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Electrical safety: two-prong adapters

You've just moved into an older house or apartment and now it's too late to question the two-prong outlets in every room. While two-prong outlets are becoming less and less common everyday as codes mandate grounded outlets for safety, they can still be found in many places. Not only are the outlets not grounded, these outlets are often in fewer number in the home, requiring the outlet to take heavier electrical demands than an updated electrical system. The problem being that major appliances require three-prongs but also the majority of electronics, such as laptops, also require three-prong outlets.

Using electronics and electric appliances as the manufacturer suggests is important. According to the U.S. Fire Administration electrical fires are still the leading cause of home fires. In the majority of electrical fires the fire will spread beyond the object where the fire started; don't risk your entire home because of one faulty appliance or outlet. Fire departments respond each year to an estimated 25,000 home electrical fires. It is estimated that those fires cause 280 deaths, 1,125 injuries and $1.1 billion in property loss.

A seemingly simple fix to the two-prong/three-prong problem is to purchase a cheater-plug or a three-prong/two-prong adapter. This is a cheap and quick fix, but the problem is that very rarely are they used correctly. Older versions are equipped with a wire that is to be connected to a ground (though older versions were discontinued after it was found a disconnected ground wire could be accidentally inserted of a nearby socket). New adapters have a grounding tab that is designed to be connected to a ground cover screw.

An unsafe alternative is removing the ground pin of your plug, turning your plug into a two-prong. Removing the grounding pin from your plug leaves the appliance without a proper ground. If you eventually have access to a three-prong outlet you may insert the plug incorrectly since most plugs rely on the grounding pin in order for proper orientation. Inserting the plug incorrectly into the outlet can cause an additional hazard by reversing the "hot" and "neutral" wires.

Additionally, some homeowners may replace the two-prong receptacle with a three-prong type. While this is a proper repair, the problem is that many leave the ground screw unconnected to a ground. While the three-prong plug may appear safe, only the installer will know that the outlet is not grounded.

Rather than rewire the entire house the safest alternative is to replace the receptacle with a ground fault circuit interrupter (GFCI). If a GFCI is working it will interrupt the dangerous current to limit the potentially lethal electric shock from an appliance.

It is important to never overload any outlet type. Always contact an electrician if you have blown a fuse or trip a circuit breaker as this can be the sign of a more serious electrical problem and potential danger.

Alexander Zielinski is a volunteer firefighter in Evansville, Indiana and a full-time firefighter in Providence, Kentucky. You can follow him on Twitter @FireSafetyAZ If you enjoyed this article leave a comment or click subscribe above to receive notification of future stories. Read a previous Fire Safety article: Missing California firefighter found less than a mile from campsite