Bootleg ground in old house


Hopefully I am posting in the right place. I wanted to ask a few questions from knowledgeable people.

I am renting an old house with old wiring. When upgrading some outlets in an unfinished basement to 3 pronged grounded outlets, I discovered that someone was confused about polarity and thought it was acceptable to connect the ground directly to neutral on the outlet. i.e. bootleg ground

After seeing this, I checked the outlets in the kitchen and sure enough they all had bootleg grounds. So far I have:

  • removed the bootleg grounds
  • left 3 pronged outlets that were GFCI protected and labeled them no equipment ground
    — one of the 3 pronged outlets that was already GCI protected is connected to the fridge
  • replaced the other outlets with 2 pronged outlets with correct polarization

The landlord told me that a certified contractor told him (after asking about the bootleg ground issue) that a surge protector would offer protection in tandem with a bootleg ground.

I think there may be some mis-communication. To me, that’s like someone saying it’s ok to point a gun at someone as long as it’s unloaded- no harm no foul.

Aside from being scared that grounds may be connected to neutral where I can’t see them, and heavily painted outlets (hard to get to) may have reversed polarity, I wanted to double-check that I’m doing the right thing by removing any bootleg grounds I am aware of.

Thank you, Rob

Removing the “bootleg” grounds was the right thing to do. The neutral is normally a current carrying conductor and the ground is not. Connecting the neural and ground at an electrical receptacle does not create an actual ground it creates a situation where current can travel through the ground into a device or appliance and electrocute someone.

Neutrals and grounds must not connect anywhere past the first service panel. Your landlord and that contractor have no idea what they’re talking about.

Thank you for the assurance. I was told that the ground connected to neutral would provide a path back to the breaker but was a safety hazard due to what you mention.

I was hoping someone knew of a test for a bootleg ground that I could manage myself. I understand noone wants me hurt, and curiosity and electricity don’t match. Thinking about it just now after reading your post, would it be possible and safe to:

  • modify a 3 pronged stranded cable extension cord so that it did not have a neutral prong
  • switch the ground to the neutral
  • hook it up to a lamp
  • check to see if the lamp turns on

In theory, a properly grounded outlet would not work. However, if the ground was connected to the neutral, it should complete the circuit.

Since this is just a brainstorm, 2 concerns come to mind:

  1. I’ve already seen outlets wired with reverse polarity and so I would need to check for that for the test to be valid (the 3 pronged outlets are easy to get to/ no painted over)

  2. Does hooking a lamp up with only the hot and ground pose a risk or would the circuit breaker trip in this case?

If this test sounds valid, it would give reason to have an electrician fix the issue (assuming that there are bootleg grounds where I can’t see if the the ground wire has been pigtailed with the neutral). Thank you.

I am not 100% sure about your method of testing but I do know that I carry a tester that will point out a bootleg ground. I you are unsure of your methods I beleive the right thing to do would be to call in an electrician to repair these issues. To me the situation is unsafe and a professional should be doing the work. Jury rigging a lamp seems to be taking it a little far.

Although, in theory, your “test” may work, it is a BAD idea and dangerous to modify cables and configure it to a lamp to test an outlet. There is risk of electrocution and damaging equipment.
If you can reach an outlet to plug something in, you can take the cover off to look inside to see if there is unsafe wiring.

Thank you again Stephen. Your response is likely the best I’m going to get.

I do know that a good tester will be able to see differences of voltage. Since I don’t have one, I was brainstorming of what I could do myself with a standard computer power cord.

The only outlets I would need to test would be accessible. It’s the old 2 prong outlets that are locked shut by several layers of paint. Old houses are a pain.

As far as modifying the cable. I’ll take your advice and hold off until I can build a wiring diagram in the shed and test it with some AA batteries.

Thank you

In addition to calling a true electrician that you can trust, I’d also call the local AHJ, code enforcer, building & zoning, etc. Whomever is in charge in your area.

If you have GFCI protection via a GFCI breaker or if the first electrical receptacle in a series is a GFCI receptacle, you can leagally have a three prong electrical receptacle with an open ground. Installing two prong receptacles is archaic and encourages people to use an adapter converting the receptacle to a three prong plug, essentially with no ground. A GFCI operates by detectign ground faults on the nuetral line. Never connect the nuetral to the ground on a receptacle.

If two prong outlets were archaic, there would not be so many products with only two prongs.

Bring in a real electrician to evaluate the situation and provide an estimate to correct deficiencies. Present the estimate to your Landlord along with a request to fix it. Then go from there.

According to Wikipedia: “Before 1996, in the United States it was common to ground the frames of 120/240-volt appliances (such as a clothes dryer or oven) to neutral (grounded conductors. This has been prohibited in new installations since the 1996 National Electrical Code® upon local adoption by legislation or regulation. Existing installations are permitted to continue in accordance with NEC® 250.140 Exception.”

If this is the case, how dangerous could a bootleg grounded outlet be?

I understand the the neutral carries current; but so is a ground wire – i.e., it carries any current it recieves to the “ground.”

I don’t know enough to disagree with anyone about how dangerous the bootleg is, I’d just like to understand why, if so dangerous, it was allowed up until 20 years ago.


Jump up ^

What you have, is an older ungrounded system.
There are two acceptable ways to correct this.

  1. Rewire the entire home to the existing building code.
  2. Place GFI receptacles at the head of each circuit and mark the downstream receptacles as ungrounded.

That’s it.

The certified contractor…isn’t an electrician.

Now I finally know what this is the ground connected with the netral I have always cut it if I find that common sense it was unsafe and could cause a serious hazerd to a person or even a fire I have found bootleg grounds like up north in mostly ceiling fans and recepticals and switches I have seen a receptical melt because of this I may subscibe to this site

First, understand that change takes place when ignorance becomes knowledge and thus the change in 1996 is a prime example of that fact. As for the statement "but, so is the ground wire – i.e., it carries any current it receives to the “ground”. False …the EGC that is within the cable assembly serves as a return path for fault current in order to facilitate the operation of an overcurrent device. Current is never trying to get to ground, it is trying to get to the source of it’s creation…remember that as it will serve you well.

Why so dangerous?..well considering in most cases the grounded (neutral) is carrying return current, placing it in contact with the EGC places current on all metal parts that are bonded to the EGC and provides multiple paths for normal current to travel thus energizing parts. When the EGC has current on it the time scope is short and reactive to the OCPD and during a fault condition and not a normal condition.

Thats the difference.