questionshow safe is an ungrounded outlet?

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Had you bought, it would not have passed inspection. For the outlets to be ungrounded, it would have been built in the early '70's or before, unless this outlet was added later by someone who didn't know/care.
Dangerous? Maybe. If the rest of the outlets there ARE grounded, there's no telling who added the outlet and the quality of the work is suspect. Polarity is also an issue, again though depending on when this place was built. The polarity is a bigger issue, but if it shows ok on a decent surge suppressor I wouldn't worry. The 'bad' outlet is the result of replacing the outlet w/o a cheater.
Code compliance in some parts of the country require an inspection of rental units before occupation is allowed, and this wouldn't pass. GFCI(or GFI, same thing) SHOULD be in the kitchen and bath IF they're within 3 ft. of a water source.
You should have the electrical inspected, hopefully you know someone who is capable without killing you on the price.
I guess there's always Angie's List.

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A surge protector won't protect your tv if there is no ground to route the surge

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I've lived in several older houses in NYC & know what you're talking about, or close enough.

A standard 120v electrical socket in the US has two or three connections: hot, neutral (& with three, ground). At the circuit panel, the neutral & ground are connected. On an unloaded circuit, both should be at or very close to "zero" volts, while the hot lead should measure about 120v AC against either the neutral or ground. (On a polarized outlet, the hot slot is slightly narrower than the neutral. On a three prong outlet, with ground down, hot is on the right.) Even with a two prong outlet, the box behind it should be grounded. If the ground is open (unconnected), the outlet may be installed incorrectly or the wiring to the box behind the outlet may be incorrectly grounded.

You cannot install a GFCI/GFI outlet without a good ground, and don't really need one unless there is water close (eg. a sink).

Don't screw with this if you don't know what you're doing: it can be very dangerous.

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@havocsback: The place was built in 1895, if that affects the polarity issues at all.

@baqui63: I have no intention of screwing with it. I will not change the wiring or install GFI outlets myself, no question whatsoever.

Thanks for the responses all. This morning I did a more thorough check of outlets, and figured out (much to my chagrin) that the outlet the refrigerator is plugged into is ungrounded! This is a serious issue, given its proximity to water.

Guess an electrician it is! In the meantime I suppose all I can do is be especially careful about water near plugs (which I suppose I should be anyway) and pray for no surges.

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GFCI outlets are allowed as a replacement under NFPA 70 (National Electrical Code) under specific conditions, but they must be labeled with "No Equipment Ground". It's a compromise to having a true ground, but at least it increases safety in that if there is any current leakage, then the circuit will be cut off.

Since you're renting, it's not up to you to change anything, though you may still want to bring this up with your landlord as it is a safety issue. As for surge protection ... there are ones out there that do NOT rely on the ground wire for diverting the power surges (like Zero Surge); they're not cheap, however.

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@narfcake: Checked out the non-grounded surge protectors... you're right, quite pricey. I'd rather pay an electrician to install some GFI outlets instead even if it's not a perfect solution.

I did some more checking today, and I also found that the refrigerator(!) is plugged into an ungrounded outlet. This seems like a major safety hazard to me, given it's proximity to liquids/water.

Anyone have any thoughts on the computer issue? I seem to recall reading once upon a time that computers used the third prong to discharge electrostatic or something. Would I be risking major damage to either (a) myself, or (b) my computer, by using a cheater plug and plugging it into an ungrounded outlet?

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@novastarj:

Given 1895, the place probably started with knob & tube (K&T) wiring. Hopefully it's been upgraded since. Several times. It may have rubber insulation (this is a PITA to work with as the rubber dries out and cracks easily where exposed to air (in outlet and switch boxes, for example). Modern wire is insulated with PVC and does not dry out in air (easier to work with).

The polarity issue has to do with which pin or slot on the outlet is hot and which is neutral. A polarized outlet (plug) has a narrower slot (prong) for the hot than for the neutral. If this is backward on the outlet, or if the outlet is unpolarized (both slots same width), then it can be more dangerous.

Also, there is a color code: white for neutral, black (also red or blue) for hot & green (or bare wire) for ground. One house I had alternated black & white at EVERY junction box (I eventually replaced most of it).

BTW- you can learn to do this safely, but best not to bother for a place you're renting.

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Most computers today are basically in metal boxes, so static electricity is shunted around the delicate guts. As long as you're not running your PC with the cover off & touching the insides while it's on, you don't have to worry too much about damage to it with an ungrounded outlet (though you should probably check the polarization).

I don't know your setup, but with the with the exception of my UPS, desktop PCs & 8PC/2user KVM switch, none of the gear on my computer cart or TV stand even has a 3-prong plug (ie. TV, cable box, external hard drives, printer, ethernet switch, cable modem, router, laptops, etc.) While the devices connected by USB cables share a ground through the cable, those connected by ethernet do not.

The fridge may be another story. Quick test: using a voltmeter, while the fridge compressor is running, measure the A/C voltage from some bare metal on the the fridge to the cold water pipe. Shouldn't be more than a few volts (20 tops, though even that is high).

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@novastarj: Yes, a cheater plug will put you and your equipment at risk if there's an issue. The GFCIs resolves the human safety aspect, but not the physical grounding aspect ... and it's that ground that most surge protectors rely on for diverting the excess energy, whether it's from a lightning strike or excess static discharge. So while you might not get shocked, a GFCI will do nothing to prevent your equipment from taking the shock.

My take ... computers can still be replaced. Your heart ... not so easily. Talk it over with your landlord and at least get the outlets up to code.

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@narfcake: That's my feelings given these responses.

Not of my equipment or data is so valuable that I would be shattered if something happened. Upset sure, but I'd get over it easily enough.

My life is a top priority though. GFCI outlets seem like a good solution given that.

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@novastarj:

Just be aware that GFCI outlets are not designed to stop you from getting a shock, only from getting electrocuted (they kill the power quickly but not instantly). So if a shock can hurt you (say you're on a ladder or roof and the shock makes you jump, or you have a pacemaker) then a GFCI (grounded or not) may still be dangerous.

Personally, I don't like the idea of non-grounded GFCI outlets, labeled or not, though I grant that they make sense in situations like your fridge (and there may be a ground in the box behind that outlet).

I don't see that GFCI outlets will help any for your computer and other electronic gear (unless you use said gear near your sink or in the tub).

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@baqui63: Yep, I understand that. For safety's sake it's still an option, depending on how easy or expensive grounding the outlets properly is... nasty shock aside, electronics can always be replaced.

Talked to my landlord just a couple minutes ago, and she said she'd bring in an electrician she's worked with in the past during the next week to take a look and give his professional thoughts.

Hopefully it'll be taken care of soon.

Thanks everyone!

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If anyone is reading this (about a month after it's posted, but I know these things come up in searches) landlord had an electrician come in.

It turns out whoever had wired the outlets before had literally done them backwards, so they were set up to be grounded, but weren't because of the upside down installation.

He did note that, by law (at least in NY), new outlets with third prongs were not allowed to be installed unless grounded, so apparently the previous electrician had screwed up pretty bad. All fixed now though.

Thanks everyone for the help.