What would you do with this electric situation?

6 Replies

Hi everyone, So you might know me from my antics in California and Ohio where I own two long term buy and hold rentals. I live in the houses, I fix up what problems I see and generally try to make them tenant resistant. My father is an electrician with a municipality in Pennsylvania and so he has taught me a lot about that trade as well as picking up plumbing as a home owner and a landlord, so I have some decent background and knowledge. I am active duty military and as such move around a lot, and where it makes sense I buy my properties.

So I have most recently moved to Albuquerque, New Mexico, and due to the flux that is going on in the military I decided it wouldn't make sense to buy another house here but rather rent. I met a great landlord, my wife fell in love with the house, we put a deposit down sight unseen with just a video walk through and moved in a few weeks ago.

Things were looking up but when I plugged my computer equipment into the office they triggered that the outlet while 3 prong wasn't grounded. I looked and sure enough someone had put a 3 prong receptacle where there was 2 wire in the box, no ground. As my house in Ohio is old I knew how to deal with this there are three legal solutions, change the outlets back to 2 prong, replace them with GFCI outlets and then mark them as "no equipment ground", or rewire the entire thing (or if you can just run a ground wire). I called the landlord up and told her what I found and what I recommended, as well as how the current setup isn't legal but is safe.

Fast forward to today. My landlord hired a licensed electrician to come out and look at the possibility of fixing the problem. The electrician tells her its a common problem in older houses (this one was built in the 1940s) and the way to get around it is put a copper wire between the ground terminal and the neutral terminal in the outlet. My Alarm Bells were going off in my head because I knew that wasn't one of the legal fixes but I let him explain the situation to her. He recommended doing that on all the outlets and then at my insistence he would install GFCI outlets where my wife's computer would be so she would be protected.

While he was working I called my father, who upon hearing the situation, questioned what New Mexico's laws were as "That would never pass inspection today in PA". I got more worried and found a blog post of a very similar situation where people were VERY against this practice and that it was more dangerous than even the previous wiring methods. I then spoke to the chief electrical inspector for the city without giving him the location or landlords name and asked what I should do. He reassured me the only 3 ways of properly dealing with the situation, and asked if I wanted him to send an inspector out to chase off the electrician.

This electrician has been working with my landlord for 7+ years. They have a history and she trusts his judgement. I asked if he would tell my landlord what he told me and he gave me his direct line and said he would happily do it as its a matter of safety.

I ran back to the house just in time to catch my landlord (a practicing attorney) returning and told her all the information I learned. I explained how what he was doing was more dangerous than actually leaving it or changing it back to 2 prong. I explained how it was illegal. I asked her to talk to the chief inspector.

She said she trusted the electricians judgement and that she can't imagine how the situation is more dangerous now than it was before. I wasn't able to give a good enough reason so we left it at "You are the landlord, I am the tenant, I informed you what I knew but you are in your right to take the electrician's expert opinion over mine." I didn't want to burn this new bridge as she has otherwise been very good, and I didn't want to get the electrician in trouble as their relationship is stronger that mine and I could see my lease being terminated at a year because "it didn't fit". I told her I was protecting my family and my equipment by using the safeties available to me and that everything else is on her as she knows how I stand. The way the electrician explained it to her it would be similar odds to winning a lottery in this system failing, and that is what she said right back to me.

So if it were you, what would you do? She already went out of her way to hire an electrician to look at the problem, what would you do if you knew that electrician wasn't following code, law, or safety standards? She told me I shouldn't try to rewire the stuff myself as I'm not a licensed or insured electrician so what would you do now beyond protecting yourself and your family?

Long post but I needed someone in the world to dummy check me and I figure other landlords and tenants are a great first step. Thanks in advance!

Jason Minnich

I would have renters insurance and not sweat it. You have a trail and trails do very well in court. You cannot micro manage this property. If you feel is unsafe move. Tell the landlord you want to move and get your deposit back. I doubt she would do this but if you fell you cannot live there?

Your at the moment of truth...renters insaurance or move...its your choice.

Connecting the ground to the neutral in the outlet isn't correct. It works, and will pass a quick check with an idiot cube, but it doesn't comply with the intent of having a separate path back to ground in the main service panel. Heck, for that matter you can't even connect the neutral and ground in a sub panel. Then need a separate path all the way back to the main panel.

OTOH there's no easy fix to convert two wire outlets in an old house to three wire outlets. Nor is there a requirement that all houses have to be rewired as codes change. The proper course of action, IMHO, is to replace the grounded outlets with ungrounded outlets or replace them with GFCIs if you really want grounded outlets. If I were your landlord I'd switch them all to ungrounded outlets and call it a day. If I were remodelling I would rewire them and bring them up to current code. That likely involves more than just the ground, since arc faults are now a requirement in bedrooms. I just did this (with permits and inspections) in a chunk of my house as part of a bathroom remodel.

When they jump the grounded (neutral) and grounding conductors its called a "false ground". You are correct that it is not allowed.

In some older homes there is sometimes metal conduit can actually act as a grounding conductor the entire system. Small chance it was done that way but it would be great if it was.

Electrical code requirements are the way they are for a good reason. The code has evolved over the years and we learn more. It is a safety issue. Maybe she hired an "electrician" but not a good one.

Not a fun situation, particularly with the landlord being a lawyer.

Put any equipment you wish to protect on a surge protector and be prepared to move at the end of the lease.

Go to Lowes, buy a ground rod, drive it in, buy some ground wire and fish it to your box and install a GFI box and keep your fingers crossed, at least that outlet would be grounded, but you can't ground the old panel as they do new ones.

I would not ground electrical to a water pipe, especially in an electrical storm while sitting in the bath tub.

Another option might be to ask the electrician why he suggested a false ground that isn't to code and if he'd really want to bet his license on that fix. Might be he gives discounts on electrical work for discounts of legal defense when he gets sued for shoddy work.

Renting from an attorney is not really the issue and they would know that, if they are a RE attorney. Point is you don't want to cause problems for her. If it's a real issue and safety hazard there is no way to dance around that bush, get ready to move or ask that it be fixed with a proper ground.

I'm not an electrician, but that's what I'd do. :)

Thanks for the inputs thus far! As I mentioned I was going to protect my equipment and my family, and to that end I purchased some gfci outlets for anything that might be potentially hazardous and isolation transformers for the equipment so as to separate them from the rest of the ungrounded house.

I'm also investigating possibly using other means to create an isolated, protected circuit, but thus far that is proving fruitless.

If nothing else I hope this serves as a warning to others that just because someone is licensed and insured, they might not always do the right or safe thing.

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