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What Is the Ground (Earth) Wire For?

Eugene is a qualified control/instrumentation engineer Bsc (Eng) and has worked as a developer of electronics & software for SCADA systems.

What Is a Ground Wire?

The hot and neutral cores in a power cable are used to supply current to the appliances in your home. So what about the green wire? Why is it needed? This is known as the "ground" and is an additional wire that is included for the safety of you and your home.

Note: This article was written for a US audience, so I refer to the protective conductor as "ground". However, it is also called "earth" in other countries. Another difference is that the term "hot" is used, which is also known as "live". The third difference is that a second hot line is often provided to homes in the US, resulting in a 240-volt supply (between the two hots) in addition to the 120-volt supply.

What is the ground wire for?

What is the ground wire for?

What Are the Wires in a Power Cable?


This wire is at a potential of 120 volts nominal in the US relative to ground. Current flows out through the hot wire to an appliance. Hot is also referred to as "live" in other countries and voltage can be either 110 or 230 volts AC nominal.


The neutral wire is at a voltage close to or equal to ground. The current which flows to an appliance via the hot wire returns via the neutral core in a cable. (See note below).


This is a protective conductor, included to prevent shock and/or fire. Ground is also known as "earth" in some countries.

The supply from the transformer feeding your home is split-phase and in the U.S., 2 hots in addition to a neutral are provided. Lower power appliances are connected between either of the hots and neutral and this gives a 120 volt supply. The voltage between the two hots is 240 volt for supplying higher power appliances.

Note: The electricity supply in our homes is alternating current (AC). So while we tend to think of current flowing out through the hot wire to an appliance and returning via the neutral wire, current actually flows both ways. So for one-half of what is known as a "cycle", current flows out through hot and returns via the neutral wire. During the second half cycle, the process is reversed and current flows to the appliance via neutral and returns via hot.

AC and DC voltage waveforms. DC voltage is constant over time. AC voltage and current change direction at a rate given by the frequency. This is 60 times per second or 60 Hertz (Hz) in the US. Each repetition of the waveform is called a cycle.

AC and DC voltage waveforms. DC voltage is constant over time. AC voltage and current change direction at a rate given by the frequency. This is 60 times per second or 60 Hertz (Hz) in the US. Each repetition of the waveform is called a cycle.

Voltage supplies throughout the world.

Voltage supplies throughout the world.

Ground: The Protective Conductor

The flex or fixed wiring supplying metal cased appliances includes a ground conductor (colored green in the US or green/yellow in the EU) in addition to hot and neutral. Inside an appliance, the ground core of the cable is connected to the outer casing of the appliance. The connection may be made either using a screw terminal or a ring crimp and self-tapping screw/bolt. Spade crimps are generally not used to prevent a ground from being inadvertently removed instead of hot or neutral and not replaced. Fixed (e.g. storage heater, kitchen range) and portable i.e corded appliances with extraneous metal which can be touched in normal use must be grounded. Ground acts as a "bypass" for currents in the event of a fault.

The fault could be due to:

  • Conductors (e.g. wires, terminals, components) at hot or near full mains potential breaking, bending or detaching and touching the casing of an appliance
  • Breakdown of insulation. For instance, insulation on cores of the power flex could become damaged inside an appliance or insulating spacers could become dislodged. Also, metal parts such as screws or nuts which have come undone could bridge the gap between hot and the metal casing
  • Making contact with a power cable when drilling through a wall
Inside a microwave oven, the ground core of the power flex is connected to the casing using a ring crimp and screw. Note the symbol for ground

Inside a microwave oven, the ground core of the power flex is connected to the casing using a ring crimp and screw. Note the symbol for ground

What Happens During a Fault If an Appliance Isn't Grounded?

If a fault occurs, the external metal of an appliance will become live and the voltage with respect to ground a person is standing one will be anything up to 120 volts, depending on which part of the internal circuit touches the casing. If the metal isn't grounded and someone touches the appliance, current will travel through their body to ground.

If they are lucky and have rubber-soled shoes and are standing on a dry floor, they may just experience a tingling sensation. However, if conditions are damp, they have wet hands and are standing outdoors, they are more likely to experience a severe shock. If one hand touches the appliance and the other touches a grounded object (e.g pipework, poles, radiators or whatever), current will travel across their heart, a more dangerous scenario. If the person is unlucky or has a heart condition, this can kill.

Why Does Current Flow to Ground?

The reason why current flows to ground is that the neutral point in the supply transformer is connected via a ground conductor to a ground electrode. This raises the potential of the hot conductor to about 120 volts with respect to the ground surface. During a fault, or if someone touches a live conductor, current flows through ground conductors and the bulk of the physical ground (i.e the soil) back to the transformer. Isolating safety transformers, which are sometimes used for powering tools on construction sites, isolate the neutral from ground so that current cannot flow (or at least very little) if a fault occurs. These transformers additionally convert voltage to 110 volts in countries where 230 volts is the standard supply voltage. This reduces the current to a safer level if someone experiences a shock between hot and neutral.

For more information on volts and amps, see my guide:

Understanding Electricity? What Are Volts, Amps, Watts, Ohms, AC and DC?

Why Is the Supply Transformer Grounded?

Grounding the neutral of the supply transformer is a safety measure taken to eliminate dangerous rises in potential (greater than the hot voltage) on the hot or neutral conductors entering a home. This could occur for instance if a very high voltage power line (possibly hundreds of kilovolts) breaks and lands on a "low" voltage (120 volt) line. Another scenario is the insulation between the primary and secondary of the transformer being breached. This could allow the primary voltage (>10kv) to appear on the secondary. Yet another possibility is a lightning strike on the lines. Static charge can also cause a buildup of voltage on lines.

Basically, grounding the neutral pulls down the voltage of the line so that neutral is close to the potential of the earth which we are standing on and the voltage on either of the hot lines doesn't greatly exceed 120 volts.

The path of fault current when someone touches a non-grounded faulty appliance (2nd hot in U.S. wiring systems not shown)

The path of fault current when someone touches a non-grounded faulty appliance (2nd hot in U.S. wiring systems not shown)

How Does Grounding Solve the Problem?

Grounding provides a bypass, shunt or shortcut through which electricity can flow, instead of passing to earth through the person who touches an appliance. Wires called equipment grounding conductors (EGC) are run from the electrical panel through the fixed wiring to all socket outlets, fixed appliances such as ranges or water heaters, light switches and ceiling roses in your home. In the case of a portable appliance, this grounding path continues from the pin in the plug through the flex, to the metal body of the appliance. At the electrical panel, all of these conductors are joined at the main grounding terminal. A grounding electrode conductor (GEC) runs outside the premises to a grounding electrode embedded in the soil.

When a fault occurs, current flows via the grounding conductor back to the electrical panel. If a TNC or TNCS earthing system is in use, all neutrals are joined to ground at the panel (or the neutral and ground may be joined at the output of the supply meter see earthing systems schematic below), and so the hot to ground fault at the appliance effectively becomes a hot to neutral fault, practically a short circuit. A large over-current flows and this trips the MCB (miniature circuit breaker) and possibly also the GFCI (whichever acts first) for the circuit, cutting power and making everything safe.

Grounding, however, also has another important function. Even if the current is insufficient to trip a breaker (in the case of a TT grounding system), the neutral conductor breaks outside the home, or stray currents in the neutral cause a dangerous rise in potential, it reduces the touch voltage between the casing of the appliance and the area on the ground on which the person is standing to a safe level. Both EGCs and the ground rod and the bulk impedance from the ground rod to the supply transformer effectively behave as a potential divider. Since the impedance of an EGC and ground rod are a lot less than the equivalent impedance of the soil between the premises and the supply transformer, and since the two impedances are in series, a much smaller voltage is dropped across the EGC than the total supply voltage and so the hazard is reduced.

The low impedance ground conductor shunts current away from the person touching the appliance, reducing the touch voltage to a safe level. (In reality the conductor passes via the plug and flex of the appliance and electrical panel to the ground rod)

The low impedance ground conductor shunts current away from the person touching the appliance, reducing the touch voltage to a safe level. (In reality the conductor passes via the plug and flex of the appliance and electrical panel to the ground rod)

Naming Convention in the USA and UK

Equipment grounding conductors (EGC) = Protective earths (PE) in the UK.

Main grounding terminal = Main earthing terminal in the UK.

Grounding electrode = Earthing electrode in the UK.

Double-Insulated and Non-Grounded Appliances

Appliances such as hair driers, TVs, handheld kitchen appliances, etc. generally have plastic casings. If a fault occurs inside the appliance (e.g. a wire or component touches the inside of the casing), there is no danger since the plastic body is an insulator. These appliances don't have a ground wire in the flex. Some appliances such as power tools are not grounded and instead are "doubly insulated". This means that although the external casing of the tool or appliance may be metal, sufficient separation and isolation of the external metal from internal high voltages is effected to prevent electric shock. These devices don't have a ground wire in the cord either.

Double insulated appliances can be extremely dangerous if they get wet. This is because the casing is not grounded and can become live if water breaches the separation between live parts and casing. Also, the MCB is unlikely to trip and the GFI may not operate either.

Double insulated symbol

Double insulated symbol


A safety device called a Ground Fault Circuit Interrupter (GFCI) also known as a Ground Fault Interrupter or Residual Current Device (RCD) is likely to be fitted in most modern installations. This device monitors the current flowing out through the hot conductor and back via neutral. Normally these currents are equal. If current leaks to ground, not all the current returns through the GFCI. Electronics in the device detects this imbalance, and it trips out, shutting off the power. The trip current for a GFCI is normally 30mA but can be higher or lower depending on conditions.

A GFCI handles situations such as someone touching a live conductor, such as a damaged power cord with exposed cores, or the connector of a kettle left in a pool of water on a sink. (It may also even trip if damp bread gets stuck in a toaster and touches the element!)

A GFCI also responds to faults as described above where hot makes contact with the grounded body of an appliance. The device cuts the power if the MCB doesn't "get there first".

Another function of the GFCI is to prevent fire. Consider the situation where a damaged and exposed conductor makes contact with damp timber or grounded material, e.g. conduit or piping. This could produce sparks and start a fire if there is any flammable material nearby, e.g. sawdust, wood shavings or insulation. The current may not be sufficient to trip a breaker, however, the small leakage current to ground is more likely to be detected by the GFCI, making it trip and shut off the power.

GFCIs can be installed at the electrical panel, they are available in the form of a GFCI socket outlet, and you can also buy a GFCI adapter that plugs into a socket. An appliance is then plugged into the adapter. This is a worthwhile safety accessory for an extension lead if you use power tools in the garden.

Three Types of Grounding Systems

TNCS or PME (Protective Multiple Earthing)

This system uses a combined ground/neutral back to the supply transformer. This is then split into separate ground and neutral conductors after the meter. A hot to ground fault effectively becomes a hot to neutral fault, and since the impedance back to the transformer is low, the large, short circuit current ensures that an MCB for the circuit will trip. The problem with this type of system is that full mains potential could appear on extraneous metalwork of an appliance if the neutral breaks outside the premises. This is why the ground electrode is so important. The bulk of the earth between the ground electrode at the premises and the point where the supply transformer is grounded acts like a potential divider.

If someone touches a grounded appliance, the touch voltage between their hand and feet is equal to the voltage between the point at which the electrode enters the ground and their feet. Since this distance is likely to be a fraction of the distance to the supply transformer, the voltage is reduced proportionately. The electricity supply company may install multiple earthing or ground points from the neutral line between transformer and premises to reduce the consequences and hazard of a broken neutral (especially if they are widely separated)


The TNS system is often used when a ground can be provided by the armor of the supply cable. If the armor becomes corroded causing bad ground, this system can be converted to TNCS.


The TT system is used when the power comes in overhead. The system uses the bulk of the earth as the return path for fault currents. It doesn't have the risk of a broken neutral. If a home is distant from the supply transformer, the fault current during a hot to ground fault may be insufficient to trip a breaker because the resistance of the earth is too great. Since the development of GFCIs which can detect small leakage currents to the ground, this is less of an issue. TT systems may be converted to TNCS systems where the ground and neutral are neutralized or joined together at the exit point of the meter.

Un-Grounded and Grounded Socket Outlets: NEC Regulations

In the U.S., both ungrounded and grounded receptacles are used. Ungrounded outlets are prohibited in new buildings but in the situation where an equipment ground conductor is not present, NEC code exceptions allow these to be replaced by either another non-grounded receptacle, a GFCI receptacle or a grounding type receptacle fed by a GFCI as long as the receptacle is marked "No equipment ground" and "GFCI protected".

2-pin in-grounded receptacles can be upgraded to 3-pin grounded receptacles with the addition of new ground wiring.


Metal services such as water and heating pipes and hot water heaters are grounded with a heavy gauge wire routed back to the electrical panel. This ensures that if a hot wire makes contact with these services, a large current will flow and trip the breaker. The heavy gauge wire is rated so that it can carry the current which may flow if a hot from a high current circuit makes contact with the service. Also, the heavy gauge keeps the resistance of the cable low. This ensures that as current flows through this resistance, the resulting voltage rise is kept below safe limits. This is vitally important in bathrooms where everything is damp and we may be in our bare feet and making relatively good electrical contact. Everything such as radiators, water pipes, wall heaters and the drain in the bath/shower are connected together by a bonding conductor. This "equipotential bonding" keeps everything at the same voltage and there is no difference in voltage between for instance a showerhead and the drain.

Different types of grounding systems.

Different types of grounding systems.

Electric Wiring Color Codes

This Wikipedia article gives lots of info about wiring and color codes used in various countries around the world.


Fish RM, Geddes LA. Conduction of electrical current to and through the human body: a review. Eplasty. 2009;9:e44. Published 2009 Oct 12.

Kuphaldt,Tony R., Lessons In Electric Circuits -- Volume I - Chapter 3 - ELECTRICAL SAFETY. Copyright (C) 2000-2020, Revised November 06, 2021.

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.

Questions & Answers

Question: When an iron pole is wet, why doesn't the current flow through the water?

Answer: Current will flow through water, but only if it completes a circuit. The amount of current that flows depends on the nature of the water. Deionised or distilled water has few ions, so the current will be small. Ordinary tap water will conduct electricity because of dissolved chlorine, aluminum salts used for deflocculation, etc.

Question: I bought a new dishwasher with stainless steel door. The door shocked me. I hired an electrician, who tested the door as carrying 79 volts. He tightened the ground in my wall which reduced the door's voltage to 47. He tightened the ground in the dishwasher's junction box. Now it doesn't shock me. I am concerned where the electricity is coming from to get to the dishwasher door. Is making the ground solid hiding a defect in the dishwasher?

Answer: I suggest you get another electrician who can deal with this floating ground situation. The rise in voltage could be due to any appliance with a live to ground fault, and if the electrician disconnects appliances one by one, they may be able to identify which one is causing the problem. The fault could also be caused by a live to ground fault in adjacent premises and this can be communicated to adjacent buildings via connected water pipes. It would be interesting to know how the electrician measured the ground voltage. Did he measure the voltage between ground and neutral? Or ground and the ground rod? Is there even a ground rod? Is it working properly? Is it connected? (one of the functions of the rod is to keep the touch voltage down to a safe level).

Question: I put together a treadmill, and there is a ground wire with a metal circle on the end that I'm supposed to put a screw through to attach to the frame of the treadmill. The problem is, there's no way I can get the screw screwed in. Would it be safe to just tape the ground wire metal part to the metal frame?

Answer: No, you'd need a better, more reliable connection than that. You could drill a hole, sand off any paint to expose metal and use a self-taping screw with a washer. Alternatively, drill a larger hole and use a bolt with a nut and spring washer or lock nut.

Question: What is the symbol of ground wire?

Answer: A vertical line with three horizontal lines under it, successively decreasing in width.

Question: Where do I wire the earth on an RCD?

Answer: An RCD doesn't have an earth (ground) connection. It has an incoming live and neutral pair and an outgoing live and neutral pair. If there's a difference between the current flowing out the live and the neutral current returning, it will trip.

Older style ELCBs were voltage sensing devices that tripped when they detected dangerous voltages on earthed metalwork. If this voltage exceeded a set level wrt a remote reference earthed electrode, the device would trip.

RCDs used to be called current-operated ELCBs which led to confusion, hence the current name.

Question: Why is the voltage between Neutral and Ground more than 25VAC in the house we rent now?

Answer: The neutral and ground may not be connected together in the house. This would be the case if a TT grounding system is used. Also if the house is fed by a cable with metal armor/conduit and there isn't continuity back to the transformer, this could result in a difference in potential.

The safest thing to do is get an electrician to check out the situation.

Question: What are the materials for ground Earth and neutral?

Answer: Various materials are used. Copper for conductors, galvanized steel or copper for rods, brass or nickel plated cable clamps.

Question: What is white wire?

Answer: It depends on the country. In the US and Canada, white or grey are used for neutral, but in Australia, white is used for phase 2 in a multiphase system or for "switched active".

In the US, white could also be used as a switched wire (e.g. for lights) and sometimes black tape at the ends indicate this. In any case, before someone attempts to modify wiring, they should ensure power is switched off at the breaker panel, plus double check with a neon tester that power is definitely off for the circuit.

This Wikipedia guide shows the colours used in each country:

Question: My ground terminals shows they got voltage, can I get a quick solution?

Answer: The best thing to do is to get an electrician to suss out the situation. Floating grounds can be dangerous if the potential is at a dangerously high level compared to other metal appliances or services within touching distance.

© 2013 Eugene Brennan


Cal Stowe from Houston, TX on August 12, 2019:

In my outside main breaker panel, the neutral bus is connected to:

1) the ground bus

2) earth electrode

3) conductor back to the transformer

4) 100 kva surge protector

This panel is connected to an inside panel with all the individual breakers.

The plumbing is connected to a separate earth electrode 4 feet away. Should the plumbing earth electrode be connected to the power earth electrode?

If they are separate:

1) Pipe ground fault voltage should be relatively high, current low, and breaker may not trip due to high impedance from pipe earth electrode to transformer earth electrode.

2) A high voltage surge would create high potential between connected devices and plumbing faucets, etc. There would be no potential plumbing to floor.

3) A lightning ground strike would create some potential between the two earth electrodes, and some potential between plumbing and floor due to voltage gradient.

4) Surge protector dump to earth will induce little voltage on plumbing.

If the earth electrodes are connected:

1) In the event of a ground fault, voltage will be low, and current high through neutral back to transformer. Breaker will trip.

2) A high voltage surge will not raise neutral and plumbing voltage?

3) A lightning ground strike will induce some voltage and current between the ground electrodes.

4) A surge protector dump to earth will induce some voltage on the plumbing?

Eugene Brennan (author) from Ireland on March 18, 2019:

Hi Jim, it sounds as though there's a hot to ground fault somewhere in the appliance. If you ground it by replacing the flex and plug, it would still trip a GFCI unless the fault is sorted. Another scenario with a three core grounded cord is that you could have a bootleg ground in one of your receptacles and if hot and neutral have been reversed, this would place live voltage on the casing of the appliance.

Might be a good idea to take it somewhere and get it checked. I don't give advice online on these matters because something could be missed and there could be an unfortunate outcome!

Jim G on March 18, 2019:

Hello Eugene

I’m hoping that you can advise. I recently came into possession of an old film projector from the 1940’s. The projector is primarily made out of metal, has tubes, and a cord with no ground prong.

I plugged in the projector and turned it in and success the lights came on. But then I noticed a slight tingle when I touched the projector. Luckily I was wearing rubber soles. I opened up the projector and could not see any obvious wire touching the case , etc. I got my multi meter and ran a wire to the house ground which is close to my work bench. With my meter connected to the house ground I would read 120v from multiple locations on the projector.

I’m basically at my limit of electrical competence. Would replacing the power cord with a grounded cord solve my problem and make the projector safe to use.

Thank you for your advice.


Tyrone on September 11, 2017:

I have to say this is the best article on grounding I have found on the net. Congratulations.

Eugene Brennan (author) from Ireland on September 11, 2017:

It depends on the grounding system Tyrone. If TT grounding/earthing is used, the bulk of the ground may have a large resistance and so current would be lower than that in the neutral in a fault situation (possibly insufficient to trip an MCB, but when the installation is protected by a GFCI/RCD, this will trip). In a TN-S system, a large short circuit current will flow back via the separate ground to the supply transformer. In a TN-C system which has a common combined neutral/ground back to the transformer and appliance cases connected to neutral, a larger than normal current will flow on this conductor during a fault. A broken neutral conductor can cause a dangerous potential on the metalwork of appliances. A TN-CS system provides separate ground and neutral to appliances. If there's a fault, a large current will flow through the equipment ground (protective earth) back to the panel. This will be larger than the current flowing in the neutral core of the cable feeding the appliance, but will flow in the neutral conductor back to the transformer.

So it's really only TT systems where the resistance is high. The actual ground wire from the appliance back to the panel would have a low resistance.

Tyrone on September 11, 2017:

I'm thinking there wouldn't be much current travelling along the ground path because of the much higher resistance compared to the neutral wire?

Eugene Brennan (author) from Ireland on September 11, 2017:

A circuit is normally completed via neutral, but if a hot to ground (live to earth) fault occurs, there's also a parallel path for current to flow through via ground back to the transformer (and also the neutral conductor, if ground is connected to neutral at the panel).

Tyrone on September 11, 2017:

In the event of a fault it seems the circuit is not being completed via ground but via the neutral wire. Therefore the grounding on both the transformer and residence are stand alone and are only there to bring the neutral down to 0 volts?

Eugene Brennan (author) from Ireland on August 28, 2017:

Hi Izhaan - This link shows the colours of earth wires in electrical installations:

Earthing/grounding conductors may have a coloured sheath or be bare without a sheath in fixed wiring cables. The earth conductor in a flexible power cord supplying an appliance normally has an insulating sheath. In socket and lighting outlets and electrical panels, bare earth conductors are provided with a coloured sleeve to insulate them from inadvertent contact with live/hot parts and also to identify the conductors.

If you are considering making any electrical modifications, I highly recommend you consult a qualified electrician. A simple mistake can prove fatal!

Izhaan on August 28, 2017:

Plz tell me

How can i identify earth wire in household circuit.?

Eugene Brennan (author) from Ireland on May 21, 2017:

....the hair drier's lead/cord/flex that is, not the dog's. (Maybe you should replace the dog also.. LOL!)

Eugene Brennan (author) from Ireland on May 21, 2017:

Hi Denise,

Possibly there is invisible damage, i.e. broken wires, in the flex from the dog stretching it. Sometimes if the stranded copper cores in a flex are broken, the wires can be pulled until they snap and the lead then shortened. However the safest thing would be to completely replace the lead.

Denise field on May 21, 2017:

Thank you so much Eugene. Youve really put my mind at ease. Unfortunately the lead has been shortened so no exposed wires!! But! It worked for about 1 minute then stopped. There was no smell indicating the motor burnet out no no bang no spark just stopped maybe the plug is old what do you think obviously without seeing it. Just glad to know I'm not going to be shocked etc.

Eugene Brennan (author) from Ireland on May 19, 2017:

Hi Denise,

If the casing of the hair drier is plastic, it doesn't need to be earthed. I presume you mean the copper of the wires was visible? If there are still sections of the flex, after the plug was replaced, where the copper wires are exposed , the whole lead needs to be replaced (or possibly shortened if the bad bit is near the plug end).

Denise field on May 19, 2017:

Okay here goes my hairdryer lead (flex) has been chewed in half so I gave it to my neighbour (yes I'm rubbish!!)

He put on a new plug, the other one was fixed on the lead. But said its not earthed it only has 2 wires which were visible cutesy of the dog!! These visible wires are copper im not going to get electrocuted am I?

Eugene Brennan (author) from Ireland on April 10, 2017:

Hi Ned,

The earth wire doesn't carry a dangerous voltage (at least it shouldn't assuming the earth rod is working properly and the touch voltage is below safe levels during a fault situation).

The covering on an earth wire is used for identification but can also give the inner core some protection from damage. It also acts as insulation if for instance the wire feeds into a socket outlet/light fitting. This prevents live parts/wires inadvertently touching the earth conductor when for instance socket plates are removed/replaced. Usually however live wires are insulated and live parts are shrouded, so this doesn't often happen.

I don't think it's a major issue if the cable insulation is split, in any case the pipes it connects to are uninsulated. I would be more worried that the inner core has been damaged and strands broken from the cable being repeatedly bent during installation/maintenance work. It may have just been chaffed when work was done, but it's no harm getting the cable checked by a qualified electrician.

Ned Tallyho on April 10, 2017:

The green/yellow (EU) cable connecting copper pipes near my gas combi boiler is bent over to fit in but the bare wire

can be seen where the cable has split due to being bent. Is this dangerous and should I get it changed?

Eugene Brennan (author) from Ireland on August 03, 2015:

The older style NEMA 1 -15 two pole socket was 15 amp rated and un-grounded. It is not permitted in new construction but there are probably lots of these still out there. If an appliance has a metal casing (e.g. a metal kettle), it needs to be grounded. The exception is double insulated appliances which have metal on their exterior but are not grounded. This is because the metal is separated from the inner workings to the extent that it is highly unlikely to become "live". If a plug isn't moulded onto the flex, you can always check whether the appliance is grounded or not by opening it up to see if a green wire is connected to the ground pin. However this isn't a total guarantee, and I have come across appliances which were marked as double insulated and I think should have been grounded, but weren't during manufacture. Many appliances are un-grounded nowadays simply because of their plastic construction.

Anyway, while a 5 -15 adaptor with the pin removed would fit into a 1 - 15 socket, you could end up forgetting, and plugging an appliance requiring a ground into it (or someone else not realising the change could do so!). Also 5 - 15 plugs or adaptors with the ground pin removed are unpolarized. So hot and neutral going to an appliance could be reversed if the adapter is inserted upside down. This would result in the switch in the appliance not shutting off power. So if anyone does any maintenance on an appliance with the plug still inserted into the wall, (and assumes the switch in the appliance has cut the power) , they could be electrocuted. It can be very dangerous if lamps are wired incorrectly with the hot and neutral reversed because not only does the switch in the cord not cut the power, the outer screwed shell in the ES lamp holder also become live and could possibly be inadvertently touched when screwing in a bulb.

Ideally you should get your sockets upgraded to 3 pin grounded types. I know this can be a real pain because new wiring with a ground conductor would have to be run back to the fuse box, which isn't always possible and can result in unsightly surface wiring if hiding the wiring isn't possible. The next best alternative is to have the socket replaced by a 3 pin type protected by an integral GFCI.

If anyone's interested, this is the link to the Wikipedia page with details of connectors:

NEC code 406.4(D)(2) covers replacement of 2 pin socket outlets

MG Seltzer from South Portland, Maine on August 02, 2015:

This topic was just on my mind as our GCFI outlet in the bathroom isn't working, which means that the one near the kitchen door has kicked itself off. I had just been thinking, "I really need to understand how the current flows through the system." Also, years ago, a constractor told me the grounding plugs on adaptors were "useless," and could be pulled out with pliers to let a three-prong plug fit a standard outlet. And I remember thinking, "Now is this true?" I am bookmarking this Hub because I see lots of good detail that I think will answer my questions. Voted thumbs up, of course.

Eugene Brennan (author) from Ireland on February 22, 2013:

Thanks for the comments! Yes bad or non existent grounds or missing earth electrodes can cause all sorts of shocking experiences! Also relying on water pipes for earthing is a bad idea as water supply authorities can replace sections of metal pipe with plastic.

Judy Specht from California on February 22, 2013:

Then there is the electrical systems in old houses that can give you a thrill. Dad was an electrical engineer and husband was an electronics tech in the Navy. This is a well written hub. Nice work.