Grounding. You’ve probably heard the term, but what is it exactly, and why should you even care?
Let’s face it, understanding the complex physics of electricity is challenging, and grounding is no different. Still, it is vital to grasp the basics to ensure your home is safe and adequately protected.
Grounding systems exist to prevent electricity’s potential to cause harm and damage to people and property. Electricity, untamed, is a dangerous beast. We generate and carry electrical current to power our homes. Over time, more effective ways of making electricity safer have been developed, allowing us to enjoy its numerous benefits without as many risks.
Electricity is a flow of positive and negative electrons. Negative (hot) electrons are charged and are the ones that shock and burn. These hot electrons flow through colored wires, whereas positive or neutral electrons flow through white wires. These wires run alongside each other inside circuits that deliver power to devices and appliances along lines or loads. Lines are wires that carry current between a power source and a device, whereas loads are wires that carry current from device to device further along the circuit.
The distinction in wire color allows electricians and inspectors to tell what is flowing where and check if circuits and wires are correctly sized to the amount of current flowing through them.
Electricity always looks for a way to return to its power source, the shorter the pathway, the better because electricity naturally ‘seeks the path of least resistance’. Grounding is an intricate contingency system designed and installed to carry potentially harmful ‘leaked’ electricity along a pathway where it cannot shock or burn anyone or cause a fire. Shock, burn, and fire incidents occur when ‘hot’ electrons escape their colored wire casing and now run ‘free’ to search for a quick pathway back ‘home’.
Depending on the grounding systems in your home and how technically correct their installation, you will have different levels of protection against leaked hot electrons. Grounding protection is a question of degrees and technicality but is a vital part of any electrical installation because it is the only damage-control system for faults occurring in wired circuits. Electrical faults in home wiring happen more often than we imagine.
Current leaks can happen for many reasons. If the colored wiring is exposed rather than encased, it can get damaged, split, or even bitten open by small creatures, including babies and toddlers who care little whether the wire is colored or white when compelled to bite on a wire for a good chew! Wires can also become loose, creating a leak point, which causes the current to veer off its usual colored-wire course, and follow a shorter path back to ground.
The escape route taken by these wayward hot electrons, without correct grounding, can, unfortunately, end up being you or someone else in your home. Unlike earth which usually has poor resistance levels, humans are made up of salt water and make great electrical conductors. Grounding provides an alternative path, well, to us.
The age of your home’s electrical installation will provide some clues about how well your home is grounded. If you have an old installation like the “knob and tube” installations of the 1940s, you likely have no grounding. If your installation dates from the mid-1960s, your home’s grounding will likely be a little better – something is better than nothing!
A modern grounding pathway today is a complex technical system that uses bare copper wires, often insulated (NM Sheathed Cable) and electrodes. (Keep in mind we are oversimplifying something very complex here.)
If your home is a detached property, you should have at least one grounding rod driven deep down into the actual earth outside your home. If hot electrons manage to escape, this rod system provides a safer, alternative pathway to get them to earth, thus reducing the potential harm or damage to people or property.
The National Electrical Code (NEC) stipulates standards and requirements for grounding depth, spacing, and bonding that are too technical to go into here, but as every gardener or builder knows – no two patches of earth are the same – so it is wise to get your electrician to actually measure the ground’s resistance to ensure any existing rods have been placed at the correct depth and spacing for that specific earth’s resistance.
If you have no information about when or how your electrical system was installed, another clue is if your outlets have two prongs rather than three. Properly grounded circuits have an additional earthing or grounding wire, hence the three-prong holes. You may also notice that some heavy-draw appliances come with a three-pronged plug because their internal circuits are grounded. Using a three to two-pin plug adapter can be dangerous, so please do not do that!
Grounding is your home’s go-to safety system. It can be in-circuit, attached to metal plumbing pipes or rods driven deep into the ground, or all the above. Not having adequate grounding magnifies the risk of shock, burn, or fire significantly. Consider, too, if you are plugging in sensitive, expensive devices like computers, TVs, and smartphones into ungrounded electrical circuits; you may be lucky and get away with no shocks, fires, or fines. Still, the many mini surges running along the hot wires will constantly attack your devices, inevitably cutting their lifespan short.
If the wires in your home are old and designed for the lower loads of the not-so-distant past, they can quickly overheat and burn, generating a potential situation of both burning (fire) and leakage (shock). Having no grounding in that scenario would not bode well!
The safest thing to do from the NEC compliance perspective is to get your grounding system checked. Please do not put it off. Remember, electrical codes exist to ensure safety, not to irritate!
What you need to know is what type of grounding system has been installed and whether it is up-to-date, safe, and adequate enough for the electrical system and power demand of your home. Using electricity safely requires having up-to-date, code-compliant, correctly installed systems.
Get an electrician near you to take a look at your grounding, then take it from there. Knowledge is key. However, if your home is full of two pinned outlets, make that call sooner rather than later.
Contact Randy’s Electric for Expert Help
- If you find yourself in the case of needing a trusted, certified electrician, call Randy’s Electric at 612-441-5061.
Randy’s Electric provides comprehensive electrical services to help Minneapolis homes stay safe and well-lit. From fixture replacement to rewiring and electrical panel replacement, our team has the skills and expertise to solve virtually any electrical problem. Randy’s Electric services homes all around the metro area. Find an electrician in Stillwater, Blaine, Bloomington, Farmington, Lakeville, Maple Grove, Plymouth, Minnetonka, and many more cities.
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