When performing a home inspection, I note issues related to incorrect outlets. Whats important to know here is that some of the issues noted where acceptable when the home was built. As standards change over the years previous situations become “unsafe” or “unacceptable”. This goes for many things, but I’ll stick to outlets in this post. Now the issue becomes, who should upgrade the outlets? Should the home owner who lived there for years, the issue was acceptable when the home was built and is grandfathered, or should the buyer update the outlets once moved in? I personally feel the later. Let me point out, this is for non-compliant existing outlets, not faulty ones. Also, if any remodeling has been done, or updating to any outlets then they should be brought up to today’s standards by the current home owner. See how this gets confusing very easily. The reason for this post is to educate buyers and sellers about the issues with outlets.
I will try and keep it simple and just want to talk about the types, locations and do not want get technical as to how they operate. Keep in mind there may be acceptations to the rules and an electrician should always be consulted if anything is in question. Lets begin:
2 Pronged outlets (ungrounded outlets)
- You will find these in older homes pre-1970s. Acceptable outlets to find in a home. They do not have a ground, just a hot and neutral wire (2 slots). This is called an ungrounded outlet (different from open ground). The issue here is when we find them in area’s where GFCI’s should now be located (I’ll get to that). I will call them out letting my clients know of the safety concern and that they should be updated to meet today’s standards. Again, the seller’s home is most likely grandfathered and they are not required to upgrade them unless there was some sort of upgrade already.
Open grounded outlets
- To continue with 2 prong outlets, open ground outlets are general found when someone upgrades 2 prong outlets to 3 prong outlets (the normal ones we see today). The issue here is that there are only 2 wires leading to the outlet, so when the person puts the 3 prong outlet in there is not a ground wire. This is called an open ground and is a hazard. Due to the fact you can now plug a 3 prong cord into this outlet, but you are not grounded. In these cases, this is considered a defect and should be rectified immediately. Again, this is an issue because someone changed an acceptable 2 prong outlets to 3 prong outlets and wired them incorrectly (faulty outlets). Consult an electrician and there are acceptable ways usually using GFCI outlets to correct this issue. In most cases the sellers should repair this issue.
- Ground Fault Circuit Interrupter. This type of outlet can detect moisture and will trip in one-tenth of a second. As years past, GFCI’s have been implemented in certain locations in your home (I’ll post a timeline at the end). So, basically this day and age, GFCI outlets are need in the Kitchen, Bathrooms, Exterior, Garage, Unfinished Basements, and anyplace near water, such as pool pumps, whirlpools, saunas, pond pumps etc. You get the idea. The argument becomes, when the GFCI is missing in a location where today there should be one. Again, standards change and what is important here is that we as inspectors point it out. Someone at some point should update the safety concern, even though is was acceptable years ago. This is why standards change in the first place, go try and protect you. In short, if it is grandfathered, they buyer should upgrade the outlets once moved in, if there was an upgrade and the outlet was not changed, then the seller should repair the issue. (I know, confusing-the main point here is that it should be upgraded at some point and it generally not a big expense). On a side note, I do not recommend having refrigerators or freezers plugged into GFCI circuits.
- Arc Fault Circuit Interrupter. This circuit protects against any type of ARC in the circuit, that could cause a fire and will trip the breaker. This type of protection has become a standard within the last few years (about 8 years ago at the time of this post). This is generally a breaker in the main electrical panel that protects more or less living space outlets, such as bedrooms, dining and living room (non GFCI outlets basically). Most inspectors do not point this out in older homes. nor require a home to be upgraded do to a safety concern about this type of outlet. It would be a good idea to upgrade the breakers feeding your living spaces, if any electrical or remodeling upgrade occur. However, most people don’t and at this point are only installed in new construction.
Tamper Proof outlets
- Since 2014, standards are requiring new homes to have tamper-proof outlets. These particular outlets basically have a window over the slots that slides when something is plugged in. The theory here is that children shouldn’t be able to stick fingers and items into the outlet. Again, there is no need to run out and change all your outlets, but again, if any remodeling or upgrading is done, then it is suggested to install the proper outlet for the situation.
To summarize, if you intend to finish a basement or do any remodeling, it is suggested and often required, to upgrade the electrical. With that said, there is no harm in updating your outlets even with no major renovations. The building standards are guide lines to protect us and do change over the years. So, when I do a home inspection for my clients, I point out the changes and the concerns there now may be and suggest it become updated for their safety.
Below is a timeline of when GFCI and AFCI outlets became standard:
- Underwater pool lighting (since 1968)
- Exterior (since 1973)
- Bathrooms (since 1975)
- Garages (since 1978)
- Kitchens (since 1987)
- Crawl spaces and unfinished basements (since 1990)
- Wet bar sinks (since 1993)
- Laundry and utility sinks (since 2005)
- Arc Fault (2008)
- Tamper proof outlets (2014)