For those of us living in old houses, dealing with up to a hundred years of electrical wiring upgrades can be a real headache.
You may find anything from ancient knob and tube to modern grounded wiring. In a perfect world, the solution is to replace any old wiring, ungrounded receptacles and fixtures with safer, properly grounded circuits. The biggest obstacle to this is usually the cost.
One of the nuisance issues with old, ungrounded wiring is two-prong receptacles that prevent you from plugging in electronics and appliances with grounded plugs.
Ground Fault Circuit Interrupter (GFCI) receptacles can offer a quick fix* to a frustrating problem.
How does a GFCI work?
Rather than get into the technical weeds on GFCI’s, I’m going to deal in the broad strokes here. GFCI’s are designed to prevent electrical shocks by quickly disconnecting the power to the circuit if something goes horribly wrong – like dropping your hot dog toaster in the bath tub.
That’s why GFCI’s are required by code near water sources in bathrooms, kitchens as well as outdoors.
The original wiring in our house dates back to 1947, with various upgrades over the years. Even the oldest wires included a ground. Like most houses built before the 1960’s, the problem is the original non-grounded two-prong receptacles. Instead of attaching the ground wire to the electrical box, the electrician just cut them off, leaving no easy way of connecting it to today’s grounded receptacles.
It’s dangerous as well as illegal to install a standard 3 prong receptacle without a ground wire attached, because it gives the false impression of safety that doesn’t exist.
The GFCI solution
The good news is you can install a 3 prong GFCI receptacle even when no ground is attached, because the internal circuit breaker will trip in the event of a ground fault. This protects people from severe shocks.
I’ve used GFCI’s in a couple of rooms to replace ungrounded outlets without having to fish wire through walls and ceilings. It’s a lot more convenient, especially since these rooms only had one outlet in them.
*Electronics are NOT protected
As I indicated above this is a “quick fix” not the best one. Be aware that while an ungrounded GFCI will protect YOU from shocks – any appliance or electronics are still vulnerable to damage due to a ground fault.
My understanding is that surge protectors and other devices probably won’t offer much, if any, equipment protection.
Be sure to stick a “No Equipment Ground” label (included with the GFCI) to the cover plate so you and others will know what the ground rules are.
Images: lizzardo; stonehavenlife