Electrical Safety Hazards: Reverse Polarity and Open Grounds

radonTwo safety hazards that we report on often are reverse polarity and open grounds in electrical circuits.  Electrical safety hazards are considered major concerns as electrocution or fires can result from failed electrical systems.  If we, or any other inspector, have informed you of these electrical defects then you should call an electrician and get these problems fixed.  The following information will explain what reverse polarity and an open ground are and why they are so dangerous.

What is reverse polarity?

In an outlet, reverse polarity commonly means that the hot and neutral wires were hooked up backwards.  Usually an item or appliance plugged into an outlet with reverse polarity will still work, but the power is allowed to run through the appliance backwards.  This is a problem because electrical items with switches are designed for the power to run to the switch first, cutting power from the rest of the appliance if the switch is off.  When reverse polarity is present the switch on an appliance will still break the circuit (the appliance will appear to work properly), but the appliance will always be electrically charged.  If a defect occurs and there is power in the appliances, there are increased opportunities for accidents or fires.

We always recommend consulting with an electrician when reverse polarity is present.  Fixing this issue usually means that the specific outlet just needs to be hooked up properly.

What is an open ground?

The ground in an electrical circuit is a safe way for electricity to return to the panel if the hot/neutral circuit is compromised.  If a failure occurs within the circuit then the ground carries the current back to the panel and causes the fuse or breaker to blow, disconnecting the circuit.  An open ground means that the additional path does not exist.  It could mean that there is no wire running to that outlet, or that the wire is broken or disconnected somewhere in the circuit. Open grounds are especially dangerous if grounded (3-prong) outlets are installed.  If an open ground is present and a failure in the circuit occurs then the current has nowhere to go and could potentially use your body to ground out and complete the circuit, resulting in electrocution.

We always recommend consulting with an electrician when open grounds are present.  Ground Fault Circuit Interrupter (GFCI) outlets or GFCI breakers can be installed for ungrounded systems.  GFCI monitor the flow of current between the hot and neutral.  If the flow from the hot is not the same as the flow of current in the neutral side of the circuit then the system will trip, cutting power in that circuit.  GFCI protected circuits are not foolproof, but they are much safer then un-grounded circuits with grounded outlets.

In conclusion, reverse polarity and open grounds can be dangerous and are considered safety hazards when inspecting the home.  We recommend that these problems be fixed immediately as they can result in a fire or electrocution is an electrical system fails.

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