Home Electricity 101: Safety in Grounded Plugs

All Montreal homes built before 1960 have the same energy: unpredictable. For us, the 1960’s brought about a new era of groovy energy; an energy we could get down with.

We’re not talking bellbottoms, afros or free love. We’re talking energy in the literal sense.

Safer home electricity standards were introduced in the 60’s: something we, as inspectors considered groovy. Most importantly, the 1960’s brought about the standardization of down-to-earth (grounded) electrical plugs. They protect people and electrical equipment from potentially very dangerous -even fatal- electrical shock.

Electrical Outlets 101

Electricity is all around us, but to most people it’s still a magic mystery.

What is a grounded plug? What is grounded electricity? What do each of the holes in an electrical outlet do?

Let’s start at the beginning. When you look at a normal 120-volt outlet, you will see two vertical slots and a moon-shaped hole centred below them.

We have a name for each of these holes. The top left slot is called ‘neutral’. The top right slot is called ‘hot’ and the bottom hole is called the ‘ground.’

Electricity flows in a circuit, and in a house it flows from the hot slot to the neutral slot. Any appliance you plug into the outlet completes the circuit to run a motor, heat some coils, or power the equipment using electricity.

The ‘ground’ slot is the safety feature in all this circuitry. If your appliance has a loose wire, or becomes overheated, the surge in electricity will flow straight to the ground, rather than releasing itself (potentially fatally) into you or into your equipment, potentially burning it out, or causing it to catch fire. If it’s grounded, it will detect the surge in electricity flow, and instantly trip the fuse or circuit breaker.

As you can imagine, 2-prong plugs (standard before the 1960’s) don’t have a ground at all, which is what makes them potentially very dangerous.

The “cheater” plug

Nearly all equipment and appliances today are sold with 3-prong plugs. Since it’s expensive to re-wire an entire pre-1960’s home, many people have opted to install a “cheater” plug. This means there’s a third slot, but it’s not connected to a ground ie not grounded.

These plugs are potentially hazardous to both you and your equipment.

Strategic Grounding

Do you own a pre-1960’s construction? There’s no question that completely rewiring your home is the best solution to ensure all plugs are grounded. Granted; this is an expensive and intrusive undertaking.

The next best solution? Take some protective measures, and strategically install grounded circuits.

Buy a tester (about $12) at your local hardware store. Test each plug. Make sure outlets where your A/V equipment, toaster and washer and dryer are installed are grounded.

Safety from the water mix: GFCI’s

Most commonly, Ground Fault Circuit Interrupters GFCI’s are used to prevent the dangers of water and electricity mixing. It is prudent to install them in wall-mounted receptacles in areas where water and electricity are most likely to come into contact such as bathrooms, laundry room, kitchens and outdoors (where power tools and rain might mix, or water hoses and other electrical equipment.)

As soon as the GFCI senses a change in electricity flow, it trips the circuit, thus cutting off flow. Any plugs near sinks, like those you use in the bathroom to plug in your razor or hairdryer, or those on the kitchen counter used to plug in the toaster would benefit from GFCI’s.

Common ground

Erratic, spontaneous energy might be fun sometimes – but when it comes to wiring your home, it’s much better to be grounded.

…funny how the same decade got us both grounded and to the moon. No wonder we were so dazed and confused!