By Michael W. Dean
Genesis Communications Network
Co-Host, The Freedom Feens
Live fast, die old of natural causes
Improperly grounded outlets can add noise to electrical equipment, which is not good when doing radio. And improperly grounded outlets can KILL you…which is absolutely not good when doing radio. It doesn’t make for a long career. It can also injure employees, which can kill a company.
Faulty grounding is more common than you’d think. In many states, a home or office can be sold without requiring ground testing. And many homeowners and business people don’t think to test. They should, even where it’s not required by law. Compared to the other tests one would do when buying a property (foundations, termites, ground water, radon, etc.) testing for improper grounding of outlets is the cheapest, easiest test you can perform. You can do it yourself. And if you find any problems, hire a qualified electrician to fix things.
If you rent, you can do the tests yourself, then have your landlord hire an electrician. Most landlords are fairly quick to fix a problem that could kill a tenant or guest, when you put it in those terms.
Improper grounding was allegedly at fault when singer Eric “Rad” Yuncker died on stage at a punk rock club in San Francisco in 1985. Eric was performing in front of a hundred people with his band, Housecoat Project, when he was electrocuted on stage, singing into a mic while playing guitar. Incorrect wiring in the building was blamed. Eric was thrown back into the drum kit by the shock and died. His heart stopped.
I know a few people who were there, including a guy who was in Eric’s band. People thought it was part of the show and applauded. That’s a great rock n’ roll death, but I’d rather stick around and get to be a wise and cranky old man on radio. So I carry a ground tester with me and check the grounding anywhere new I’m doing anything with electricity.
If I were in a band now, I’d have in my contract that I would not play an incorrectly grounded venue. I’d bring a tester with me, and refuse to play a stage that could kill me.
When I first hooked up my remote studio gear at my new home, I was getting a lot of audio hum. Even after adding a power conditioner, I was still getting hum. It turned out to be the grounding in my home. Once I had it fixed, the hum disappeared.
The problem with most of the outlets in my home is that they had hot and neutral reversed. This can be somewhat dangerous. For instance, if you have a short in a metal vacuum cleaner while you’re using it, it can kill you. More dangerous even still is the common error of hot and ground reversed. That can kill you just using a mic, if you touch anything else that’s made of metal while using the mic.
To test for proper electrical grounding in your home, you’ll need a ground tester. They’re not expensive, usually between five and 10 dollars at a hardware store or big-box department store. Make sure you get one that is UL listed or ETL listed. It will have the UL or ETL logo on it somewhere if it is.
When my very qualified and highly recommended electrician came over later, I was surprised to see that he was using the same ground tester I’d purchased for five dollars.
Ground tester – top
Plug the ground tester into every outlet in your house, office and studio. Remove anything plugged into the outlet first. Test both plugs in each outlet. If the ground is fine, you’ll get the two yellow lights on the right (of three lights) lighting up. This is when the unit is correct-side up, with the black switch on the top, as in the image above, which will be how you insert it in most outlets where the ground is at the bottom. Some have the ground on the top, and you’ll have to read the ground tester backwards, as below, where correct grounding will show the two left lights lighting up.
Ground tester – bottom
Any other combination of lights and you’ve got problems and need to hire a pro to come fix it. DO NOT try to fix ground problems yourself, unless you’re qualified. You can IDENTIFY problems yourself with a ground tester, but let a pro do the fixing. Remember, the goal here is not to die.
There’s a little chart on the ground tester that shows you how to interpret the lights. The chart is on both the top and bottom of the unit, and adjusted on the top and bottom for the direction you’ll be viewing it from, depending if you have a bottom-ground outlet or a top-ground outlet.
The switch on the unit is for testing Ground Fault Circuit Interrupter outlets. Not all outlets have this. It’s like an extra circuit breaker at the actual outlet. Outlets that have GFCIs look like this
Ground Fault Circuit Interrupter outlet
You test those by inserting your ground tester, and pressing the black button on the ground tester. If they are wired properly, the right two lights should light until you press the button on the tester. It will simulate a ground fault, and trip the breaker on the outlet, then other lights will light up on the ground tester. You can remove the ground tester from the outlet and press the red button on the outlet (or black button on the outlet if there’s only one button), to reset it.
A good electrician is not terribly expensive. Our guy charged $140 to fix all of the improperly grounded outlets in the house. Prices will vary and may be more outside of Wyoming. Everything costs less here, which is part of why I live here.
Sometimes some of the outlets in a home or office will be properly grounded, and others in the same building will not be. Check them all, even the ones behind couches that you don’t usually use. I tested them all and put a piece of tape on the ones that needed work. Some of mine were good, some were grounded wrong. Don’t assume if you test one and it’s good, that they’re all good. Test them all.
The tape I put on the bad outlets made it easy to show the electrician which ones needed work. I also followed him around the house re-testing the ones he’d fixed. A good workman confident in his work should have no problem with this.
All’s well that grounds well
All in all, getting a ground tester and testing the grounding in your home, studio or office, and hiring an electrician to fix any problems, may be the best low-dollar investment you’ll ever make. At least, it will improve your audio. At most, it will save your business or even your life.
Michael W. Dean is co-host of The Freedom Feens which is syndicated by Genesis Communications Network, and can be heard every Saturday and Sunday from 12:00 noon to 2:00 pm CT. Michael Dean also runs the free audio tip website Creamy Radio Audio. He can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org