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If I have an old house, as in 80 years old (the wiring is newer than that), and it only has two wires, hot and neutral, no ground, can I connect newer things like ceiling fans or hanging lights?

The house wiring isn't 80, but it is old enough to have Wadsworth breakers. The outlets are not grounded, and someone said if I get GFCI outlets this will ground the outlet (put on in each room they said.) One person said if I don't, my computer and electronics will get surges or fry. The house is grounded, but not the receptacles.

I really did not want to rewire the whole house. The wiring itself is good, not paper sheathing the electrician said. This particular electrician said it would be "ok" and he wouldn't worry about plugging in things like computers or get a UPS. The electrician also said even though a couple of the GFCI outlets in a bathroom were ten years old that they still trip and are ok.

Does the house have to be rewired to use modern electrical devices (lights, tv, refrigerators, computers, etc.)?

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    I'm curious why you are asking for strangers' opinions on the internet after you've had a licensed electrician give you a legally-qualified, professional opinion? What information can we strangers provide that you haven't gotten already from said electrician? – TylerH Mar 29 at 20:55
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    I agree with Tyler as a licensed electrician I can say your original electrician was correct, GFCI protection allows for 3 wire receptacles to be used when there are only 2 wire they do not provide a ground. Large surges in a 2 wire or 3 wire system will fry your sensitive electronics without surge protection it makes no difference. You mention GFCI’s that function as they are supposed to it would not matter if they were 50 years old, in fact I would want to keep those as new ones are cheap and don’t last IMO. Listen to the person that was there & licensed over a bunch of internet electricians – Ed Beal Apr 1 at 15:17
  • @EdBeal Sorry. I wasn't sure here. Are you saying the original one that said to use GFCI in places where only the 2 wire exists? – learntofix Apr 1 at 16:10
  • If only 2 wire exists and you want 3 prong receptacles, by code they would require GFCI protection, along with a sticker that states GFCI protected no equipment ground. The stickers come with GFCI receptacles. So if you want 3 prong receptacles that is a code compliant way even with the latest 2020 NEC code. – Ed Beal Apr 1 at 16:35
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GFCIs do not provide grounding and are not a substitute for grounding. They are allowed as a substitute for ground because they do a good job protecting people from electric shock. This is worthless for equipment protection. An ungrounded GFCI requires a sticker saying

NO EQUIPMENT GROUND

to put users on notice that the equipment will not be protected from ESD and cannot get a useful antenna ground.

In 2014 they changed the rules so you can now retrofit ground wires to older wiring. Grounds can take any reasonable path (don't need to be kept with the cables) and circuits can share grounds. So any given outlet only needs its ground to go to the nearest place with thick enough wire back to the panel. That includes non-flexible metal conduit being used as a ground path, and the Grounding Electrode System (bare copper wire going off to ground rods).

With older houses, I advise assuming nothing about the Grounding Electrode System. Nothing beats a physical inspection. Valid GES paths are an Ufer ground (if it was poured into the concrete at build time), a water main clamp (on the utility side of the water meter; utilities are replacing meters with plastic smart meters that do not conduct electricity) or 2 ground rods each 8' long... set at least 6' apart but preferably catty-corner on the house. 1 ground rod will suffice if it passes an expensive test.

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  • Do you have to have a new box if you run three wire Romex in the house? – learntofix Mar 30 at 22:13
  • What do you mean by "box"? – Harper - Reinstate Monica Mar 31 at 1:10
  • Breaker box, electrical panel. – learntofix Apr 1 at 16:08
  • @learntofix You probably don't need a new service panel. You may need a grounding electrode, but that's much easier than a panel swap. A new panel should be planned soon if it was Federal Pacific or Zinsco, or fuses, or split-bus. You can ask a new question for more on that. – Harper - Reinstate Monica Apr 1 at 18:22
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There is a lot to unfold here. Short answer, no you do not need to rewire the whole house for modern appliances but yes, you should have grounds for them. I would recommend bringing the house up to code when it's financially feasible though as some insurance companies won't insure houses that have not been updated to be properly grounded. It actually isn't too bad to rewire 90% of the house with an open attic and unfinished basement. The 10% that is tough is usually the ceiling lights on the 1st floor as you have to cut up walls or floors to get them out. They can typically be grandfathered in though as "untouched" but this is getting off topic.

As far as what it sounds like the other electrician is saying, you can use GFI's to help with the situation. GFI's can "mimic" a ground and definitely do add a layer of safety for the appliances and you.

Another option would be to run a new line specifically for what your planning to add. So if your add receptacles for window A/C or something, use that for your line to computer and other modern outlets. Things like that can actually be used again then if you do eventually rewire the house.

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  • It has a new central AC and furnace. Wouldn't that mean that somewhere along the line there is grounding? – learntofix Mar 29 at 18:28
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    Just about all main panels are grounded with the neutral and ground bonded (connected) this has been required for decades since dirt was young. Pictures of the innards of the panel would help. there should be a green or bare wire going to a Ufer ground or ground rod(s) Also, you can still install GFCI outlets without a ground, line Keith said. If doing that code requires a little sticker that says something like GFCI protected, no equipment ground. Not sure of the exact wording, but something like that. – George Anderson Mar 29 at 18:33
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    Your home is grounded at the panel, so yes, you have grounding somewhere in your home. The issue is getting the ground to your computer or other modern appliance as you only have a neutral and a hot wire. Without the 3rd bare ground wire, your putting your equipment at a little more risk. The GFI can take place of the safety of the ground if you can't get a ground from the panel to your outlet. – Keith Weaver Mar 29 at 18:34
  • Regarding other issues in your post: GFCI does NOTHING to protect against power surges, so whoever told you that is wrong. Good protection against power surges is a high quality power strip with built in surge protection, Best protection is a UPS. My wife and I each have desktop PCs each with it's own UPS. Again, grounding is for personal safety and does nothing for surge protection. If you use an tool or appliance that is defective and has even a minor connection to it's casing (metal presumably), GFCI will trip to prevent any current from flowing thru YOU! That works with or w/o ground – George Anderson Mar 29 at 18:43
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    @GeorgeAnderson Oh, nice I missed that. Yes, GFI's do nothing for surges! You can get a whole house surge suppressors or get a good plug in one. You typically need a grounded circuit for the surge suppressor to work too so maybe that's what the electrician was trying to say? Oh, and don't buy the cheap ones if you want the surge suppressor part to save you. The cheap $3 ones are basically just a splitter. I have been to places that caught fire from them. – Keith Weaver Mar 29 at 18:50
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GFCI protected receptacles do not in any way provide a ground. All they do is sense a difference in outgoing current and returning current, and trip if the difference is more than about half a watt.

One overlooked and not enforced is Article 250.114 that lists items required to be grounded, and not allowed to be protected by those ungrounded receptacles. Article 406.4 that allows ungrounded GCFI protected receptacles even has a Informational Note reminding you the code doesn't allow those receptacles for some equipment and refers to 250.114. (Informational notes don't contain enforceable info, but the info it refers to is enforceable.)

The list for residences in 250.114 is long, includes fridges, freezers, A/C's, washers, dryers, dish washers, ranges, disposals, IT equipment, sump pumps, aquariums, motor operated tools, and more.

So you ask "Does the house have to be rewired to use modern electrical devices (lights, tv, refrigerators, computers, etc.)?". Well I would say not necessarily "rewired", but significant upgrades need to be done to at least add grounds to many receptacles.

I think people need some help evaluating old electrical systems. They understand that plumbing, siding, roofing, windows, even driveways require maintenance, but somehow they refuse to acknowledge electrical systems aren't immune to the second law of thermal dynamics.

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  • Thanks. I'm getting second opinions now. – learntofix Mar 30 at 21:43
  • If I want to run new wires, maybe Romex with three wires, does that mean I need a new electrical box too? – learntofix Mar 30 at 21:56

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