to be easy, others will be impossible without ripping apart half the wall. Sep 25 '19 at 8:38
  • "Roll back". Is it even possible to buy 2 prong outlets these days? (Other than in an antique store?) Sep 25 '19 at 11:50
  • @mickeyf the first one I found was not only new, it was clearly produced after 3 prong outlets were ubiquitous (it appears to be made from a mold designed to also make 3 prong outlets) homedepot.com/p/Leviton-15-Amp-2-Wire-Duplex-Outlet-White-223-W/…
    – Random832
    Sep 25 '19 at 14:17

In general, there's no requirement to bring buildings up to spec once the standard changes. If you have a 40's era apartment building, you don't need to run ground wires.

However, installing grounded outlets without actually grounding them isn't a thing you're allowed to do. What I'd check is the age of the building. Most real estate websites know that information. 1962 is when outlets were required to be grounded nationally. If it was built after that date, it's likely that a wire simply got disconnected somewhere. If before, the upgrade to 3-prong outlets shouldn't have been done.

If the building was built before then, I would not expect the landlord to upgrade the building to ground the outlets properly. You might have a better case for pushing the use of GFCIs. You can install a GFCI and have a code-compliant protected 3-prong outlet, and it's much cheaper because you don't need to replace any in-wall wiring. Search for "no equipment ground" for more info.

As for legal issues, this is the wrong forum for that.

  • 1
    contact your city hall to see what version of the NEC they currently want in effect, and what should be referenced based on the time the building was constructed. A safe bet is go by NEC-2014. I would not use a real estate website, they have no authority in the matter.
    – ron
    Sep 24 '19 at 19:14
  • The real estate website is just a quick way to get the age of the building. Sep 24 '19 at 19:46
  • @user3757614 I removed the legal question - thanks for the clarification.
    – jml
    Sep 24 '19 at 20:19
  • To directly answer question 2, installing 2-prong outlets would bring the building back into compliance. It wouldn't let you plug in 3-prong plugs, and wouldn't provide a ground anywhere. Sep 24 '19 at 22:46
  1. required- yes when building a new building or remodeling to the extent that would/should need a bldg inspection going off a given NEC version: 2008/11/14/17.

  2. a bldg built & wired to code with a bldg inspection & permit verifying that way back when, that now has a broken wire is not a violation.

is an ungrounded outlet dangerous... matter of debate... millions of 2-wire extension cords and appliances have been and will be in service with zero problems. a grounded outlet will not protect against recklessness and irresponsibility.

  1. what other guy said, NEC-#### that was signed off on during time when bldg was built applies, not the latest NEC-2017 or NEC-2020 or whatever city hall & local bldg codes say is in effect which is to say u can't force them to install arc fault breakers everywhere which was new in NEC-2017

realistically if you are concerned and it is impractical and too expensive to fix the wiring at that one outlet then install a GFCI outlet there.

  • GFCI devices can protect downline outlets. Putting a GFCI outlet at a location already protected is redundant and creates great difficulty resetting after a trip. Sep 25 '19 at 15:38

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