Dear Mr. Electrician:  Tell me how to ground an outlet.

Answer:  Learning how to ground an outlet depends a lot on your wiring methods.  For instance, plastic outlet boxes have different grounding requirements than metal outlet boxes.  NOTE: Some text links below go to applicable products on Amazon.  As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

Anything made of metal in your home that has electricity flowing through it must be grounded.

HOW TO GROUND AN OUTLET WITH NON-METALLIC CABLE

The uninsulated equipment grounding conductor inside of Type NM-B Non-Metallic Cable (Romex) must be connected to the grounding terminal bar at the power source such as the main electrical panel.

The other end of the equipment grounding conductor must be connected to all metal boxes, switches, outlets, appliances, or equipment in order to be effective at creating safer operating conditions while using electricity.

Crimped outlet ground wire pigtail
Crimped outlet ground wire pigtail

Only one wire can go under the green grounding screw terminal on an outlet or switch.  All other equipment grounding conductors must be spliced together with a grounding pigtail wire using an approved wire connector of some sort.

Crimp sleeves are used by many electricians when working on new installations to connect all of the equipment grounding conductors together along with a pigtail.  When installed properly the crimps are a very good ground connection.  Wires must be twisted tightly together before crimping.

The downside to crimped ground wires is that they are difficult to take apart if needed.  I use my Klein Linesman Pliers with the built-in crimping notch to make good solid crimps and I don’t need to carry an extra tool.

A package of 50 copper crimp sleeves for connecting ground wires together
A package of 50 copper crimp sleeves for connecting ground wires together

There is no code requirement to attach a ground wire to a non-metallic electrical box.  Only metal boxes need to be grounded.  However the grounding wires in a plastic outlet or switch box should not be cut back so that they are difficult to work with.

You must allow enough slack so that all wires in an electrical box can extend at least three inches out the front (Article 300.14).

A metal electrical box must have a separate grounding pigtail connected to it which is then connected to all of the ground wires in that box.  Looping the feed wire ground around the ground screw and using the end for a pigtail connection has been disallowed beginning with the 2020 National Electrical Code (NFPA 70) article 250.148(C).

Ground wires twisted tightly together before the green wire connector is screwed on
Ground wires twisted tightly together before the green wire connector is screwed on

The green twist-on wire connectors are for grounding conductors only due to the pigtail hole in the top.  They are very convenient for splicing wires with a pigtail.

One grounding conductor is left much longer than the others.  The shorter wire ends are twisted around the longer wire using pliers, about six inches from the long end.  Then the green wire connector is twisted over the wires.

Pigtail wire at each end of the green wire connector for two wiring devices in this metal outlet box
Pigtail wire at each end of the green wire connector for two wiring devices in this metal outlet box
Some samples of green grounding wire connectors
Some samples of green grounding wire connectors

Green twist-on wire connectors are made by several different manufacturers.

All of the grounding wires in a square electrical box joined with a standard wire connector
All of the grounding wires in a square electrical box joined with a standard wire connector

Ground wires can be joined using standard wire connectors.  No need to buy special connectors to connect copper ground wires and pigtails unless green connectors with the hole for a pigtail works better for your installation.

If you have a lot of ground wires that need splicing together, allow 2″ – 3″ for the twisting together.  As the twisted group gets bigger each additional wire will use up more slack going around.  Use big wire connectors if necessary.

A big bunch of copper wires twisted together ready for a big blue wire connector
A big bunch of copper wires twisted together ready for a big blue wire connector

With so many wires to join it is important to use the proper size wire connector to keep them together.  A wire connector too small will result in a loose connection.  The packaging of wire connectors usually has a chart listing all of the wire combinations that a particular wire connector is approved for.

Twist the wires tightly together using pliers to ensure a good connection before twisting on the wire connector.

Twisted grounding wires and pigtails in a two gang plastic switch box awaiting a big wire connector
Twisted grounding wires and pigtails in a two gang plastic switch box awaiting a big wire connector

HOW TO GROUND SWITCH AND OUTLET WITH BX CABLE AND METAL CONDUIT

Type AC cable (Commonly called BX) has a metal interlocking armored protective jacket around its wires.  That metal armor is also the equipment grounding conductor for BX cable (Article 320.108).  However to be an effective ground it must be installed correctly using the proper fittings.  BX connectors must be installed wrench tight.

There are some types of BX cables that have an equipment grounding conductor wire inside in addition to the grounding armor.  Hospital BX cable is a green armored cable with an insulated grounding conductor inside.  It is used primarily in hospital electrical circuits which require more than one ground path.

Even though some BX cable may have a separate equipment grounding conductor, the armor must also be properly terminated to ensure ground continuity.

BX cable being used as the equipment grounding conductor
BX cable being used as the equipment grounding conductor

The cable on the left above does not have an effective ground path.  The BX connector is loose and the BX cable is pulled out of the connector.  The grounding pigtail connected to the electrical box can go under the green screw on an outlet or switch.

The internal metal bonding strip from the BX cable is pulled over the anti-short bushing and wrapped tightly around the armor to keep the anti-short bushing in place while it is inserted into the BX connector.

The internal lightweight metal bonding wire inside of BX cable is not an equipment grounding conductor.  It is only to maintain grounding continuity inside of the BX.  There is no need to connect the internal bonding wire to any grounding conductors or terminal screws.

BX cable in a plastic outlet box and a grounding bushing for a ground connection
BX cable in a plastic outlet box and a grounding bushing for a ground connection

It is not recommended that BX cable be used with plastic outlet and junction boxes.  However when it becomes necessary there is a solution to maintain ground continuity.  The use of a grounding bushing on the BX connector with a grounding pigtail is how it is done.  The pigtail from the grounding bushing is connected to all of the other grounding conductors in the electrical box.

A grounding bushing on a BX connector inside of a plastic outlet box
A grounding bushing on a BX connector inside of a plastic outlet box

The half inch grounding bushing is threaded onto the end of the BX connector and a set screw is tightened down to lock it in place.  The lay-in lug is removable to make it easy to screw the bushing on.

The BX connector must be secured with the locknut first before screwing the grounding bushing on.  The grounding bushing has limited threads, without the locknut the BX connector would be loose.

If you look closely you can see the little red tail from the anti-short bushing sticking out through the grounding bushing.  This makes it easy for the electrical inspector to see that the installation is in compliance with the electrical code.

Type MC cable also has a metal jacket, but it is not always an approved grounding conductor.  Check the packaging or tags to see if your MC cable armor is an approved grounding conductor.  MC has a separate green insulated equipment grounding conductor.  However the metal armor of MC cable must still be grounded using approved MC cable connectors which are not the same as BX connectors.

As with BX connectors, MC connectors must be installed wrench tight.  There are locknut wrenches for this.  Also Channellock pliers can be used.  On large connectors I use a hammer and an old screwdriver to bang the locknuts tight.

Several sizes of loose Anti-Short Bushings for BX cable, Type MC, and Flexible Metal Conduit
Several sizes of loose Anti-Short Bushings for BX cable, Type MC, and Flexible Metal Conduit

Anti-Short Bushings are used for all BX and MC cables and also for Flexible Metal Conduit to protect the wire insulation from getting nicked and causing a short circuit.  I have personally seen a few instances where an anti-short bushing was not used and it resulted in a short circuit to the metal armor.

Metal electrical conduit being used as an equipment grounding conductor
Metal electrical conduit being used as an equipment grounding conductor

As with BX and MC, the connectors, couplings, and other fittings for metal electrical conduit must be wrench tight when installed to maintain an effective ground path.  Fittings such as the conduit angle compression connector above must have its locknut wrench tight into the electrical box as well as the compression ring on the conduit.  The pigtail on the metal box gets connected directly to the electrical outlet.

Read article 250.118 in the National Electrical Code (NFPA 70) for all of the approved equipment grounding conductors.

OTHER METHODS OF GROUNDING SWITCHES AND OUTLETS

With a metal grounded outlet box it is possible to use self-grounding outlets to save some work.  Self-grounding outlets are particularly useful when replacing old ungrounded two prong outlets on a grounded system.

Self-grounding electrical receptacle outlets
Self-grounding electrical receptacle outlets

Self-grounding outlets do not create a ground.  They connect to ground in an existing grounded metal box automatically when installed.  Self-grounding outlets have a little clip on one of the device support screws that maintains the ground connection as long as it is screwed into a grounded metal box.

Click here to see my post about replacing two prong ungrounded outlets.

Grounding pigtail screwed to back of old metal outlet box
Grounding pigtail screwed to back of old metal outlet box

I removed a two prong outlet from the above electrical box in the wall.  The box was grounded through the old BX cable armor.  I made sure that the cable clamp screw was tight.  I added a ground screw and pigtail to an already tapped hole to have a ground wire for the new three prong grounding outlet.  I could have used a self-grounding outlet, but did not have one handy at the time.

Switches are available with the self-grounding feature
Switches are available with the self-grounding feature

Self-grounding switches are also a labor saver.  In the case of many dimmers and electronic controls there is sometimes a grounding pigtail which must be connected to the equipment grounding conductor or can be connected directly to a grounded metal box if no grounding conductor is available.

Decora self grounding 3-way switch
Decora self grounding 3-way switch

Stranded wire can get frayed and spread out when tightened under a ground screw.  I use a washer to cover the entire stranded wire loop in a metal box.  I will sometimes crimp on a fork terminal connector to connect the other end under the wiring device green screw.

A stranded wire grounding pigtail under a washer with a green screw
A stranded wire grounding pigtail under a washer with a green screw

The grounding conductor attached to the old pancake box below using a grounding clip can only be used if grounded BX cable is connected to this old box.

See my post about replacing old pancake boxes.

Grounding clips are useful when a tapped hole for a ground screw is not available.

Old pancake box with a grounding conductor attached with a ground clip
Old pancake box with a grounding conductor attached with a ground clip

If you have an electrical outlet that does not have an equipment ground at all, it is possible to add one.  The National Electrical Code article 250.130(C) allows you to install a separate grounding wire to the nearest water pipe or grounding electrode conductor in your home and connect it with a water pipe ground clamp or other appropriate connection.

This is nice to know, however the work of installing a separate ground wire will be almost the same as if you were going to install all new wiring.  Also I have noticed in old houses lately that whenever the old copper and galvanized pipes get replaced, they are usually replaced with plastic water pipe.

When plastic water pipe is connected to a metal water line, all grounding continuity is lost.  So if you were to run a ground wire to the nearest copper pipe in an old house, that pipe might not be grounded.

Two prong non-grounding receptacles can be replaced with tamper resistant grounding type GFCI receptacles.  The new outlet would have to be labeled “No Equipment Ground”.  See article 406.4(D) in the National Electrical Code for specific information.

Visit my post regarding the replacement of GFCI receptacle outlets.

Below is a grounding method that I have used many times when possible.  I strip extra wire back from the cable and use the excess for pigtails between outlets.  I keep the ground wire long and loop it from one green screw to the next green screw without cutting.  This does not appear to violate article 250.148(B).

A ground wire looped from one outlet green screw to another outlet green screw without a splice
A ground wire looped from one outlet green screw to another outlet green screw without a splice

I have used the method depicted below for grounding metal boxes for decades.  Not anymore.  The feed wire grounding conductor is wrapped around the green screw with a tail left for splicing to all of the other grounds in the box.

This technique has been outlawed in the 2020 National Electrical Code article 250.148(C).  The metal box must now have a separate pigtail.

The feed wire grounding conductor looped around the ground screw with a pigtail remaining
The feed wire grounding conductor looped around the ground screw with a pigtail remaining

Under limited circumstances Flexible Metal Conduit (Type FMC) can be used as a grounding conductor for short distances with approved fittings.  Read article 250.118(5) and 348.60.  Better to install an equipment grounding conductor wire than rely on FMC for grounding.

Liquidtight Flexible Metal Conduit (Type LFMC) can be used as a grounding conductor under limited installation conditions with approved fittings.  Better to install a separate green wire to be used as the equipment grounding conductor.  See article 350.60.

The surface metal raceway, Wiremold 500 is an approved grounding conductor.  Click here to see an example of a Wiremold 500 installation.

Click here to see some examples of bad grounding on my naughty blog post.