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Old 07-19-2005, 08:27 PM   #1
Peufelon
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I have a ups but have ungrounded outlets--- how bad is that?


Hi all,

This is my first post here. I have been a home computer user for only about ten months. My equipment is entirely new (i.e., not used) and budget to mid-range in terms of price & quality, mostly brand names I recognize, and I bought everything from what I believe to be reputable retailers. I am anxious to treat all my equipment well in hopes of preserving it as long as possible. But after several months, some "health concerns" have come to light:

1. Besides the usual computer/monitor/keyboard, I have a 56K modem, router, and laser printer. All except for the last run off the ups which is plugged into a wall socket and has a built in surge protector. I also bought some surge protectors but right now I'm not using them.

The electrical power grid where I live is none too reliable by civilized standards, and blackouts occur fairly frequently--- at least I know that the ups does provide power when the lights go out. Lightning strikes are also fairly common in my area. I live at low elevation, but from reading lightning safety websites I have visited, I can identify at least five specific risk factors which seem to suggest my building is at greater than average risk for a direct lightning strike.

With these risks in mind, I naturally got a ups when I got my computer. (In fact, the ups cost more than the computer did.) Unfortunately, after noticing a red warning light on one of the surge protectors and one on the UPS indicating "building wiring fault", I eventually discovered that even though the outlets in my apartment have a third prong (which I thought meant they were properly grounded when I was apartment hunting), NONE of them are actually grounded at all! Incredibly (to me), the third hole in all my outlets leads to dead air, and apparently this deceptive practice is perfectly legal! AND my landlord flatly refuses to properly ground even a single outlet!

My question: according to my ups manual and the surge protector manuals, their effectiveness is reduced or even nullified by improperly grounded outlets. I assume this means that in the event of a DIRECT lightning strike I would indeed be in serious trouble (I guess I can live with that risk for at least a few years), but I hope that in the event of a power surge or brownout I would have at least SOME protection. Is that true? Or are my ups and surge protectors completely useless unless I move?

2. Looking ahead, after a manner of speaking, to the next time the power goes out or my area is experiencing a severe lightning storm (which usually causes noticeable brownouts): what is the recommended procedure for careful users? I know the -first- thing is to type (as root) "shutdown -h now", which methodically powers off the computer itself, and I know the -last- thing is to hit the main ups power button, but what are the intermediate steps? I.e. should I toggle the modem and monitor power buttons before turning off the ups itself? What about the computer case?

Should I unplug the ups itself from the wall socket or is that overkill? Is it enough to turn off the laser printer or should I unplug it from the wall socket?

What is the right order for turning everything back on after the power comes back and I flip on the main ups power? My utterly incomprehensible ups manual may or may not instruct me to wait 8 hours for the battery to fully recharge before using any computer equipment again (it's so badly written that it is impossible to say). Does that apply only if the battery has been fully run down?

3. My laser printer is plugged directly into a power outlet. Someone told me plugging it into a surge protector would be a bad idea, because the power surge when the printer charges the toner would damage the surge protector and possibly the printer itself. I know there is a considerable surge because when I am using the printer (irregularly, but when I need it, I really need it), all the lights in my apartment flicker noticeably. Over the long term, is this brownout in itself a potential hazard to my computer equipment, or should modern equipment be able to handle this on a regular basis?

4. Saving the most embarrasing display of ignorance for last: I bought a cheap digital indoor/outdoor thermometer and try to use the probe to get some idea of temperatures just outside the cases of various items of equipment. At first I had the modem on top of the router on top of the computer case. After being on-line for ten hours I put the probe between the modem and router and almost fell over when the reading was something like 130 degrees F. Is that normal? Would it be a good idea to avoid stacking the modem on top of the router?

Any advice or information would be appreciated.
 
Old 07-19-2005, 09:26 PM   #2
Pcghost
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I use to live in a house wired like that. It is illegal in my state to put three prong outlets in a dwelling without grounding the outlet. I tried to get the landlord to fix it, but of course they didn't. Here was my fix.

Virtually all plumbing systems (which have metal piping) are grounded. Therefore I ran a wire from the third prong (do it safely with a three prong to two prong adapter) to the pipes under a sink. Checking it with a cheap outlet tester showed me it was working, the ground light lit. If you have a surge protector with this indicator that should do. Just make sure you don't do something crazy like sticking the wire into the socket. THIS CAN KILL YOU! </end of disclaimer>. Buy a cheap 3to2 prong adapter with the little metal ground tab that sticks down off the adapter.

Additionally, if the outages and brownouts usually last more than 10 minutes or you can predict them with some reliability, then by all means unplug everything before the storm arrives.

An electrical engineer at my work likes to say "If lightning can jump the several miles between the ground and the clouds, what makes people think it can't jump a two centimeter 50 cent switch". Words to live by.
 
Old 07-19-2005, 09:35 PM   #3
KimVette
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Quote:
Originally posted by Pcghost
I use to live in a house wired like that. It is illegal in my state to put three prong outlets in a dwelling without grounding the outlet. I tried to get the landlord to fix it, but of course they didn't.
In that case call the local building inspector; they will FORCE the landlord to bring the residence up to code. If a property is being rented out, the domiciles MUST meet national and local electrical codes.

Ungrounded outlets do not meet national electric code (let alone local, which are usually more strict) so the landlord will be required to make the necessary upgrades or quit renting the place out until the apartment is brought up to code. Violations can incur HEFTY fines for him.
 
Old 07-19-2005, 09:37 PM   #4
KimVette
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Quote:
Originally posted by Pcghost
Buy a cheap 3to2 prong adapter with the little metal ground tab that sticks down off the adapter.
Unless the electrical box itself is grounded, those adapters are worthless and simply breaking off the third prong (DON'T do it) is equally effective in such cases.
 
Old 07-19-2005, 11:09 PM   #5
Peufelon
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Hi, pcghost,

Er--- looks like we live in the same state (!), but when I asked a housing inspector about my situation about a year ago I was told that as far as she knows, this deceptive practice is NOT illegal! I just spent a half hour looking unsuccessfully on the web for anything relevant. Can you help me find the actual law in question? I am beginning to think that at least in Western Washington it is underutilized.
 
Old 07-20-2005, 05:35 PM   #6
KimVette
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Peufelon>
Call your local building inspector. They'll be able to tell you whether or not it needs to be brought up to code. I know for sure in RI and MA it does. in RI and MA electrical fixtures also need to be brought into code if the house changes hands (is sold). That is not to say that some inspectors don't overlook it (especially if you grease their palms) but they're supposed to require everything be up to current code. Ungrounded outlets do not get grandfathered in due to safety concerns.
 
Old 07-20-2005, 06:10 PM   #7
Pcghost
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You are in Washington? Check the building codes at the local law library in the RCW's. I was told by several attorneys (friends) that Washington State building codes expressly forbid using a non-grounded three-prong outlet.

I moved out too soon to worry about reporting them, otherwise I would have. They were really bad landlords as it was. We bought a home so I just wanted out, not to pick a fight with the owner.

Kim, you would be right, they would be useless, unless you connect an earth ground to the tab. Doing so has the same basic effect as grounding at the outlet does. It connects the ground wire of the device to earth-ground. Alone though, yes they are useless.
 
Old 07-20-2005, 08:37 PM   #8
floppywhopper
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from all the US radio books I've read, I would think that grounding electrical equipment to a water pipe is illegal and may expose you to liability if in the event of a power incident your equipment leaked current into the pipe and someone else was electrocuted.

floppy
 
Old 07-20-2005, 08:48 PM   #9
KimVette
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Well, the water pipe is not supposed to be the primary ground.

Here is how it's supposed to work (I'd draw and post a proper diagram if this board allowed):

"ground" plus two legs of "hot" current come into your circuit breaker box (The "two" hot legs are essentially the opposite sides of the alternating current sinewave, by the way. This isn't entirely accurate since residential legs aren't necessarily 180* apart - more usually 120*)

A grounding rod driven into the ground (literally) outside the building is wired into the circuit breaker box.

In the breaker box, the neutral line gets tied into "ground" at the electrical service (circuit breaker) box, so at any given outlet, if you place a voltmeter across neutral and ground, you should see 0v, or very nearly so, and if you test with an ohmmeter, you should see near 0ohns (plus any loss incurred due to resistance / foot of copper@whatevergaugewireyouhave).

"ground" gets tied into water service (preferably where the water enters the building).

The "neutral" prong(well, slot) of the A/C outlet is the "Fat" blade
The "hot" side of the A/C outlet is the "narrow" blade
The "ground" prong is the "ground" - which should be equivalent to neutral

I did a google search for some good detailed articles and here are several for you to check out:

How power gets from the generator at the power plant to your home:
http://articles.roshd.ir/articles_fo...ids%20Work.htm

Why are the blades on A/C outlets different widths?
http://electronics.howstuffworks.com/question110.htm
http://electronics.howstuffworks.com...2/hh28_jui.htm

How can the ground save your life (how do GFCI work?)
http://electronics.howstuffworks.com/question117.htm

How surge suppresors work:
http://computer.howstuffworks.com/surge-protector.htm


Misc
http://homerepair.about.com/od/wirin...ace_recept.htm
http://homerepair.about.com/od/elect.../no_ground.htm
http://homerepair.about.com/cs/elect...d_hot_wire.htm
http://acmehardware.com/HomeTips/Ele...al_system.aspx



Last edited by KimVette; 07-20-2005 at 09:19 PM.
 
Old 07-21-2005, 02:14 PM   #10
Peufelon
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Hi, floppywoppy,

So connecting a ground to a water pipe is illegal? I wonder if the guy at the hardware store who sold me a length of green cable and a clamp knew that?
 
Old 07-21-2005, 02:20 PM   #11
Peufelon
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Hi, KimVette,

The "How Stuff Works" (great site!) article helped me see that the UPS might condition the line (smooth spikes) but might not help very much with gradual damage from the surge when the refrigerator comes on. Did I say that there IS NO BASEMENT in this darned house? Apparently all the power lines come from the pole and run along the eves, and they dangle in a sloppy and hazardous way. Did I mention the undetermined variety of rodents which occasionally chew inside the eve right where the power line comes into my apartment?
 
Old 07-21-2005, 07:18 PM   #12
floppywhopper
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Peufelon
you might be right
I checked the "ARRL Handbook for Radio Amateurs" 1999
and on chapter 9.4 it says
quote
"Washington state specifically exempts telephone, telegraph, radio and television wires and equipment from conformance to electrical codes, rules and regulations"

now I must admit - that surprised me

however check the "National Electrical Code"
( its expensive but your library should have it )
as well as your local codes

floppy
 
Old 07-24-2005, 05:59 PM   #13
Peufelon
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Hi all,

I think I might finally have some accurate information. I spoke with someone who helps maintain the electric code for the city where I live, and learned the following:

* the National Electric Code (NEC) is SOLD by a private organization, the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), apparently for about $65 plus postage (I don't know if the NFPA is a non-profit, but I suspect not),
* somehow the NEC apparently has some legal force in most or all of the U.S. and maybe even Canada,
* many cities have their own codes which function as INSERTIONS into the NEC,
* in my city of residence, it is indeed illegal for tenant or landlord to put a u-ground outlet (3-pronged) into a 2-pronged "box" (hole in the wall) without attaching a properly grounded ground wire (properly grounded basically means the ground wire runs to a metal stake driven into the ground),
* there is an exception for Ground Fault Control Interrupt (GFCI) outlets, which are found in many modern baths or kitchens and have an LED light (no such thing in my apartment, so I can be 99% sure my apartment violates the code),
* it might be illegal for a TENANT to use computer equipment etc. requiring u-grounded outlets with an ungrounded outlet, even if the tenant doesn't know the outlets are ungrounded (this is apparently a gray area in the law),
* it is generally illegal for a tenant or landlord to try to ground a wall outlet by running a green cable to a clamp around a water pipe; in the event of a lightning strike, this could contribute to electrocuting anyone standing by their kitchen sink or taking a shower at the time of the strike-- neither of which you would want to be doing in any case should lightning strike your building--- although there might be some exceptions allowed under law.

However, it is rarely in the best interests of the tenant to report such a code violation! This seems to be a classic no-win situation, although if you, the tenant, happen to have a smart lawyer on retainer, direct negotiation with the landlord might result in some kind of settlement minimizing financial loss for both parties. Otherwise the tenant is at a severe disadvantage.

After speaking to someone in another city department and studying local tenant rights regulations, I learned:

* it takes an electrician about a day and costs the owner about $2500 to properly rewire an older house with a basement and thus fairly accessible wiring,
* in a basementless bungalow it would probably cost more like $10,000,
* in theory, the city can assess fines and even condemn properties; repeated THREATS to do this are not terribly uncommon in the case of the most notorious slumlords, but actual ASSESSMENT of fines is very rare, "grace periods" are extremely generous, and fines are hardly ever actually PAID even if they are assessed,
* it makes economic sense for landlords to pay their lawyer while they "run out the clock" (wait out the disgruntled tenant's lease, or wait for an opportunity to evict the troublesome tenant, all the while deferring any fines),
* this situation is tolerated because housing is a neccesity, but federal, state and local governments certainly don't have funds to pay for any repairs which landlords can convincingly claim would put them out of business,
* modern consumer electronics plus aging housing is a bad mix; this is a recognized problem, but there is neither will nor money to address it,
* bearing in mind the futility of trying to rectify this type of violation, inspectors may ignore even dangerous violations unless they are relatively inexpensive to fix (some landlords are notorious for seemingly making a point of not fixing ANY violations; most will make any repairs which they can easily afford),
* in practice, the BEST outcome I could expect in my case would be that the landlord would simply replace the three-pronged outlets (which masquerade as grounded but are not) with two-pronged outlets; in this case, of course, I'd still have no protection for my computer equipment, I'd have to buy those illegal adapters (not illegal to buy, just illegal to use)-- then I would be the only one breaking the law!,
* cheap surge protectors are completely USELESS without a properly grounded outlet, since any surge is fed into the ground wire (which in my apartment simply does not exist); expensive ones might still be able to "condition" the AC current,
* my UPS might function like a more expensive surge protector, and might even provide modest protection against small surges, but over time my equipment probably WILL be damaged much faster than I had counted on,
* for individuals who DO have properly grounded outlets, UPS is much more important than surge protector (most UPS have one built-in anyway), but one can hook up the $120 UPS to a $20 surge protector; in the event of a good surge, the surge protector would likely be rendered functionless (you need the more expensive types with LED indicator lights to know if its burned out), but the more expensive UPS will likely be OK,
* using computer, etc. with ungrounded outlets does pose a shock hazard; it is true that the case can become "live" and I might some day receive a shock, but the amperage is likely to be so low that I would survive, unless my feet are wet, etc., (accident statistics are hard to come by, but the occasionally flooded laundry room is probably much more of an electrocution hazard),
* home computer users in older homes lacking properly grounded outlets probably ARE drawing more current than the wiring is designed to handle, they DO risk overheating the wiring and degrading the insulation, and over the long term they DO risk an electrical fire,
* safety standards for rental housing vary widely by how many "units" there are; in my building, even smoke alarms are NOT required (although I put one in).

Overall, the best advice for tenants who can afford it is: vote with your feet and move out at the earliest possible opportunity. Disabled tenants can be in very serious trouble indeed if they report this kind of violation; strictly speaking, the regulations call for such tenants to be EVICTED on short notice! No, I don't want to even TRY to explain that one (I am now a very frightened mouse).
 
Old 07-24-2005, 06:52 PM   #14
kencaz
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Well, to be frank... Your landlord has no obligation to replace your existing 2wire with grounded 3wire outlets... That only applies to new construction. However, a 2prong outlet cannot be replaced with a 3prong unless is (GFCI) for safety reasons...

Also, even though grounding a single outlet to a water pipe, (if you KNOW that it is routed sufficiantly into the ground), may work. Again your landlord would have to be notified or you could be liable for any damage or harm caused...

I would say, since it's not your house, just install a GFCI outlet and unplug your computer completely during lightning storms...

KC
 
Old 07-25-2005, 10:51 PM   #15
Peufelon
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Hi, Kencaz,

What would be the point of installing a GFCI outlet for my UPS? I thought GFCI outlets are intended to prevent people from being electrocuted if they drop their toaster in the sink. They interrupt the current AFTER a surge has already occurred, correct? Rather than feeding the surge into a ground wire and safely dissipating it?

Bearing in mind that the bungalow sits on a concrete slab and wiring is inaccessible, is it even possible for me to install a GFCI outlet?
 
  


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