Learn How Circuits Are Grounded and Polarized

The best way to avoid electrical shock is by understanding how your home's electricity works. Learn more with our expert advice on grounding and polarizing circuits.

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If an electrical system works correctly, power travels safely through insulated wires to fixtures and appliances. However if a receptacle is damaged or a wire comes loose, power may flow to unwanted places such as a metal electrical box or the metal housing of an appliance. Because the human body is a fairly good conductor of electricity, a person touching these objects receives a painful shock. Grounding and polarization reduce this danger.

You can quickly find out whether a receptacle is grounded and polarized by using a receptacle analyzer. But, the easiest way to prevent electric shock is simply to understand how circuits are grounded and polarized. Below, we give you an overview of both. You'll feel safer knowing a little bit more about the electrical workings of your home. 

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Grounding

Electricity always travels the path of least resistance, either in a circuit back to its place of origin or toward the earth. A grounded electrical system provides an alternate path for the power to follow in case something goes wrong.

Many homes built before World War II have 120-volt circuits with only two wires, 240-volt circuits with only three wires, and no metal sheathing or conduit to act as a ground. These homes are not grounded, and receptacles in them should have only two slot-shaped holes.

Most modern homes are grounded. They have a third (or fourth) wire, usually bare copper or green insulated, called a ground wire; or their wires may run through metal conduit or flexible metal sheathing that can be used as a path for ground. A ground wire or metal sheathing carries misguided electricity harmlessly to the earth. Receptacles in these homes should have a third, rounded hole, which connects to the ground wire or sheathing.

Polarization

Most receptacles—grounded or ungrounded—have one slot that is longer than the other, so that a plug that has one prong wider than the other can be inserted only one way. These receptacles and plugs are polarized. If a polarized receptacle is wired correctly, the narrow slot connects to the hot wire (delivering power to the receptacle) and the wide slot connects to the neutral wire (carrying power back to the service panel). When you plug a light or appliance into the receptacle, its switch controls the hot wire.

If the receptacle or plug is not polarized or if a receptacle is wired incorrectly, the switch controls the neutral wire. This means that power is still present in the wires inside the light or appliance when you turn it off, posing a safety hazard.

120-Volt Light Circuit

Any circuit that includes lights should be protected by a 15-amp breaker or fuse. (A light fixture's wires are thin and may burn up before they trip a 20-amp breaker.)

120-Volt Receptacle Circuit

A receptacle circuit may be 15- or 20-amp. Black (hot) wires carry power to the receptacles, and white (neutral) wires lead back to the service panel.

240-Volt Circuit

A 120/240-volt circuit supplies electricity to a heavy user of power such as an electric range or dryer. Two hot wires bring power, and one neutral wire leads back to the service panel. Current codes call for a fourth ground wire.

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