Receptacles: Bootleg Grounds

Ungrounded power outlet receptacle

Dated 2-prong ungrounded receptacle

All about bootleg grounds

The outlets in our homes are a necessary component of modern living.  Our culture is dependent on readily available access to power.  Ever since we harnessed electricity, we have witnessed the ongoing evolution for safety.  Safety, it would seem, does come without a price.  And bootleg grounds, unfortunately, are one way of avoiding that expense.

Part of the issue that comes with owning an older home is that the three-prong cords on electrical devices will not jive with older pre-1960 two-slot receptacles.  To begin with, one way to deal with this is to use an “adapter” similar to the one pictured below.   This device lets you connect your three-pronged appliances into older two-slot receptacle outlets.  So what’s the problem?  The problem is you have effectively cut out the safety mechanism the grounded electrical system provides along that third prong. 

Ungrounded plug adapter

Grounded to ungrounded plug adapter

Folks who renovate older homes for resale “flippers” know that those old two-slot relics are a turn-off for today’s homebuyers.  Their solution?  They simply upgrade all the receptacles in the home to three-slot receptacles with shiny new cover plates.  Flippers that have some sense recognize that the third slot adds necessary shock protection for the homeowner.  Yet they don’t fully understand how it works or why it’s needed.

What should they do? 

NEMA 5-15R

Modern 3-prong grounded receptacle

If they swap out to three-slot receptacles, the new ones need a ground wire run to each receptacle.  As a more cost-effective option, they can utilize a GFCI device for the start-of-run receptacle on that circuit.  As you can imagine, those solutions can be rather expensive. Enter the unscrupulous flipper.  The cheap-and-dirty option is to install the new receptacles with no ground connection at all. However, this is easily detected by an inexpensive three-light plug tester available at any hardware store, similar to the one shown below. These testers can easily detect when there is no ground connection present.  Many inspectors will rely solely on those three-light testers for verifying a receptacle is correctly wired. Unfortunately, there is a way to trick those testers into showing a receptacle is grounded when it actually is not. Electricians call it a “bootleg ground” or more accurately a “false ground”.

Basic three-light receptacle tester

Basic three-light receptacle tester

How do you bootleg a ground? 

Please do not use this as a tutorial.  Essentially, by using a short “jumper” wire, one can connect the ground screw on the receptacle to one of the neutral screws.  This connection will deceive the basic three-light tester. How?  For starters, the tester can only recognize a crude difference in resistance.  More simply put, the tester senses the new ground slot can accept the flow of electricity.  The problem lies in that it cannot determine if the ground and neutral are isolated or traveling along the same path.

Bootleg grounds

The blue wire is the bootleg jumping the ground to the neutral terminal.  This is an illegal configuration.

A seasoned inspector can sniff out bootleg grounds.  Our first clue is a recently updated older home.  Next, we check the interior of the electrical panels.  Afterward, we look for older wiring, usually determined by the sheathing or conductor materials.  If we find issues there, it’s with good reason that we keep looking.  Last but not least, finding a lack of grounding conductors in the panel along with brand-new shiny three-pronged receptacles is a dead give-away.

What do we do then? 

Well, that’s where investing in the right equipment really pays off.  We employ a robust receptacle analyzer during our inspections.  What we do is cozy up next to one of those shiny new receptacles, plug it in,  and let the analyzer do the work.  9 times out of 10 our suspicions are confirmed.  But, since seeing is believing, removing the receptacle from the junction box provides all we need to drive that final nail in the coffin.  And just so we are clear, that 1 time out of 10 would be when we pop out the receptacle to take a look anyway.

What’s the bottom line? 

The wiring configuration of bootleg grounds can cause serious issues.  From electrical shock, fire, or damage to equipment that utilizes a ground path while in operation. The electric shock potential exists since the ground prong in a cord is connected to the metal frame of the appliance. With a false ground, the frame becomes energized since it is being directly connected to the neutral leg.  Any grounded object that makes contact with the frame will result in current flow through that object. If that grounded object is a person, death becomes a very real possibility.

When it comes to safety in your home, the condition of your electrical system should take priority.  The problem is that most electrical problems aren’t obvious.  The other problem is most homeowners aren’t savvy enough to know what to look for.  You can certainly go out and buy all the equipment to do it yourself.  If you have the technical aptitude and are comfortable assuming that risk, by all means, you can have at it.  Although, wouldn’t it be easier and cheaper to just hire a professional that already has the skillset and the equipment?  Yeah, you know it is.  If you suspect an issue with your electrical system, or if you think you could benefit from a home inspection, schedule with us today!

 

 

Smoke Detector Types, Which One to Use?

Smoke detector located on the ceiling If you didn’t already know, the two most commonly recognized smoke detector types are ionization smoke detection and photoelectric smoke detectionOh, and just an FYI, do not confuse “photoelectric” with “photochemical” as I did.  They are not the same.  The latter is the technology used in Carbon Monoxide (CO) detectors… which I’ll save for another post.

So, Ionization vs Photoelectric, which smoke detector types are right for me?  Is there really a difference?

To answer the first question, it depends.  To answer the second question, yes there really is.  Here’s the truth, you can ask 10 different people and get 10 different opinions.  From my seat, I think response time is the ultimate qualifier.  While both respond to fire in relatively short order, it’s the smoldering fire (no flame) that is the deciding factor for me.  Most people know that the #1 killer of fires is smoke inhalation, not the flames.  So wouldn’t we err on the side of caution and go with the technology that detects smoke the fastest?  The simple answer, yes, of course, we would.  And for that reason, photoelectric should be the clear winner.  However, it is important to acknowledge that not all fires are smoldering fires.  So, with that consideration, a device comprising both technologies would be the absolute winner.

Now, just like everything else that is good for us, there is a cost associated with the different technologies.  Photoelectric is more expensive than ionization, and combination units are more expensive than all others.  Ultimately, cost should be the least of your concerns when outfitting your home with smoke detection devices.  For me and my loved ones, combination units are the ones going in my home.

Hate reading? Check out this 5-minute video demonstrating the different smoke detector types.  It may just save your life!

Check out this video demonstrating the difference between the two technologies

 

Let’s take a deeper dive into the different smoke detector types.

• Ionization smoke alarms

Smoke filled room typical of house fires

The most common smoke detector types (usually due to cost) are Ionization smoke alarms.  These are generally more responsive to fires with visible flames or environments heavily saturated with smoke.
How they work: Ionization-type smoke alarms have a small amount of radioactive material between two electrically charged plates.  These plates ionize the air and cause current to flow between the plates. When smoke enters the chamber, it disrupts the flow of ions, thus reducing the flow of current and activating the alarm. Download this chart on ionization smoke alarms.

• Photoelectric smoke alarms

Smoldering couch fire from lit cigarette

Photoelectric smoke alarms are generally more responsive to fires that begin with a long period of smoldering (called “smoldering fires”).  Think of a cigarette that may not have been fully extinguished and dumped in the trash.  Another example is that of an overheating appliance that doesn’t actually burn but smokes before a flame is present.

How they work: Photoelectric-type alarms aim a light source into a sensing chamber at an angle away from the sensor. Smoke enters the chamber, reflects the light onto the sensor, thus triggering the alarm. Download this chart on photoelectric smoke alarms.

The U.S. Fire Administration (USFA) is aware that there is a controversy about smoke detector types and which is most appropriate to protect people in their homes. 

The body of scientific knowledge about fire, smoke, and smoke detection has developed over many years and is quite extensive. The USFA has either fully or partially funded a number of research efforts.  These include a recent study by the National Institute of Standards and Technology’s (NIST) Center for Fire Research. Other contributors to this data include the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), the National Fire Protection Association, Underwriters Laboratories, the Home Fire Safety Council, the Residential Fire Safety Institute, the Home Fire Sprinkler Coalition, and distinguished academics with expertise in smoke alarm and sensor technology.

The body of research reflects the following:

  • There are two types of smoke alarms in general use for home smoke alarms, Photoelectric and Ionization. These smoke alarms sense the presePost fire house image missing roof and most of the second floornce of smoke differently.
  • The type of smoke produced by fire depends on the type of fire. Flaming fires produce a different type of smoke than smoldering fires.
  • Both smoke alarms will detect the smoke from either a smoldering fire or a flaming fire. It has been established and well known for many years that:
    • Ionization smoke alarms tend to respond faster to the smoke produced by flaming fires than photoelectric smoke alarms.
    • Photoelectric smoke alarms tend to respond faster to the smoke produced by smoldering fires than ionization smoke alarms.
  • In some full-scale fire tests, the difference in the time to alarm between ionization and photoelectric smoke alarms was found to be trivial. In other full-scale fire tests, the difference in response time was considerable.

Based on this information, the USFA provides guidance to the public and to state and local legislative bodies.  Either body may be grappling with the issue of determining which smoke detector types to select for residential use.  Their guidance includes:

  • We cannot state that one type of alarm is better than another because every fire is different.
  • Because both ionization and photoelectric smoke alarms are better at detecting distinctly different yet potentially fatal fires, and because no one can predict what type of fire might start in a home, the USFA recommends that every home and place where people sleep be equipped with either
    • both ionization and photoelectric smoke alarms, or
    • dual sensor smoke alarms (which contain both ionization and photoelectric smoke sensors).
  • The location of a smoke alarm within a home may be more important than the type of smoke alarm present, depending on the location of a fire. The USFA recommends that users follow the manufacturer’s guidance along with current standards on the recommended location of smoke alarms in a home.

To wrap this up

For each of the smoke detector types, the advantage they provide may be critical to life safety in some fire situations.  Fatal home fires, day or night, include a large number of smoldering fires and a large number of flaming fires. You cannot predict the type of fire you may have in your home or when it will occur. Any smoke alarm technology, to be acceptable, must perform for both types of fires in order to provide sufficient warning. Regardless of the type of fire, for all times of the day or night, and whether you are asleep or awake.
For the best protection, use both types of smoke alarm technologies.

AFCI’s – Arc Fault Circuit Interupters

by Nick Gromicko, CMI®, Kenton Shepard, and Joe Boos, CPI

Arc-fault circuit interrupters (AFCIs) are particular types of electrical receptacles or outlets and circuit breakers designed to detect and respond to potentially dangerous electrical arcs in home branch wiring.

How do they work?
AFCIs function by monitoring the electrical waveform and promptly opening (interrupting) the circuit they serve if they detect changes in the wave pattern characteristic of a dangerous arc. They also must be capable of distinguishing safe, typical arcs, such as those created when a switch is turned on or a plug is pulled from a receptacle from arcs that can cause fires. An AFCI can detect, recognize, and respond to very small changes in wave patterns.

What is an arc?
When an electric current crosses an air gap from an energized component to a grounded component, it produces a glowing plasma discharge known as an arc. For example, a lightning bolt is a huge, powerful arc that crosses an atmospheric gap from an electrically charged cloud to the ground or another cloud. Just as lightning can cause fires, arcs produced by domestic wiring can produce high levels of heat that can ignite their surroundings and lead to structure fires.  According to statistics from the National Fire Protection Agency for 2005, electrical fires damaged approximately 20,900 homes, killed 500 people, and cost $862 million in property damage. Although short-circuits and overloads account for many of these fires, arcs are mainly responsible and undetectable by traditional (non-AFCI) circuit breakers.

Where are arcs likely to form?
Arcs can form where wires are improperly installed or when insulation becomes damaged. In older homes, wire insulation crystallizes as it ages, becoming brittle and prone to cracking and chipping. Damaged insulation exposes the current-carrying wire to its surroundings, increasing the chances that an arc may occur.  Situations in which arcs may be created:

  • Electrical cords damaged by vacuum cleaners or trapped beneath furniture or doors.
  • Damage to wire insulation from nails or screws driven through walls.
  • Appliance cords damaged by heat, natural aging, kinking, impact or over-extension.
  • Spillage of liquid.
  • Loose connections in outlets, switches, and light fixtures.

Where are AFCIs required?
Locations in which AFCIs are required depend on the building codes adopted by their jurisdiction.
The 2018 International Residential Code (IRC) requires that AFCIs be installed within the following manner:
E3902.16 – Locations

  • Family Rooms
  • Recreation Rooms
  • Living Rooms
  • Parlors
  • Libraries
  • Dens
  • Bedrooms
  • Sunrooms
  • Laundry Rooms
  • Dining Rooms
  • Closets
  • Hallways
  • Kitchens

Home inspectors should refrain from quoting exact code in their reports. A plaintiff’s attorney might suggest that code quotation means that the inspector was performing a code inspection and is responsible for identifying all code violations in the home. Some jurisdictions do not yet require their implementation in locations where they can be helpful.

What types of AFCIs are available?
AFCIs are available both as circuit breakers for installation in the electrical distribution panel or as point-of-use receptacles installed in the wall just like a normal receptacle.
Panel installed AFCI breakers protect the entire circuit downstream of the panel.
AFCI receptacles only protect that outlet or other receptacles located downstream of the protected receptacle.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Nuisance Tripping
An AFCI might activate in situations that are not dangerous and create needless power shortages. This can be particularly annoying when an AFCI stalls power to a freezer or refrigerator, allowing its contents to spoil. There are a few procedures an electrical contractor can perform to reduce potential “nuisance tripping,” such as:
Check that the load power wire, panel neutral wire, and load neutral wire are properly connected.
Check wiring to ensure that there are no shared neutral connections.
Check the junction box and fixture connections to ensure that the neutral conductor does not contact a grounded conductor.

Arc Faults vs. Ground Faults
It is important to distinguish AFCI devices from Ground Fault Circuit Interrupter (GFCI) devices. GFCIs detect ground faults when current leaks from a hot (ungrounded) conductor to a grounded object due to a short circuit.

This situation can be hazardous when a person unintentionally becomes the current’s path to the ground. GFCIs function by constantly monitoring the current flow between hot and neutral (grounding) conductors and activate when they sense a difference of 5 milliamps or more. Thus, GFCIs are intended to prevent personal injury due to electric shock, while AFCIs prevent personal injury and property damage due to structure fires.

In summary, AFCIs are designed to detect small arcs of electricity, shut down the circuit, and prevent fires or bodily harm.

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