Why are these outlets upside-down?
August 18, 2009 3:37 PM   Subscribe

HomeImprovementFilter: Why are all these outlets upside down?

The house we moved into last year has lots of outlets in every room, most of them three-prong. The two-prong ones are clearly older, as well as a couple of the three-prong ones. The thing is, a lot of the newer (all three-prong) ones are in the wall what I would think of as upside-down, with the hole for the grounded third prong on the top instead of the bottom. The ones that are upside down look competently installed, but looking at them I would guess they weren't professionally done.

This doesn't really make much of a difference, aside from a handful of things built on the assumption that the outlet would go the other way, e.g. nightlights, digital timers, etc. Aside from the occasional annoyance of resetting a timer that's upside-down, I don't really care, but I'm wondering why anyone would do things this way. Is this some slacker home improvement shortcut that I've never heard of? The building inspector said everything was up to code, so I'm more curious than worried.
posted by el_lupino to Home & Garden (16 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Local code perhaps? With the ground pin down, the plug can become dislodged from the socket in such a way that the ground pin remains fully seated, while the power and neutral plugs are partially exposed.

With the plug upside down, it seems much harder for something to touch the hot wire as the ground would become dislodged first.
posted by SirStan at 3:42 PM on August 18, 2009

The guy who wired our house did the same thing. I did some googling at the time, found a few people vaguely claiming it was some kind of new building code requiring it, and a bunch more people refuting that claim. The second group tended to cite sources, the first group never did. Also found some people claiming it was better that way for various reasons that never made much logical sense.

It comes down to personal preference on the part of the installer, I think. I like to think that the ones who put them in upside down just didn't like having so many frowny faces on the walls.

It's a trivial job to unscrew the cover and flip them around the other way, at least for the outlets where you use nightlights etc. (Probably want to turn the circuit breakers off first, of course.)
posted by ook at 3:47 PM on August 18, 2009

The two prong outlets are older outlets which are not "grounded". Neutral acts as a ground though, so this usually isnt a problem, unless if your neutral lines go bad. Its more a nusiance if anything, being that more modern appliances and electronics have a grounded outlet.
The upside down outlets are not a big deal. Mostly preference I guess, or laziness on behalf of the installer. When I run across this, I think it's just inexperienced installers, who dont know any better... But it's all the same really.

My boyfriend is an electrician, and I worked with him for a year doing residential work.
posted by shannie-bananie at 3:59 PM on August 18, 2009

Probably not relevant to your situation, but all the new homes I've seen have the outlets that are connected to the wall switches intentionally upside down, to differentiate them from the normal non-switched outlets.
posted by meowzilla at 4:35 PM on August 18, 2009

Are the upside down outlets controlled by a light switch? My place has at least 1 outlet per room that is upside down, and all those are the ones controlled by light switches. So at least for me who ever installed them upside down used it to mark which ones were connected to a switch and which ones weren't.
posted by Arbac at 4:37 PM on August 18, 2009

I've heard from an electrician that it is this way for safety issues. Like say something falls, the example was given was a paper clip, onto a partially unplugged electric cord that it wont hit the hot and neutral prongs of the plug at once creating a short circuit at best and a fire at worst. With the outlet positioned 'upside down' it will teeter off to the side and hit the hot and ground or neutral and ground instead. The paperclip will fall away instead of landing on the prongs and staying put.

It seemed logical to me at the time. I never gave it much thought since. I have seen a lot of new construction, especially commercial construction with the outlets this way.
posted by MiggySawdust at 4:40 PM on August 18, 2009 [2 favorites]

I guess I should have added that my answer presupposes that a grounded prong would be necessary for my example to be useful.
posted by MiggySawdust at 4:43 PM on August 18, 2009

MiggySawdust has it: it's to prevent a fallen piece of [something conductive] from bridging the hot and neutral leads. I have a very detail-obsessed friend who wired his workshop this way -- all 50+ outlets -- for this very reason.
posted by mosk at 4:53 PM on August 18, 2009

well, no less than toolmonger shows them with the ground hole on top. i seem to recall they had a discussion about the 'right' way to install the outlets, and people weighed in for both ways. (i can't find that particular post, though.)
posted by msconduct at 4:59 PM on August 18, 2009

So a consensus seems to be emerging that (whether part of local codes or not), there is some slight safety advantage to ground-up rather than ground-bottom, especially if you live in a home where you or others frequently partially dislodge plugs and pitch gasoline-soaked paper clips at the wall. Or I suppose, have children, who are themselves slightly more dangerous than gasoline-soaked paper clips.

That certainly makes as much sense as anything I've come across. Thanks to all.
posted by el_lupino at 5:13 PM on August 18, 2009 [1 favorite]

Oh, and I should add that I checked whether the ground-up outlets were light switches, and that doesn't seem to have any bearing on things. Thanks for that idea, though.
posted by el_lupino at 5:15 PM on August 18, 2009

To clarify, the National Electrical Code^, which is commonly but not exclusively adopted by local authorities having jurisdiction (AHJ, it's jargon), specifies that three-prong outlets should have the ground facing up in certain circumstances -- particularly hospitals. As for commercial and residential applications, however, there is no such requirement in the NEC as of yet. Some areas and installers may simply prefer to do it this way as either an adoption of the principle that it's theoretically safer, or in anticipation that it may someday be part of the NEC anyway. But right now, it isn't.

We own rental property. Tenants are pretty hard on outlets and I always have to replace one or two after a move-out. Also, I had a situation where the something-falling-across-the-hot-and-neutral happened -- it was a metal cover plate! -- and caused a tremendous light display and burned a finger requiring a trip to urgent care. This was about five years ago and there is still a slight scar.

For a while I was doing this the upside-down way on the theory that it would eventually end up being the "building standard", but I found out that ... guess what ... tenants who encounter upside-down outlets like to take them out and flip them over (I hope they flipped the circuit breaker first). I never liked having some one way and some the other in the same apartment anyway (even though some of the older properties have grounded and ungrounded mixed together), so I quit doing this. We don't have metal cover plates in any of the rentals, either, nor would I install any for any reason including esthetics after my experience.
posted by dhartung at 11:00 PM on August 18, 2009

Is it possible that you've had some Europeans living in the building before you? All plugs in the UK are three-pronged (except plugs for electric shavers in bathrooms, for some reason) and the ground prong always goes on top. Most of the three-pronged sockets I've seen elsewhere in Europe follow the same convention.

Although they couldn't use UK plugs in US sockets, someone who grew up in Europe might install the sockets upside down through sheer force of habit.

Driving on the wrong side of the road, electrical sockets upside down, making terrible mistakes about the nature of "pants" and "jelly"... truly, the USA is Bizzaro World.
posted by metaBugs at 7:04 AM on August 19, 2009

We added on to our house years ago and my (then) brother in-law did the plugs in one of the rooms. I arrived home to find them all "upside-down". His lazy logic was, "Who is to say this is upside-down?" Once I set to work myself, adding more of the plugs in other rooms, I discovered that the ground wire attached to the "bottom" of these plugs (see this diagram). For ease of installation, it was actually easier to turn them "upside-down". I did not like the look, and took the extra effort to flip all the plugs. Since then, every time I see one upside-down, I don't think "Oooh. Smart move, in case a paper clip falls." I think, "Lazy."
posted by skypieces at 8:01 AM on August 19, 2009

there are people who claim that it's safer one way. there are people who claim it's safer the other way. personally, i think it's moot.

some people like them 'upside down' so they don't look like little faces. seriously.

i have not encountered a place where the orientation is specified by local code. the national code doesn't care about it.

it's just preference and fashion.

(i used to be an electrician. ianye.)
posted by rmd1023 at 8:06 AM on August 19, 2009

I'd agree that it's moot, the whole "safer" idea hinges around all/most plugs having a ground. Plenty of contemporary plugs don't have ground, so in that case either configuration is equally vulnerable.

I live in an apartment where every single outlet is upside down, and as it so happens it seems as if the plugs being upside down causes plugs to slide out more easily. I've ever had plug sliding problems as bad as with upside down outlets. If this is globally true then the upside configuration is most vulnerable.
posted by Matt Oneiros at 3:34 PM on August 19, 2009

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