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I just moved into a new apartment (in Canada) and discovered that although the electrical outlets have three holes in each socket, there is no functioning ground in any of them. I confirmed this with two different outlet testers, and they both confirm no ground.

Just how dangerous is this for a home-office setup? Like for setting up a couple of computers, 2 or 3 monitors and LED lamps all in the same room? (I'm renting so am not sure if I can convince the landlord to upgrade). Should I move if the landlord won't ground them?

Any advice would be appreciated.

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    Are there labels that say "GFCI Protected / No Equipment Ground"? If not, this is a Code violation. (the violation might just be "missing label"). There should be a GFCI device somewhere which actually does protect the outlets. I would go around the house tripping every GFCI I could find (you're supposed to test monthly anyway) and see if any of them knock out power to the outlet. If so, you are GFCI protected from that one, and it's safe to operate. Mar 23, 2022 at 18:17
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    But note that without an actual ground connection, your surge protectors for your office equipment (or anything else) will not work - they use the ground wire to dump the surge to ground.
    – Jon Custer
    Mar 23, 2022 at 18:27
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    Is this a new apartment building or just new to you living there? Main purpose of ground is to prevent metal casing/covers of devices from becoming live with power and shocking you. Devices with three prong plugs have a chance of shocking you if something happens.
    – crip659
    Mar 23, 2022 at 18:30
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    It will only be dangerous if any of your office equipment has 3-prong plugs. All your 2-prong devices will be fine.
    – Glen Yates
    Mar 23, 2022 at 18:38
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    In two places in which I've lived that had no electrical ground, I found that a portion of the piping had been replaced with PVC piping. An automotive battery cable across the plastic section resolved the issue both times. It's an easy fix, you might want to check that.
    – dotancohen
    Mar 24, 2022 at 15:45

4 Answers 4

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There are two main reasons to use grounded receptacles.

  • Wiring/device fault

This can take many forms, such as a short circuit or malfunction within a device that sends some current to the ground wire. This is a real safety issue, as an ungrounded receptacle won't pass that back to the circuit breaker but if there is a metal case (or exposed wiring) then you could be seriously injured if you touch the wrong part at the wrong time.

  • Static electricity, surge protection, etc.

These are situations where "extra" electricity is involved and is sent to the ground pin to eventually get back to the (literal) ground. Not having a ground pin doesn't generally cause a safety issue in these situations, but it may affect longevity of sensitive electronic equipment.

The good news is that there are now two ways to handle the primary safety issue. The first is, of course, proper grounding. Sometimes ground wires are in fact available (I have found that in my house when replacing old receptacles with new grounded receptacles) and it is a simple matter of connecting things properly. Not all that likely in your case, because proper installation takes only a minute longer that leaving the ground wire off. Meaning, your "grounded" receptacles may have been installed just for show and never tested by anyone who cared until now.

The second option, as noted by Harper in a comment, is GFCI protection. GFCI checks for an imbalance between hot and neutral. If some of the current is trying to flow over ground, the GFCI will trip. GFCI is usually required for wet areas (kitchen, bathroom, laundry room, outdoors) but this is a useful application for it in other rooms as it mitigates the need for running a ground wire. The catch is that while labels are required in this situation, many people never install the labels and labels can come off over time.

So check every GFCI in the house. If one of them cuts power to the "grounded" receptacles then you are (a) safe and (b) should label the receptacles for the next person. If none of them cuts power to the "grounded" receptacles then you have a real safety issue. While the fix is likely pretty simple (find the first receptacle in each chain and replace it with a GFCI with line/load wired properly), you can't do that yourself in a rental property, so it becomes a landlord issue. If the landlord is reasonable then this is a quick fix the next time he hires an electrician to work on his properties. If the landlord is not reasonable...

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    For electronics, having or not having an actual ground can have a significant impact on both generated and susceptibility to electromagnetic interference, and, potentially, susceptibility to electrostatic discharge. How much of an impact not having an actual ground will make will depend on the design of the connected equipment. While these are only rarely safety concerns, they can have an impact on functionality and longevity for the connected equipment and, potentially, have an impact on the functionality of equipment located nearby.
    – Makyen
    Mar 24, 2022 at 5:49
  • I remember as a kid we used to have these 3-prong to 2-prong adapters. Clearly what they did was send both device neutral and device ground to wall neutral. Can they still be had? (It's clearly better than no ground.)
    – Joshua
    Mar 24, 2022 at 16:25
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    @Joshua The 3-2 adapters did not connect neutral and ground. That would cause a number of problems. What they did is connect (if installed properly) ground to the screw holding the receptacle faceplate. If the box is metal and grounded and the receptacle yoke connects cleanly to the box then that would provide effective grounding. But most people (a) just let the little tab hang rather than attach it to the faceplate screw and (b) never bothered to see if it provided any actual grounding. Here is an example, with pictures showing proper installation Mar 24, 2022 at 18:45
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    @Joshua Your device may have just lifted the ground pin, leaving it unconnected. But it almost certainly did not short the ground to the neutral, unless it was a very dangerous device indeed. (See Grant's comment below.)
    – cjs
    Mar 25, 2022 at 4:45
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    @Joshua The problem with "ground to neutral [is] less dangerous than a floating ground" is that it depends on context; this isn't always true. Asking end-users of an electrical system to make safety decisions where the correct answer requires technical knowledge that most end-users don't have is inherently dangerous.
    – cjs
    Mar 25, 2022 at 5:15
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There are millions of homes out there that have ungrounded outlets and to say they are dangerous would be misleading. It's more correct to say that the grounded outlets are safer than the ungrounded ones. I grew up in a house with ungrounded outlets and we never, ever had any problems, unless I caused them. You're fixing up a home office so most of the computer stuff now-a-days have plastic cases so ungrounded outlet won't be a big deal. Many lamps and appliances are still manufactured with only two prong plugs. Your desktop microprocessors probably still have metal cases so that's where grounded outlets come in handy if a hot wire comes in contact with the case but the likelihood of that happening is slim.

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    Note that equipment designed without grounding is required to be more careful with insulation, than equipment designed to have a ground. Mar 24, 2022 at 10:47
  • "say they are dangerous would be misleading", what? If appliance has been designed to work with grounded outlets, then it's safety is reduced a lot in case of fault of that device or over-current in the network. That you didn't have problems is no proof. I'm shocked this answer is upvoted so much. I don't have reputation to downvote. Mar 24, 2022 at 18:32
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It's not uncommon in older buildings with old wiring to have some or all outlets ungrounded. Ground wires didn't become required until sometime in the 1960s or 1970s.

Ideally, they should be protected by a GFCI - either an outlet with the TEST and RESET buttons on it (which may daisy chain to other outlets, so the buttons are not necessarily at the same spot as you are plugging in), or a GFCI breaker in the electrical panel.

Without a ground wire, surge protectors won't work, so your UPS or power bar with surge protection won't protect anything if there's a nearby lightning strike or anything like that. So equipment could be damaged.

If it's without GFCI, you're also missing the protection from electrical shocks if a loose wire electrifies metal parts of things you can touch - the computer case, the metal base of a lamp, etc. Usually that just results in a painful shock, but if all the right conditions happen it can cause life threatening injuries.

Getting the landlord to update the wiring would be the best solution, but that's likely a very expensive solution that most wouldn't do unless forced to by code. And they likely aren't - old installations are usually grandfathered in so you can keep things running the way they were until you make any major changes or upgrades.

If there are no GFCIs, having the landlord install those would be the next best solution, is relatively cheap, and at least offers protection from shocks - though still no surge protection to save your equipment.

If your landlord is completely unwilling to do anything, you can still use it. It will probably be ok. All of these protections you're missing help make sure things are safer if something else goes wrong, but under normal operating conditions don't make any difference.

You can, if you are still worried, get portable GFCI devices that add that ground fault protection to an outlet. They look like little extension cords with test and reset buttons on one end. Like these: https://www.homedepot.ca/product/husky-portable-gfci/1000658960 - anything you plug into that will be GFCI protected so that it is much less likely for you to get a fatal shock if a metal case becomes energized. Still doesn't make surge protectors work though.

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  • You don't need 3 wires to get ground hole working. Just connect it to neutral. GFCI you can't easily fix unless you probably install for individual sockets. But normal grounding is no problem to fix. Mar 24, 2022 at 18:35
  • That's called a Bootleg ground - en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bootleg_ground, and while it will trick an outlet tester into saying everything is ok, it's actually less safe than just leaving ground unconnected. Neutral carries current, and now you'll have that current on things there were supposed to be grounded, like metal cases. There's a reason we only bond ground and neutral at the service entrance or main breaker panel.
    – Grant
    Mar 24, 2022 at 18:53
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I don't share opinion that it is safe. I check my ground and fix it if it doesn't exist.

If house wiring does not have a dedicated ground, then you can connect ground hole to neutral. This will provide ground and make appliances designed to work with a grounded outlets much safer to use (in case of fault of such device).

Now GFCI you can't so easily fix without a dedicated ground. But it is less of an issue usually.

Update: I can't find online reputable information specifically about Canada. If it is similar to USA and other countries, then for old buildings the conduct allows connecting ground to neutral (bootleg grounding). You can ask a certified electrician to be sure.

wrt danger of ungrounded system vs bootleg grounded system, I would suggest this thorough answer: https://electronics.stackexchange.com/a/388126/8283 (tl; dr; better be grounded than ungrounded)

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  • This is a bad idea. This question explains why: diy.stackexchange.com/questions/189872/…
    – Grant
    Mar 24, 2022 at 18:56
  • @Grant, this is not true. Answer you cite reads simple neutral break will cause the neutral wire (downline of the break) to become energized. This is very hard to happen because wiring is in the wall. And it will be noticeable because nothing will work connected to the outlet. If a dedicated ground wire is broken, then nobody would notice. Ground and neutral are both going to the same place (the ground). Only inner building wiring distinguishes them. Old apartments use this approach by design as intended by local standards. Dedicated ground here makes significant difference only for GFCI. Mar 24, 2022 at 19:08
  • You "fix" a missing ground by stealing neutral to act as ground and consider that safer than not having a ground? I sure hope you're not a licensed electrician!
    – FreeMan
    Mar 24, 2022 at 19:16
  • @FreeMan, to use word srtealing is funny. I am not licensed but this is by standards in old buildings. So at least a standard had this configuration approved. While other advise that ungrounded are safe when most equipment was clearly designed ot work with grounded is not approved by any standards, old or new. Mar 24, 2022 at 19:24
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    @akostadinov if everything is working properly, then you don't "need" a ground wire. It's when something goes wrong that you do. But when something does go wrong, like a broken neutral, a bootleg ground makes the situation more dangerous. I'm not sure where you are that these local standards allow it, but now I'm curious where you are that it's approved?
    – Grant
    Mar 24, 2022 at 19:45

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