The electrical system is obviously one of the most vital parts of a home. Along with the heating system, the electrical system is also by far one of the most dangerous parts of a house since both systems have the potential to be major fire hazards. Modern electrical systems have various safety features like circuit breakers that help protect against the risk of electrical fires as well as electrocution. One of the most important of these features is grounding, and this article will explain all you need to know about what grounding is, how it works and why it’s essential.

What Is Electrical Grounding and How Does It Work?

Electricity always takes the path of least resistance as much as possible. It also always tries to find a path to the ground since the ground is positively charged. In an electrical system, grounding is a way to safely channel electricity into the ground or a grounded object. This is done to prevent damaging the electrical system itself as well as appliances and devices connected to the system in the event of an issue like a power surge, a short circuit or an arc fault. Grounding is also important for preventing shocks and electrocution.

Modern electrical wiring consists of three separate wires housed inside an insulated cover or a sheathing. The current travels through the circuit to all outlets and light fixtures through the live wire, and it then flows through the neutral wire back to the electrical panel. The third wire is the ground wire, which safely carries excess electrical current away from the outlet or light in the event of a power surge or other electrical issue.

A power surge occurs when the voltage flowing through an electrical system or an individual circuit suddenly increases. In an ungrounded outlet, the higher voltage would surge into anything connected to the outlet and seriously damage or completely fry it. If there are any metal components on whatever is plugged in, the current could also energize them and give you a shock or electrocute you if you touched the metal part. The ground wire in the outlet helps prevent these issues by providing the electricity with a low-resistance path back to the ground so that it gets redirected away from the outlet.

Not only are all of the circuits in an electrical system grounded, but the main electrical panel itself is as well. There is a copper ground wire that connects to the panel at one end and to a long copper grounding rod at the other end that is driven several feet into the ground outside the house. Whenever there is a voltage spike, the electricity flows back out of the panel through the ground wire and then into the grounding rod where it then safely disperses into the soil.

Why Grounding Is So Essential

Grounding is an essential safety mechanism that helps protect against short circuits and other electrical faults. Let’s say that you have an old wire that is frayed or was gnawed on by a mouse. This can lead to the live wire coming into contact with the neutral wire or the current arcing between the two, creating a short circuit that causes a major voltage spike. It could also cause the current to flow out into any nearby metal objects since anything metal is grounded. Both of these issues create a major risk of fire or electrocution.

One major issue is that if the voltage flowing through a wire increases above what the wire is designed to handle, it can quickly cause the wire to overheat. This can then lead to the insulation around the wire melting or the wire getting so hot it catches any nearby building materials on fire. Grounding helps prevent these issues since the current will always flow through the ground wire when a fault occurs instead of continuing to flow through the live and neutral wires.

The one thing that grounding generally can’t prevent is an issue known as a ground fault. This is when instead of the current flowing through the circuit, it leaks out into another object that provides it with an alternative path to the ground. When the current takes this alternative path, it again leads to its voltage spiking since it suddenly encounters far less resistance. The grounding wire helps in this situation by again redirecting the excess voltage away from the outlet. Nonetheless, it can’t stop the current from leaking out into the different path.

Ground faults typically happen for one of two reasons. One is that water gets into an outlet and provides the current with a direct path to any metal, grounded object such as an electrical box. The other common cause of ground faults is when an appliance or a circuit has a damaged wire and the bare live wire comes into contact with anything that is metal, such as the metal body of a toaster. Both issues create an extreme risk of electrocution since the current would flow through your body on its way to the ground if you were to touch the metal object. It could even jump across from the object into you if you even got too close.

These issues are why having GFCI (Ground Fault Circuit Interrupter) outlets in certain parts of the home is important. GFCI outlets are specifically designed to prevent ground faults and contain what is essentially an internal circuit breaker. If the power ever leaks out of the outlet into a different path, the breaker will trip within a split second so that the power immediately stops flowing to the outlet.

How to Know If Your Outlets and Electrical System Are Properly Grounded

Generally speaking, the electrical panel and outlets in any electrical system installed from 1965 onward have copper ground wires and a copper grounding rod. Some systems installed before this instead have other types of metal grounding that don’t work nearly effectively. If the electrical system was installed before 1940 and hasn’t been updated, there is a high chance that it isn’t grounded at all. In this case, you would definitely want to have your entire electrical system updated and rewired since an out-of-date, ungrounded system can be extremely dangerous.

One way that you can easily know if all of the outlets in your home are grounded is whether they are two-prong or three-prong. On a three-prong outlet, the upper two slots correspond to the live wire and neutral wire. The round hole underneath them is for the grounded part of the plug. Two-prong outlets don’t have a ground wire.

Homes with only a handful of two-prong outlets are almost always grounded even if those specific outlets are not. Nonetheless, we would still definitely recommend having an electrician rewire the circuits that the two-prong plugs are on with a grounded wire and then have the outlets replaced.

Unfortunately, even if your electrical system is grounded, there is always a chance that it isn’t grounded properly. This can happen if the grounding rod isn’t driven far enough into the ground or is in a poor location. One reason is that moisture and frost make soil more resistant to the flow of electricity, which can prevent the grounding system from working as it should. Another reason is simply that some types of soil have a much higher resistance than others.

The fact that there is a chance your electrical system may not be grounded properly is one of the many reasons why regular electrical safety inspections are important. During this inspection, an electrician will check to make sure that all of your circuits, outlets and the main electrical panel are properly grounded. They will also look for any other issues that could be a safety hazard and need to be repaired. In this way, you should hopefully be able to avoid serious issues like electrical fires, shocks and electrocution.

The expert team at Finch Home Solutions is ready to assist with all of your electrical inspection and installation needs in the Shakopee area. Our licensed electricians specialize in rewiring, electrical upgrades and all types of repairs as well, so contact us today to schedule any electrical service.

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