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Staying Grounded

A common question we get asked is about trying to fit 3-prong plugs into home sockets (or extension cords). Specifically, “Can I just remove the third prong from the plug?” The short answer is yes, but you can also go sky diving without a parachute (once). The ground post on a 3-prong plug is a safety net for your appliance and your home. It may be inconvenient to find a new plug or buy a new extension cord, but do you really want to work without a safety net?

What is an Electrical Ground?

Initially, the term ground was used to describe a common point of connection for return current, usually tied directly to the Earth. Now the term used is common, since your safety-ground is simply a common return point for the circuits in a device or appliance. Your car, your phone, and your washing machine all have a common grounding point, but none of them are actually connected to the ground.

Of course, using the earth as the sole common reservoir for charge is no longer allowed by the National Electric Code. Earth ground, while a great way to discharge powerful surges, is not 100% effective. When the ground becomes too dry, it becomes less effective as a means of being a common return. A discharge plate or common neutral in a circuit is always effective, so a common return to your breaker box is required by the NEC.

For your home, that third prong creates a common ground that connects back to your circuit breaker through the electrical outlet. While some devices (e.g. simple lamps) don’t need a common ground, heavy load devices such as power tools, microwave ovens, or your TV require a common ground to prevent or at least reduce the risk of electric shock during device operation.

By having a unified grounding point, any surge in voltage or accidental shorts to the casing will move past the appliance, ignore any human touching the external casing, and jump directly to the circuit breaker, causing a breaker trip. By tripping a breaker, you avoid system damage, electrical fires, and electric shocks which are caused by dangerous electrical shorts.

You can find a more technical description of the process (along with a few detailed diagrams here:

General Electrical Safety

The common ground for your outlet isn’t the only safety feature in your home. In fact, the combination of common ground and breaker trip are similar to how a ground-fault circuit interrupter works. The main difference being that, instead of tripping the entire circuit, a GFCI simply disconnects the outlet that is in use, stopping current flow to the appliance.

If you’re worried in any way that your home isn’t up to code when it comes to electrical safety, call a professional electrician to conduct a safety inspection of your home. These inspections are good way to protect your home, but they also help you find problems before they happen.

Electrical outlets and receptacles are fairly inexpensive and it’s much easier to install a new, properly grounded outlet than it is to fix damages or heal injuries caused by electrical problems.